District Attorney Brooke Jenkins announced on Wednesday that she has hired Monifa Willis, an assistant professor at UCSF’s school of nursing, as the office’s new chief of victim services.
Jenkins demoted the former chief of the unit, Kasie Lee, during a major staff shakeup shortly after her appointment by Mayor London Breed on July 7. Willis, a longtime mental health professional in the Bay Area, told The Standard that her clinical experience addressing the psychiatric burden carried by crime victims makes her qualified for the job.
The victim services unit became a flashpoint last year, with critics of now-recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin arguing that he failed to prioritize and communicate with victims of crimes. In response, Boudin’s office implemented a dashboard in April that touted its progress on victim services.
Willis said she was initially deterred by the politicized nature of her new role, but ultimately accepted the offer because of her passion for helping victims.
The Standard hopped on the phone with Willis to better understand her background and the role of the victim services department.
What does the chief of victim services do?
The victim services unit is charged with the very important responsibility of uplifting the voice of victims of crime in San Francisco.
But more importantly, we have victim advocates that walk alongside our victims to ensure communication and collaboration is happening between our [assistant district attorneys], ensuring that they have a voice throughout the process, whether that be expressing how crime has impacted them or expressing their wishes.
And then the second half is really to increase access to our communities at large that are impacted by violence.
What role does the victim services department serve? Is it necessary?
Part of healing is allowing people to have a voice. What we know is that unfortunately, from trauma, hurt people hurt people.
So if we really want to break the perpetuating cycle of violence in our communities, it is crucial to promote healing to those that have been victimized. And it's crucial for people to know that there are services there to support them when crimes occur.
Why are you the person for the job?
I have 20-plus years of direct clinical care to diverse communities. Those communities that I've worked with that have often carried the burden of crime and violence on their shoulders.
I have been in offices where families and individuals have reported crimes to me; I have collaborated with victim advocates and worked in the juvenile justice system. So I have direct knowledge of how crime and violence impacts individuals.
I also have direct knowledge on the pathway to healing and the right services that individuals need to to move on and to have lives worth living after such incidents.
Why should the average person care about what the head of victim services does?
This office impacts everyone. Everybody at some point has been touched by some sort of crime or witnessed violence in the community.
Scrolling on social media, people are being impacted by crime and violence day in and day out. Our office provides a service to anyone who has been impacted by violence or crime in San Francisco.
What did former District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s office do that you think needs fixing?
I am interested in walking into the office and hearing from the staff on what has worked and what has not worked. My personal focus is to increase communication between assistant district attorneys and victims’ advocates to ensure that survivors are having a voice and feel supported.
Secondly, I really want to increase access to services by embedding our office in community-based organizations, so individuals know that we exist and that we have services to provide.
And thirdly, really ensuring that the San Francisco District Attorney's office is being educated—staff and attorneys alike—on trauma-informed practices to improve how we interact with the community.
Caseloads were cited as an issue for this department before. How will you decide which cases need victim services?
It is important that ideally, every victim in some way gets some sort of service, whether it be a victim advocate or a quick referral.
That's something that I would like to look into to see how that has been working in the past. I think what's important to know is where are the hotspots? Where are the spots where major community crimes are happening? Where is violence happening at alarming rates? We target those first and then we disseminate out from there.
Can you talk about a specific time that you worked well with victims?
I have several stories in my mind right now. But I will pick one of a young child who was a victim of gunshot violence.
The perpetrator of the violence and the family still lived in the same apartment complex. I had to work directly with victim services to relocate this family. I played the role as a mental health clinician in this situation. It was a very difficult time and I saw some of the obstacles that happen when trying to relocate someone and the grief that families have when they have to leave everything they know for the sake of safety.
Can you tell me about your current role at UCSF?
I have dual roles. I am a UCSF faculty member for the School of Nursing, where I train and educate our next psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner leaders in trauma-informed and evidence-based practices.
In addition, I provide direct clinical care at Children's Hospital in Oakland, and that's where nurse practitioner students shadow me and learn the work hands-on.
How familiar are you with the inner workings of the District Attorney’s office?
The inner workings of the District Attorney's office will be a relatively new terrain for me. It's something that I am looking forward to being briefed on. Learning this new system, going from hospital systems to university systems, there's always various striations. You learn them quick and get to work.
The former chief of victim services Kasie Lee is still at the office and in a different role now. Many people have raised questions about how the new staff will mesh with the old staff. Can you tell me how you plan to work with her? Have you two communicated yet?
The health of the staff is a priority for me. I plan to collaborate with the previous teams, I plan to hear what worked and what did not work. I also plan to have some morale building activities and training to really rebuild the culture of our unit and step out as one.
What is your relationship like with Brooke Jenkins? When did you hear that you were being offered this position?
I heard about this a couple of days back.
I had to take a moment to really think through the political nature of this office. Understanding that the work is something I know intimately and the politics of the office was something that I was weighing if this is something I want to step into.
Knowing District Attorney Brooke Jenkins is also about the work really encouraged me to move forward with this.
David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]