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Driven by compassion

Margaret Petros fights the system for victims' justice

Margaret Petros is a tiny, dark-haired woman whose personal strength is immediately apparent when one meets her.

The mother of three has used that strength for more than two decades to help victims of violent crime, not only one-to-one but throughout California by changing state law. Her advocacy has resulted in financial and other support for victims of child abduction and for police officers who were victims of violent crimes.

Child abduction by a parent was not a crime eligible for victim compensation at the state level when Petros worked as a supervisor at the Santa Clara County Victim Witness Assistance Center earlier in her career. State victim compensation looked at such abductions as having no traumatic effect on either the non-offending parent or the victim, despite research that showed the victims are very much traumatized, she said.

With support from the Vanished Children's Alliance, the center worked with state Assemblyman Ted Lempert to pass AB 1803, which made child victims and their non-offending parents eligible for compensation for the first time in 1999.

But the bill's passage meant a compromise. The abduction has to last at least 30 days before injury is presumed and victims can be eligible.

"It left some legitimate and serious victims out and there was always confusion with the local Victim Witness Advocates around the state," she said.

As a member of the California State Child Abduction Task Force, she pushed to remove the waiting period. It took two years of advocacy to get the California Victim Compensation staff to support additional legislation. AB 1140 abolished the 30-day eligibility requirement and reinstated a $7,500 funeral/burial benefit. The bill eliminates a restriction barring domestic violence victims from compensation if they refuse to work with law enforcement at the scene of the crime, and it adds online harassment as a crime for which victims can be compensated, among other provisions.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB1140 on Oct. 7.

"We have made a huge impact. I've saved some families thousands of dollars in funeral expenses," she said.

When a 23-year-old immigrant lost her mother to murder, cemetery staff talked her into signing a $23,000 burial contract. Petros stepped in.

"I went to the manager. I said, 'It doesn't look good for a cemetery to do this.' It's not easy, but I always found a good, compassionate person who wants to do the right thing," she said.

The manager got a donor to contribute to the costs, and the San Jose Police Association raised funds. The woman ended up paying nothing, she said.

"The tendency in this culture is that 'We've arrested the criminal; we're done. We've prosecuted the criminal; we're done.' But it doesn't end for us until the victim is healed -- at least as much as they can -- to get on with their lives," said Petros, who is now the executive director of the Palo Alto nonprofit Mothers Against Murder.

"When a victim sent me a text, 'Happy Mother's Day. You're like my mother,' I feel blessed."

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