Vicki McLennan in 2007, on the beach in Panama City *
Vicki McLennan, who practically invented crime victim advocacy in the State of Georgia, died today after a long, courageous battle with breast cancer.
For more than 30 years, Vicki worked to reform the legal system so that all victims of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual violence would be sheltered, treated with respect by authorities, and given a chance to have their voices heard in court. Her influence was felt nationally, though she never wasted time burnishing her reputation. At the Georgia General Assembly, I watched her reach across party lines to find allies to pass laws to protect women and children. She was a southern feminist who belied every stereotype. She loved men; she loved children; she was very, very funny.
She had great hair.
She also never backed down from danger. Over the years, I met women who told me they literally owed their lives to Vicki. Some still bore the evidence. Before most people ever noticed, or felt compelled to act on some types of violence being secretly committed in their own communities — before police response and the shelter system were what they are today — Vicki was performing crisis triage, getting the victims to safety. Then she would put on a suit and drive downtown to change the laws (or enforce them). She was as comfortable transporting someone to a safe house in the middle of the night as she was standing in front of a bank of microphones, or testifying in front of a Senate committee. I think it all came easy to Vicki because she knew she was doing the right thing.
Vicki started her career in the domestic violence movement. She helped set up emergency shelters, then she helped fund them. She was a key lobbyist in the effort to pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in southern states. She also worked with the police to improve their response to domestic violence and sex crimes. In 1993, Vicki went to then-Atlanta Police Chief Eldrin Bell and requested a meeting. She formed a long working relationship with the police, helping improve training at the police academy for domestic violence, sexual assault, and later child assault investigations. Lou Archangeli, Deputy Chief (retired) of the Atlanta Police Department, writes of her tireless efforts to ensure that every victim was treated fairly by the police:
In 1995 she compelled the Atlanta Police Department to change the manner that it accepted and processed sex crime investigations. Through her deliberate and persistent manner she politely worked her way up the chain of command, and ultimately compelled Chief [Beverly] Harvard to change a “checklist” that was being used by Sex Crimes investigators to exclude selected crime victims from Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) reports submitted to the GBI and the FBI. In 1996 and 1997 the Atlanta Police Department engaged in the underreporting of violent crimes, particularly crimes against poor women, the homeless, drug users and prostitutes. A subsequent audit by the GBI confirmed these illegal actions by the Atlanta Police Department. Ms. McLennan intervened to insure that there was no retaliation against the people who exposed this practice, and garnered political support for once again changing the manner in which APD responded to crime victims.
Vicki never backed down from the hard fights.
In 2001, then-Lt. Governor Mark Taylor appointed Vicki to co-chair the Senate Study Committee on the Abuse of Children. The creation of that committee, and the policies that resulted from it, were Vicki’s finest bipartisan success. Conservative Georgia legislators such as Warren Massey and Tom Price worked alongside progressive legislators Donzella James and Mike Polak to make the case for more funding for child protection and a renewed commitment to prosecuting child molesters — after hysteria over a handful of badly-prosecuted child molestation cases took a heavy toll on prosecutors’ ability to put sex offenders who target children behind bars.
Of all the legislative battles she fought, I think Vicki was especially proud of this one. She and Lt. Governor Taylor made Georgia a safer place for these most vulnerable victims of sexual violence.
Vicki was also proud of her work on women’s health. In 2002, she worked with state senator (now Congressman) David Scott to pass a breast cancer bill that allowed breast cancer patients and their physicians “the right to determine their length of stay in the hospital and their level of medical treatment.” After celebrating passage of the bill, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ironically, she lacked health insurance, because the work she chose to do was too often ill-paid, or not paid at all. This tragically impacted the quality and length of her final years. Like many committed activists, Vicki always put the needs of others before her own well-being. She paid too high a price.
Here’s the way I like to remember Vicki. One day at the state capitol, she took me to see the legendary, 28-year Georgia Speaker of the House, Tom Murphy. Murphy was a cigar-chomping, white-suited, old-school southern patriarch from Bremen, Georgia. Vicki was then the long-time head of Georgia N.O.W. (under her tutelage, as idiosyncratic a N.O.W. as existed anywhere).
Vicki loved Speaker Murphy, and the admiration was mutual. He flung open the door to his office, kicked his heels, bowed deeply and invited us in, saying that he always like to hold the door for ladies. It was a private joke. They laughed, and caught up on family news. Then they settled down to strategizing about protecting women and children from violence.
I sat watching them, two drawling southerners, one the head of the N.O.W., the other chewing a fat cigar, plotting together to make Georgia a better place. I wish that everyone could see that now.
*photo courtesy of Karyn Hudson