County VAC awarded for victim advocacy

Lisa Mehrhoff, victim assistance coordinator for the Parker County Attorney's Office, was recently recognized with the Suzanne McDaniels Award for her commitment to crime victims through the criminal justice system and into their recovery.

WEATHERFORD — It’s pretty rare to find an employee that gladly wakes up looking forward to work each day. But that tireless passion exemplifies Parker County’s Lisa Mehrhoff.

As the victim assistance coordinator for the Parker County Attorney’s Office, Mehrhoff relishes her role of providing support and services for crime victims. And recently that advocacy, noted by others not only locally but statewide, led to her being recognized with the Suzanne McDaniel Award, reserved for persons who demonstrate a true commitment to ensuring all crime victims are supported and believed, and who supports these victims in the criminal justice system and through their recovery.

“I was dumbfounded,” Mehrhoff said upon receiving the call that she was up for the award, which was handed out earlier this month in Kerrville. 

The award’s namesake, McDaniel, was a pioneer for victims’ services, helping form the Victim Witness Assistance Section in the Harris County district attorney’s office in the late 1970s. It was the first in Texas and only the second in the country. Her work was recognized by former President Bill Clinton, who gave her the Crime Victim Service Award. Later, Congressman Ted Poe, a former chief prosecutor and judge, named the Congressional Victim Rights Award the Suzanne McDaniel Award.

“For years and years, she taught people and set up protocols,” Mehrhoff said of McDaniel. “She was pretty staunch ... I don’t even like comparing myself to her because she was pretty amazing.”

Fittingly enough, the two women got involved in the field the same way — by seeing an opportunity and realizing they could do it.

In Mehrhoff’s case, she had plans to enter the pre-med program when she graduated college. She ended up getting married, decided to stick with her psychology degree and went on to be an accountant for many years before her current position opened up 15 years ago.

“My husband and I were selling our NAPA store, and I told him, ‘I feel like this was the job I’ve been looking for ever since I got out of college,’” she said.

Her boss, County Attorney John Forrest, said it was her compassion and attentiveness that made her the perfect fit for hiring.

“She listens very well to the victims, she’s very attentive to all their needs and she’s always looking at ways to help individuals that come into our office,” he said. “She goes above and beyond — if there’s a way to help or assist, she’s going to turn every rock and every stone.”

Mehrhoff was sent to numerous training programs — even a victims services academy — and upon completion was granted professional VAC status by the state. She is one of two VACs in the county, with another stationed at the district attorney’s office.

An average day for Mehrhoff may be an exhausting day for others. And there may be no such thing as “average,” as Mehrhoff will tell you every day is a different adventure and no two victim cases are the same.

“I try to handle the criminal case work that comes through, being in touch with the victims and putting them in contact with services or answering questions as we go through the court system,” she said. “A lot of what I do is also keeping services out there so people see that we can support these victims. Victims aren’t always easy — they’ve been through more than we can imagine — so sometimes even finding them after an event is a hard thing to do.”

The office also does protective orders for all victims, whether they come through the district or county attorney’s office.

“Those people take up a very large portion of the time, because we do take walk-ins,” Mehrhoff said. “If someone needs a protective order, we don’t want people waiting for an appointment.”

A recent log revealed that about 100 people contact the county attorney’s office every two weeks. That doesn’t necessarily mean each of those persons gets services, but they do come in or call and ask questions.

“On any given day, there is always someone,” Mehrhoff said. “If it’s not for me, it’s going to be the gal doing all the new subdivisions.”

Through the last 15 years, Mehrhoff has also played a large role in several events and projects you may have noticed around the county — the annual Parker County Attorney’s School Art Contest during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the new Peaceful Place garden on the corner of Dallas and York Avenue and the annual Tree of Angels Ceremony, recognizing individuals that have been lost, been a victim or had loved ones that have been victims of violent crime through the hanging of ornaments to memorialize them.

Mehrhoff has several survivors that have kept in touch over the years, and many come out to the Tree of Angels.

“It’s really important to a lot of people,” she said. “They’re either remembering someone that was lost to crime or they’re celebrating overcoming their victimization. That’s why it’s so emotional.

“‘Survivor’ is really more appropriate because they are, they’ve been through stuff most people can’t imagine, and when you come to the Tree of Angels, there’s a healing measure in being around those who have experienced a loss like what you went through. There’s a peace by doing that.”

This year’s event will be held from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Doss Center. Out of safety precautions, those wishing to may choose to bring their own ornament and drive through the Doss Center, where they will be met by someone collecting the ornament to place on the tree. The ceremony will take place inside.

Another face that is a crucial part of the victims assistance program has four legs and a tail — East, a female black Lab handled by Mehrhoff and used to comfort victims of crime, particularly during court testimony. East was acquired by the county in 2018 at no charge from Service Dogs Inc.

“She’s amazing,” Mehrhoff said. “They develop a big bond with her because it’s just a friendly pup.”

Mehrhoff’s husband gifted her a blank journal with a black Lab on the cover and the title “Ruff Notes.” The journal, which stays on Mehrhoff’s desk, includes signatures of all of those who have been impacted by East.

She also keeps several different notebooks to keep track of victims, both current and former, and each and every one gets her card. Just a week ago, she was contacted by a man she hadn’t seen since 2008.

“He came back needing services and he knew where to find us,” she said. “I always tell victims, when you need us call us. We’re here and my phone is on 24/7.”

That dedication is one Mehrhoff said should be credited back to her office as a whole. 

“I’m proud of this award and honored that people would throw my hat in the ring, but they really should have said Parker County as a whole because we do this together,” she said.

To contact the victim assistance coordinator’s office, call 817-598-6124.

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