Leanne Graham vividly remembers what a 9-year-old needed in the moments after her parents died violent deaths.
The little girl’s father had just killed her mother and himself in a dramatic and highly publicized crime and had forced the couple’s three children to watch.
“All the girl wanted to do was sleep,” Graham said. “She didn’t want to talk. She was just shocked and in trauma, but she didn’t realize it. She just crawled on my lap and said, ‘Can I sleep here?’ ”
Graham, 32, took over for the Rev. Robert Denton on Jan. 1 as only the second executive director of the Victim Assistance Program. She was working for Victim Assistance in the Children Who Witness Violence program in 2003 when the incident with the young girl occurred.
“The most important thing is kids see and hear everything,” Graham said of what she learned from working at that job for three years. “You think [violence] doesn’t affect them because they are in the other room or they aren’t there ... but they know something is going on.”
Often, the parents of kids who witness violence, she said, are so “immersed in their own tragedy and their own feelings, and unfortunately the children are kind of left aside.”
Her first call on that job, she said, was to work with a girl, also 9, who had found her 11-year-old brother hanged at home.
“She was craving attention,” Graham said. “She just wanted to tell her story. She wanted me to hear what she saw.”
Her next job was three years in a management position at the Battered Women’s Shelter, where she managed a 42-bed transitional shelter and later became director of grants and development. She learned the diversity of victims of domestic violence and “how many different people from all walks of life” are affected, she said.
She remembered a woman from Kuwait with five children who had never worked, did not drive and had never written a check.
“You see people coming with absolutely nothing, and then leaving have a new life,” Graham said.
Another memorable case involved a woman whose three young girls had never played in the snow.
“It got me thinking of the victims who are in these situations of domestic violence, and their lives are so consumed with the day to day — what is this person going to do to me next, how am I going to [make it] — that you really don’t pay much attention to the kids,” she said.
At Victim Assistance, she oversees a staff of 17 — 14 full time and three part time — who work with victims of crimes, counseling them and helping them through the court system. The organization is helped by another 16 University of Akron student interns.
Graham’s annual $55,000 salary is part of an overall program budget of about $731,000.
When Denton left, he didn’t go far. He is now working down the driveway from Graham’s Furnace Street office as the only staff at the Safety Forces Chaplaincy Center inside the Furnace Street Mission, the church Denton’s father, the Rev. William “Bill” Denton, started in 1926.
She said it was a daunting task to replace Denton, who started the agency in 1972 and is a leader nationally in the victim assistance field.
“It is an honor to be around him and watch him and listen to his stories,” she said.
They meet weekly for lunch.
Denton said Graham brings much to the job that Victim Assistance needed, including her experience with victims and with law enforcement, as well as her graduate degree and her ability to write grants to raise money for the organization.
“She is a very organized person,” Denton said. “She was the right person to step in and begin to put her own stamp on the organization. It is a good time to have that transition and to have somebody who is really watching and doing stuff.”
Graham said her goal at the agency is to “make sure what we are doing is benefiting victims. I want to address the needs of the community. If there is a need, I would like to address that first.”
The agency currently has staff members who work out of the Akron Police Detective Bureau, Summit County Sheriff’s Office, Summit County Common Pleas and Juvenile courts, Akron Children’s Hospital for child sexual abuse cases and Barberton Municipal Court. Staff members travel to the Stow Municipal Court to help victims there.
Graham said she would like to increase awareness of the agency and hopes police departments that do not use Victim Assistance Program services will do so in the future.
Graham’s father and grandfather both worked in the criminal justice field. John Polio Jr. is a retired superintendent of various correctional facilities in Massachusetts; the late John Polio Sr. was police chief in Braintree, Mass.
Her husband, Sgt. Bruce Graham, is a 21-year veteran of the Akron Police Department.
“She has a tremendous amount of human kindness and empathy,” Graham said of his wife. “It’s a perfect job for her. ... She is a visionary.”
Graham said her hope is that “those experiencing a victimization never have to engage in the recovery process alone. Our 24-hour staff can help as they create their new normal.”
Victim Assistance Program can be reached at 330-376-0040.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.