‘Making a survivor’ into ‘a thriver’ 

By on February 27, 2024

Gail Hutchison. (Photo by Mary Ellen Riddle/OBV)

Gail Hutchinson fills many roles as victim’s advocate in Dare Sheriff’s office

Gail Hutchison is a calming and capable force. She works as a victim’s advocate at the Dare County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Doug Doughtie finds her irreplaceable. “It’s a job probably that very few people can do that she does,” he says. “She does things well outside the scope of what I hired her for.”

When dealing with crime and intense emotions, Hutchison must be ready for anything. This finds her wearing multiple hats on any given day. And the tenor of the day can go from calm to intense at a moment’s notice.

A Roanoke Island resident, Hutchison works with families and victims of all ages in unincorporated Dare County who are wondering what they can do when confronted with a crime. “Any crime that a victim feels like they need help,” Hutchison says. “So, it could be from someone smashed my mailbox, they’re playing music too loud, all the way up to murder and sexual assault and rape and battery and strangulation.”

Utilizing her education in theatre and psychology, and her more than 30 years in the field, Hutchison helps victims navigate the court system from start to finish—with cases lasting weeks to months to years.

A personal experience with trauma that occurred in her adult life gave Hutchison an inside experience as a victim. That experience led to an invitation to work at Hotline in Manteo. Hutchison, who first moved to the Outer Banks in 1989 (and later returned in 2001), worked for the Hotline as a sexual assault services coordinator, community educator and sudden death coordinator. She came onboard at the Sheriff’s office in 2011. The community educator job had her visiting schools, churches, and businesses to talk about safety.

Hutchison has a playful side to her and uses it to calm child victims.

“We have a forensic room right across the way for children,” she explains, while sitting in her office that is stuffed with toys. The forensic room is where children and adults take turns going to be interviewed. First, Hutchison’s meets with the young victims to understand and calm them before they leave her to undergo the forensic interview.

A child may be melting down at the thought of the interview. Hutchison steps in and says: “You can come out of that room any time you want, but I think you are going to have a good time because you are going to draw a lot.” The child often starts to draw. That works from a two-year-old all the way up to a 15-year-old who might not want to really look at the person while they are talking, says Hutchison.

“And so, I sit with parents while the child is being interviewed, and then when they need to talk to the parents, I hang out with the child, so that’s why I have all these teddy bears and Go Fish and coloring books in here too because that is what I do,” she says. “I’m really good at playing Go Fish.”

Common sense and empathy play a role in the job. Hutchison has been called to the hospital where a victim is undergoing a rape exam. The victim is in shock, and the medical procedures can be confusing and cause additional stress. Hutchison helps demystify the process and ease the patient’s fears by explaining what the medical staff is doing and why and how it can help with the case.

Hutchison goes to court with victims and families. She listens to what is going on with the prosecution and defense sides through to the final verdict. On listening to the defense attorney, Hutchison says, “I want to see, you know, if he or she is going to do something that is going to make the person sitting next to me levitate. It’s good to know ahead of time so that’s why I always listen.”

“Once people understand what’s going on, their fear goes down,” she adds. “Not all the way but it goes down. And so that’s a big reward.”

Hutchison can help victims write their impact statements, fill out victim compensation forms and find appropriate therapists that can help in the healing process. She is quick to describe a workplace where her coworkers function as a team and feel like family.

Her work roster includes crime prevention outreach in the community and taking multiple jobs off the sheriff’s shoulders, working as the co-chair of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Collaborative and secretary of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and more. She also may be collaborating with an investigator as they pore over books together that contain all the statute crimes people can be found guilty of in North Carolina to see if additional statutes fit the case.

Education plays a role in Hutchison’s success as an advocate. She graduated from St. Andrews Presbyterian College with a BA in theatre and a minor in psychology. “It’s come in handy a whole lot over the last thirty-five years,” she says of her theater degree. “I think when you are a theater person, you have to think quick on your feet, and you’ve got to be able to commit to whatever you are saying, even if you are not sure at the moment.”

With psychology, she says, it is about realizing that people tick at different speeds, understanding that everyone is going to react differently and that all reactions are okay. “You have to feel it out and figure out how you’re going to take care of that person the best way possible,” she says.

Sitting in court with victims and their families can be tough. “What is their reaction going to be?” she wonders. “It’s like watching a play, it really is.”

Hutchison says she must be hyper aware as a result. “Like, when I come home, my shoulders hurt because I’m so, I’m ready for something to happen.” Doing housework, cooking, and pulling vines off her pine trees helps her decompress. And years of experience brings confidence. “I know my job. I am good at my job.”

What is the best part of the job? “Making a survivor a thriver,” she says.



Comments

  • Bryan Jones

    It is so good that Gail is recognized for the important and difficult work that she does.
    And Sheriff Doughtie, thank you for understanding that!

    Wednesday, Feb 28 @ 9:40 am
  • Soozee

    So very glad to see this well deserved write up on Gail. I have had the privilege of working with her in both aspects of her college degree, and WOW. One of the most situationally aware, empathetic, and compassionate persons I know and what an amazing wit. She is a wonderful asset to the citizens of Dare County for sure.

    Wednesday, Feb 28 @ 12:40 pm
  • MS. DEBRA A. PHELPS

    Thank you Gail awesome!

    Sunday, Mar 3 @ 9:33 am