They're in the courtrooms, holding hands, gripping shoulders and whispering answers to questions. They take late night calls. A trial may take years, yet they are there until the very end.
They're the workers in the Cook County state's attorney's victim witness assistance program, specialists working in and out of courtrooms to give families of crime victims the support they need to navigate the labyrinth of the legal system. And they're facing layoffs.
"They keep us sane, they help to keep us going. We need them like we need air," said a choked-up Yolan Henry, whose daughter, Nova, and 10-month-old granddaughter, Ava, were found shot to death in 2009. The man charged in the killings is awaiting trial.
"We need these victim advocates in the court with us. When we have questions, we don't understand, they are there for us to call. We can't call (State's Attorney)Anita Alvarez," Henry added.
Henry spoke Thursday at a county budget hearing. Alvarez faces a $3 million cut to the state's attorney's office, and among the casualties are 14 of the 60 or so workers in the victim's assistance program.
The program handled 26,000 cases this year, and the cuts will "severely impair our ability to continue to provide services at this level," said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Alvarez, in an email.
Families who have depended on the victim advocates pleaded with commissioners — who ultimately hold the county's purse strings — to save the workers' jobs, which are part social worker, part paralegal, part counselor and adviser.
"As a person that has never been to court for anything, I don't think I could have made it without them," said Anjanette Albert, whose 16-year-old son, Derrion Albert, was beaten to death during a 2009 melee that was captured on video and broadcast on the Web. "They explained things to me, they held my hand, they helped me breathe. And I don't think that they should be losing their jobs."
It'll be up to commissioners to find money to avoid the layoffs.
"A number of us will try to restore this part of the state's attorney's budget," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston. "I think you have made a powerful statement."
Commissioners also heard from county employees about receiving pink slips, which began going out this week. The budget calls for more than 1,000 layoffs if unions reject County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's offer to save roughly 500 jobs in return for eight unpaid days off next year.
Assistant Public Defender Tim O'Shea said he was among 10 attorneys in the office to get a layoff notice. He suggested that the county instead should cut costs in "multiple layers" of managers who don't work cases but make six-figure salaries.
"Losing the 10 lowest-paid and highest-producing public defenders is not a sincere effort to address our revenue and expense problem," O'Shea said. "It's analogous to a company cutting costs by laying off its 10 highest-grossing salespeople."
A string of doctors from the county's health and hospital system urged commissioners to provide more money to the system, which is facing $24 million in cuts. The doctors said the cuts will affect patients, who are largely poor and uninsured.
"The need for services far outpaces supply," said Dr. David Goldberg, president of Stroger Hospital's executive medical staff.
On Friday, Preckwinkle plans to announce a task force that will examine her proposed tax on unincorporated areas who use services such as public safety. The idea has been criticized by suburban commissioners who represent those pockets.