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For 40 years, Joan Fairfield was the heart of the District Attorney’s Office as a victim advocate. | Credit: Paul Wellman

In Memoriam: Joan Fairfield, 1939–2019

Joan Fairfield often spoke of how her childhood, which was a difficult one, in many ways helped her understand the trauma that the thousands of crime victims she would later care for experienced. Joan began working as a victim advocate in the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office in 1979. “For my mother,” her daughter Kelly Selman said, “this position was an answer to her prayers and the prayers offered by a group of church friends for victims affected by terrible crimes.” That same group of friends gathered in Joan’s final hours to offer prayers for her.

Despite the troubles she experienced early on, Joan’s imagination saved her spirit in many ways. Growing up in Michigan, Joan was convinced she could ice-skate like Sonja Henie if she only had the costume. After marriage to Joe Selman in 1961, Joan soon became the very proud mother of three children: Scott, Kelly, and Todd. Devoted to her children, Joan was involved in all their sports activities and school projects. In fact, she was frequently called “the best Girl Scout leader ​— ​ever.”

Joe’s job brought the family to Santa Barbara, but in 1986, Joan returned to Michigan to care for her mother, who had leukemia, the same disease that ultimately claimed Joan. She and Joe divorced. During a dinner with friends, Joan met up again with her high school sweetheart, Pete Fairfield. “Every missing piece of her life’s puzzle fell in front of her,” Kelly Selman recalled. Joan and Pete married a few years later.

Joan met her calling when she began working as a victim witness advocate. For the people she served, Joan was a hero. One wrote: “Without you we may not have survived. Thank you for giving us the strength to carry on.”

Joan kept a photo collection of the dozens of people she served, and as the years went by, she developed a following. She stayed connected to many abused children who grew up and became fully functioning adults. They would come by and visit, call her, and send her letters, never quite ready to sever that connection. 

Retired prosecutor Ron Zonen, who worked with Joan for many years, said he was always amazed at her ability to find just the right words. “Hulking gangsters covered in tattoos would sit with her and cry,” Zonen said. “Half the homeless population of Santa Barbara could call her by name. And she knew their names. One day, near the courthouse, a homeless woman walked by us, pushing her shopping cart, essentially her home. She wore a new winter jacket and smiled at Joan as we passed. ‘The ladies at our church got her that jacket,’ Joan told me. ‘The weather’s getting cold.’”

For Joan, the job was equal parts fascinating and encouraging. “I am constantly impressed by what people can overcome and how powerful the human spirit and human body are,” she told Megan Riker-Rheinschild, who directs the DA’s victim services. “She gave people hope when they had none,” Riker-Rheinschild said. “She offered encouraging words that were transformative in the face of darkness.”

Zonen recalled Joan’s grace in caring for people in need: “Some 10 years ago, we noticed a woman sitting on the hallway floor at the courthouse. She was disheveled, and her clothes were dirty. She was also clearly upset, not terribly responsive, and likely unstable. We called Joan. Within minutes, Joan was sitting on the floor next to her, trying to find the magic combination of words that would give her some level of comfort, perhaps a meal, and hopefully a place to rest.

“Joan always felt her job was to attend to the complex needs of all victims of crime,” Zonen said. “It is hard to imagine anyone better suited for that job than Joan. She could talk to anyone. Victims of domestic violence, convinced their abusers would change, spoke candidly with her about life with a violent partner. Children who were victims of sexual abuse, terrified and humiliated, found comfort in her presence. How do you convince a teenage rape victim to come forward, knowing her high school friends would likely abandon her? Joan knew what to say. She was candid and truthful but always hopeful and optimistic. She would sit patiently for hours with parents of abused children. What do you say to the mother of a murdered child? Joan knew.”

Joan would say she felt God was working through her to help others. Each day when she arrived at work, she said the same prayer: “Lord, today let me touch somebody. Let me be an ambassador of Your love.” She firmly believed that angels walk among us.

In July, a gathering at Joan’s church celebrated her 80th birthday. Joan still hadn’t retired. We celebrated her life well lived with those she loved: family, friends, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and her church family. To say we will all miss her dearly is an understatement. For four decades, she was the very heart of the District Attorney’s Office.

A memorial service takes place on September 14 at 10 a.m. at the Cambridge Drive Community Church (550 Cambridge Dr., Goleta).

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