AUGUSTA, Maine — Mary Farrar knows what it’s like to have a loved one murdered.
That’s one of the reasons she was so good at her job as victim-witness advocate for more than a decade in Maine Attorney General’s Office, which is responsible for prosecuting homicide cases.
Next month, Farrar, 62, of Solon will receive the Father Ken Czillinger Award from Parents of Murdered Children for two decades as a victim advocate at the organization’s annual convention in Milwaukee.
“I’m honored and humbled,” Farrar said Tuesday. “It took my breath away when I learned I was to receive the award. It was totally unexpected.”
The award is presented each year to “an extraordinary professional who has shown understanding and support to survivors of homicide victims through various means,” according to the organization.
Czillinger was a Catholic priest in Cincinnati to whom Robert and Charlotte Hullinger, the couple who founded Parents of Murdered Children, turned to when their daughter was murdered in 1978. The award was established in 1992 and named for Cziillenger, a bereavement specialist.
When Farrar applied in 1990 to be advocate for victims of crimes in Somerset County, she had no experience in the field. She had been a stay-at-home mom, a substitute teacher and a bank teller. She had never worked in the social service field. What she had, was a whole lot of empathy for the victims of crimes, especially those whose loved ones had been murdered.
In 1974, her 29-year-old brother was shot and killed in hold-up at the family business in Newark, N.J. He left behind a 25-year-old wife and four children between the ages of three months and 11 years. It was after William Nicola died that Farrar and her husband, an electrician moved to Maine seeking a sense of safety.
“There were no victims’ rights then,” Farrar said Tuesday. “Victims weren’t notified about court proceedings or given information about the justice system.”
That changed in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan signed the Victims Bill of Rights. States were obligated to provide support for crime victims.
Farrar left the Somerset County District Attorney’s office in 1996 for the Attorney General’s Office, where she worked solely and closely with the families and friends of homicide victims. She provided notification of the victim’s death, explained autopsy reports, helped families understand the criminal justice system and prepared them for trials, verdicts and sentencings.
“Once I was in this field, it was almost therapeutic,” she said. “I had no one in my life who understood what had happened. Once I started meeting with the [Maine chapter of] Parents of Murdered Children, I knew it was where I belonged. Doing some good for families and friends of victims became really important to me. It helped me recover.”
Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, who worked closely with Farar on many homicide cases, said Thursday that one the reasons she was so good at her job was her “ability to put herself in the shoes of the victims’ families.”
“She understood that in the initial phases of these cases the family is angry as they go through the process of grieving,” Stokes said. “Sometimes, the family gets angry at the system, angry at us. She had a good way to get them and us through that and it would pass and they not see us as enemies forever.”
Once a case was concluded, the separation from detectives and prosecutors could be difficult, he said. Farrar was good at help people understand that it was time for them to move on.
“For a long time, victims were left out of the criminal just process and ignored,” Stokes said. “Today, they often leave the criminal justice system [after a conviction and sentencing] feeling better about it. Victim advocates like Mary have played a role there and done a tremendous job in making that progress happen.”
Howard S. Klerk Jr. of Richmond is vice president of the Board of Trustees for the national organization Parents of Murdered Children. He nominated Farrar for the award.
“She’s extremely compassionate,” he said of Farrar. “She’s more unique than most advocates due to her own experience as a homicide survivor. “She really has survivors in her heart and mind at all times.”
Farrar went to work last year as a victim advocate in the Department of Corrections. She works less directly with victims of types of crimes but helps collect restitution owed to victims and notifies them when a perpetrator is about to be released.
She will retire later this year and is looking forward to the award ceremony next month.
“I’m just honored that a group that has given me so much, would do this,” Farrar said.