The Victim’s Advocate: RIC Alumna Inducted into Criminal Justice Hall of Fame
Melissa Leahey, Class of 1998
RIC alumna Melissa Leahey was recently inducted into the Rhode Island Criminal Justice Hall of Fame for over a decade of advocating for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Leahey is also an adjunct professor of justice studies at Rhode Island College.
Leahey’s day begins at 9 a.m. at the Governor Philip W. Noel Judicial Complex in Warwick and often involves contending with defense attorneys who want to minimize the plight of the victim and to minimize her role as advocate. Victims themselves will also minimize their abuse, she said, and blame themselves for what happened to them.
“Domestic violence cases are some of the most difficult cases to work with because victims often return to unhealthy situations rather than try to get themselves out of those situations,” said Leahey. “Victims aren’t perfect, they make bad decisions.” Yet Leahey remains undeterred.
She said, “I and my colleagues feel very strongly that abusers need to be held accountable. We want them to get the message we’re trying to send – their behavior is not acceptable in our society.”
Leahey graduated from Rhode Island College in 1998, with a double-major in justice studies and sociology. She said she became interested in victimology when she took a course in that area with Pamela Irving Jackson, professor of sociology and director of justice studies at the college. Following Jackson’s course, Leahey engaged in an internship at Day One (formerly known as The Rape Crisis Center), where she had her first opportunity to witness the impact of crime on victims.
“I remember being really nervous when I met with victims at hospitals or at the police station making their initial report, but I received a great deal of training and support from colleagues at Day One,” she said. “The point they kept driving home to me was not to feed off of the victim’s crisis by getting upset. Even if they are crying or hysterical or angry, refocus them and calm them down, because they need to be calm to absorb the information I’m giving them.”
Today, she is manager of advocacy services for the Elizabeth Buffam Chace Center in Warwick, with her main office situated at the Governor Philip W. Noel Judicial Complex. Her goal is to increase the successful prosecution of cases and support victims throughout the lengthy investigation and court process.
Leahey has also been proactive in training police cadets on assault and domestic violence issues at the police academy, and she is working with the attorney general’s office to create training for city and town prosecutors. “When police, attorneys, judges and advocates work together on a case, there is more likely to be a good outcome for the victim,” she said. “Though my job is challenging, it is one that I am so proud to do.”
Jackson, Leahey’s former teacher, expressed pride in Leahey’s induction into the Criminal Justice Hall of Fame. She said, “Her interest, involvement and expertise in working effectively with multiple agencies in policing, courts and advocacy have propelled program development in domestic violence protections forward.”