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Rebecca Simmons of Valley Children’s Advocacy Center among Virginia ‘Unsung Heroes’

Courtesy of Office of Attorney General Jason Miyares.

Attorney General Jason Miyares hosted the 7th annual Unsung Heroes Award Ceremony today and recognized Virginians who provide exemplary service and support to victims of crime.

The Office of the Attorney General established the awards to acknowledge Virginians who dedicate their work to support crime victims with trauma-informed responses in their recovery and healing journey.

“Unsung Heroes wake up each morning, not knowing what horrors or pain the workday could bring, but recognizing that there are crime victims in need of their support, advocacy, and care. The defining characteristic of our Unsung Heroes is their unconditional willingness to make a difference in the lives of those too often forgotten, their unconditional willingness to do what’s right. Their courage and commitment to making a positive impact in a crime victim’s life inspires me every day,” Miyares said.

Below are the recipients of the 7th annual Unsung Heroes Awards:

Since 2020, Jamie Abbott-Moore has served as the Victim Witness Coordinator at the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, dedicated to her co-workers and the victims she supports. She is known to come out many nights and weekends by her own choice to support crime victims, explaining that she could not fathom victims being left without an advocate by their side during the most difficult moments of their lives. Her support has led to victims returning to visit her even after their case is adjudicated. Abbott-Moore also collaborates with outside agencies to ensure victims receive the necessary support and services to move forward and heal.

Investigator Natasha Chandler, Domestic Violence Officer (Wise County Sheriff’s Office)

Since assuming her role in 2020 as Domestic Violence Officer for Wise County Sheriff’s Office, Investigator Natasha Chandler has ensured the Lethality Assessment Protocol (LAP) is used consistently by law enforcement personnel when responding to domestic violence calls. LAP is a tool that enables law enforcement to determine the level of danger and risk of serious injury or lethality in intimate partner violence calls in order to appropriately connect victims with community support and services, such as safety planning and safe housing options. Chandler educates fellow deputies on the LAP’s life-saving importance and goes above and beyond for victim services, attending court proceedings and victim interviews even when off duty. She values the importance of victim advocacy and believes in serving domestic violence survivors. Chandler continues to support victims despite the devastation she faced after her husband, Officer Michael Chandler, was killed in the line of duty in 2021. Despite her loss, she continues to selflessly protect and serve her community, demonstrating grace and dedication to her duties.

As a victim advocate of nearly 22 years, Angel Mefford, who is director of Victim Services and Victim Advocate for Family Crisis Support Services in Wise County, goes above and beyond for everyone in her community who find themselves in need of help or may be experiencing a crisis. She ensures each victim she serves is heard, understood, and most importantly, valued. Not only does she spend countless hours working with domestic violence victims, but she also serves anyone in her community who needs support services. In localities where the Lethality Assessment Protocol is appropriately used, the local Domestic Violence Officer and the local non-profit, like the Family Crisis Center in Wise County, support and serve survivors of domestic violence, frequently working hand-in-hand. Mefford gives her entire heart to every case without the expectation of recognition.

Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Alycia Eldrige has been a prosecutor for Rockingham County for 18 years, where she prosecuted countless complex cases and founded a unit solely focused on sexual assault and child abuse. The unit handles approximately 100 cases at a time. Eldrige’s dedication, professionalism and persistence have earned her a reputation as a key child advocate and world-changer. Her courage to do what is right, no matter how difficult and challenging the case, has resulted in multiple life sentences for many child sex offenders. One of her most notable accomplishments is successfully arguing the first case in Virginia using the “Tender Years” motion to avoid having a child testify. She is also actively proposing legislation to expand reporting periods for certain misdemeanor sexual assault offenses, which would ultimately allow victims more time to file a report.

Lt. Max Engel, U.S. Navy Disciplinary Officer for the USS John C. Stennis Aircraft Carrier in the Newport News Shipyard, has worked with sexual assault victims for more than four years, demonstrated empathy and respect, and ensured victims are aware of their reporting options so they can make informed decisions on how they want to proceed. Engel is constantly learning about new policies and laws related to sexual assault cases, empowering Sexual Assault Response Victim Advocates to follow the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program Code of Ethics. He keeps victims informed about their case status with the Office of Special Trial Counsel and encourages sailors to seek and use their Victim’s Legal Counsel. His compassionate approach and dedication to serving sexual assault victims have left an indelible mark on all sailors he has assisted.

Since 2002, Shalise Figueroa, Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, has served victims of sexual and domestic violence at local, state and federal levels. During her time working at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Figueroa has served hundreds of victims while coordinating Installations 24/7 response services. She also trains first responders on trauma-informed victim advocacy and support. In the last decade, she has served the Commonwealth and the Department of Defense tirelessly, helping hundreds of victims of sexual violence, domestic violence, child abuse and stalking. Even after working in victim advocacy for more than two decades, her dedication and passion has never waned.

The Orange County Victim Witness Program recently recognized Deputy Bryce Gilbert, a Patrol Division officer with over two years of experience, for his exceptional trauma-informed responses to domestic violence cases. Gilbert consistently contacts victim services while on-scene, ensuring the victim is supported and connected to resources. In the days and weeks following a serious crime, he follows up with victims to ensure their safety, even when off-duty. Certified in Crisis Intervention, Gilbert recently obtained his drone pilot license. He is one of four deputies assigned to the Drone Team, which uses drones for over watch, locating missing persons, locating fleeing criminals and forensic documentation. Gilbert’s support has been instrumental in ensuring the safety of victims and ensuring their involvement in the criminal justice process.

With nearly 30 years of experience, Scottie Hampton has occupied a variety of victim advocacy roles and has been instrumental in combating sexual assault in the military. As the Lead Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Hampton provides critical support to victims, guiding them through the reporting process, connecting them with resources and ensuring they receive the care and assistance necessary to heal and thrive. She has also been instrumental in building stakeholder relationships in her local community, providing proactive measures to prevent sexual assault and raising awareness about consent, bystander intervention, and available support services. Through workshops, training sessions and outreach initiatives, she works to educate service members and civilians on how to recognize and address sexual violence and assault, fostering a culture of accountability and respect within the military community.

Rebecca Simmons has been serving crime victims for nearly a decade. Since assuming her role as the Executive Director at the Valley Children’s Advocacy Center in 2015 in Staunton, the center has expanded its reach and enhanced the scope and quality of services offered to victims. Her exemplary efforts and leadership have positively impacted numerous counties, including Augusta County, Rockbridge County, Highland County, Allegheny County, as well as the Cities of Staunton, Waynesboro and Buena Vista. One of Simmons’s most notable efforts is the establishment of a dedicated Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) examination room in collaboration with Augusta Health Hospital. Her relentless commitment to serving children who have been victimized in ways that are hard for many to fathom merits unbridled recognition and appreciation.

Sgt. Norma McGuckin has served as a detective for the Culpeper Police Department for five years and has been a sworn police officer for 17 years. McGuckin is dedicated to finding immigrant children who enter the country unaccompanied and go missing. Her investigative prowess and tenacity have been instrumental in uncovering vital leads and bringing attention to the pressing issue of missing unaccompanied minors. McGuckin has shared her professional knowledge in investigating missing or runaway immigrant child cases with organizations and agencies like the Virginia State Police, NamUs, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Department of Human Services, Services for Abused Families, Local and Federal Probation, and the Culpeper County School System. Her dedication to the most vulnerable victims is monumental in the fight against child exploitation and human trafficking.

Before being elected in 2023, Spotsylvania County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ryan Mehaffey served as the Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney from 2012 to 2019. Prior to serving in Spotsylvania County, he served as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Lancaster County. Despite overseeing a large caseload, Mehaffey took time to work with the mother of a murdered son, Melina Wallen, whose case he oversaw. He personally drove her multiple times to Richmond to testify before General Assembly committee hearings on legislation that would have allowed her son’s killers to get out of prison early. After elected officials cruelly blocked Wallen from giving her testimony, Mehaffey respectfully defended her constitutional right to petition her government, advocating for her peacefully and dignifiedly, demonstrating his dedication to the citizens of the Commonwealth and the victims in the cases he oversees.

Latasha Powell-Mason’s 22 years of serving crime victims includes training and networking with the Hampton Police Department, the Center for Sexual Assault Survivors, the Department of Justice, Transitions Family Violence Services, the Human Trafficking Taskforce, and the National Organization for Victim Assistance. Despite the heartbreaking cases she oversees as assistant director, Powell-Mason remains firm in her dedication to serving the victims in her community. She recognizes how overwhelming, and often confusing, the legal process is for victims and takes great measures to tend to their questions and concerns, oftentimes outside of normal working hours. She approaches both the victims and her staff with kindness, compassion, patience, and understanding.

Daisy Schuurman has been with Children’s Hospital of King’s Daughters Child Advocacy Center in Norfolk since 2009 and has served as the Program Coordinator since 2016. With her background in social work and psychology, she brings a wealth of knowledge and skill to her position, providing crucial services, support and advocacy to victims of child sexual abuse and human trafficking. Outside of her role as the Program Coordinator, she trains staff, multidisciplinary team providers, federal congressional offices, state officials, national human rights organizations, hospital staff and medical students on identifying and responding to issues. Schuurman collaborates with CHKD Hospital staff where she provides guidance on addressing the medical needs of child victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse. She also supports children and families with court proceedings, medical needs and emotional support.

Major Nathan Cox, Operations Officer of the United States Marine Corps Victim Legal Counsel Organization (VLCO), oversees and advises 22 attorneys and 9 paralegals stationed around the world who represent victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other serious crimes in military proceedings. Since joining the VLCO headquarters in 2021, Cox has assisted more than 50 attorneys representing more than 1,500 clients. He was the driving force behind the creation of the Marine Corps’ VLCO Client Satisfaction Survey which is now offered to all clients upon termination of representation. Cox also responds to information requests from various agencies, develops legislative proposals related to victims’ rights, and ensures the implementation of Congressional initiatives in the victims’ rights arena.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.