Sole victim advocate in Hernando focuses on domestic violence

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BROOKSVILLE – When mornings begin at her desk, Tamera Stewart, victim advocate for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, begins by reading all of the domestic violence reports taken in the last day.

It’s a logical place to start. Stewart, whose position is funded by a Victims of Crime Act grant, is responsible for serving many types of crime victims, from bank robberies to homicides and drunken driving crashes. But domestic violence victims account for nearly 75 percent of the victims she serves.
Sole victim advocate in Hernando focuses on domestic violence
Tamera Stewart, victim advocate for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, catches up with one of her interns Friday morning. WENDY JOAN BIDDLECOMBE/STAFF

For her 2012-2013 grant, Stewart expected to advocate for 605 total crime victims – 450 of which involve domestic violence. And if the sheriff’s office wants the grant renewed every year, Stewart must serve at least 90 percent of those victims.

Stewart is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week with no backup. Though other local agencies, such as the state attorney’s office and the Dawn Center, provide support, Stewart is the sole victim advocate available for deputies to call.

Since 2001, Stewart has helped more than 6,500 residents, records show. She can think only of one or two times when she was not immediately available.

When asked how many advocates should be available, ideally, Stewart cites Citrus County’s 2.5 advocates as a good number for a comparable county.

“Two would be easier,” Stewart said. “It’s hard to be it all.”

Stewart has worked for the sheriff’s office as victim advocate since 2001. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in social work, Stewart began her career working at an in-patient Gainesville facility for people with mental disabilities.

After a year and a half, Stewart became an investigator for what is now the Florida Department of Children and Families. In December 2001 she joined the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office as victim advocate – the first time the office had a social worker on staff dedicated to helping crime victims navigate the legal system.

Sometimes that means going against the grain. A victim called Stewart on Thursday morning to report multiple incidents of stalking.

Law enforcement officials suggested she file a restraining order with the court, but Stewart questioned that approach, at least partly because the suspected stalker didn’t know the woman’s name.

“Crazy and restraining order don’t go together,” Stewart told the woman. “If you don’t feel comfortable doing it, don’t do it.”

Stewart met with the victim later that day to discuss her options. Instead of filing a restraining order and putting her identity on record, they talk through a safety plan and other changes she can make to protect her safety.

“Under every sheriff I’ve worked for, as long as I’m doing the right thing I’ve never gotten in trouble,” Stewart said.

Stewart called two domestic violence victims who had court hearings set for mid-morning Thursday. One is going through a divorce; the other was abused by her child’s father. Both were seeking restraining orders.

Seated at her desk in the major crimes unit, Stewart drank black coffee and spoke with the women about what’s going to happen when they get to court.

Stewart, like a compassionate, well-oiled machine, asked direct questions to help prepare for the hearing and listened to the concerns they had.

“It’s not about hand-holding; it’s about empowering victims,” Stewart said of her job. She explained that after doing initial assessments with crime victims, she remains in their lives for a very short period of time.

Or so it seems. Last week, a victim who was shot at more than a decade ago called Stewart because her attacker was being released from prison.

Stewart reviewed transcripts from the trial with the woman, and made sure she understood the conditions of his probation.

“Ten years later she called for another reason,” Stewart said.

And although Stewart spends time with many victims who experience trauma, or are at their most vulnerable, there is a professional line she strives not to cross.

With one exception: the first homicide victim with whom she worked.

In December 2001, Silvana Altieri’s husband, Michael, was stabbed to death by their neighbor, Daniel Lee Wingard.

Silvana Altieri’s face was slashed with Wingard’s knife, and the man pulled one of Altieri’s daughters out of the home by her hair. Deputies later rescued the girl. Wingard was sentenced to life in prison.

“Her husband was murdered in December 2001 and I started in December 2001,” Stewart said of her initial relationship with Altieri. “Sheriff Nugent told me to do whatever she wants, sitting and talking all day if that’s what she wanted to do. I said, ‘OK, you’re the boss,’ and I learned how to do that.”

Stewart said she spent a lot of time with Altieri after the slaying. The county never before had seen anything like the crime, she said.

“It was one of the bloodiest scenes, close to Christmas, and everyone was thinking, ‘How could this happen to good, normal people with two kids?'”

Stewart has kept in touch with Altieri, and for years has seen her around town and at a yearly memorial for crime victims.

And, over time, Stewart said, she has seen a change.

“She quit calling about the bad things and only called about the good things,” Stewart said. “I’ve seen her move forward through a horrible tragedy. I could see a difference; she had gone from being a victim to being a survivor.”

These days, Stewart considers Altieri a friend, and they’re Facebook official.

“She taught me as much about how to deal with trauma as I taught her,” Stewart said.

More details on the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office Victim Services are available by calling (352) 754-6830.