Born and raised in Philadelphia, Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Dana Masciantonio received an undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice from Temple University before graduating from Widener University Delaware Law School. She began her service in 2012 as a volunteer in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s (DAO) Family Violence & Sexual Assault Unit (FVSAU), was hired in 2013 and had brief rotations in the Juvenile and Charging units before returning to the FVSAU.
“I worked with victims in every case. It drove me, and I realized that this is where I wanted to be,” ADA Masciantonio says of working in the FVSAU.
Masciantonio always knew that she wanted to have a career in criminal law. After graduating from Temple, she worked as a court representative for a community-based program, In-Home Detention, on behalf of VisionQuest. ADA Masciantonio credits her experience as a juvenile court representative for solidifying her approach toward the most challenging prosecutions.
Masciantonio has handled a vast array of FVSAU cases, including for rape, domestic violence, starvation, and burns, where the victims range in age from children to seniors — some of whom have come forward years after the initial abuse or assault. She attributes her ability to pursue justice as being grounded in the importance she places on building relationships with the victims in her cases.
“Keeping in contact with the victim — having a meaningful personal conversation and following through — is what makes a difference with a lot of people,” ADA Masciantonio says. “When a victim feels like they’re being heard by the attorney, it helps give them the confidence to move forward and call you back. You have certain victims that were stuck in the cycle of violence, and they have to feel safe enough to come back to court. We are here to help people feel as comfortable as possible while seeking justice.”
Masciantonio stresses the importance of collaborating with other advocacy and service partners to ensure that the victims in her cases receive comprehensive support.
“We work very closely with Women Against Abuse and WOAR-Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence, and with our own advocates,” she says, referencing DAO Victim/Witness Unit coordinators. “We also have WOAR staff who advocate at PSARC [Philadelphia Sexual Assault Response Center] where now victims can get all of their needs done in one building. Their ability to be connected to resources [is essential].”
The FVSAU is unlike other DAO units, Masciantonio explains. “Often we are dealing with very little physical evidence. We are also playing the role of investigator and looking for corroborating evidence. Sometimes we have delayed disclosures, and that erodes any potential evidence, but we still go forward with those cases.”
When Masciantonio argues a case in court, the focus is often on the victim’s testimony and their demeanor. “They may not be hysterically crying…. some people shut down and are emotionless,” she says. “Trauma, it varies from victim to victim. Trauma impacts people differently.”
The closure of most court functions during the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for her unit. “Our caseloads are climbing because we’re getting new cases with little ability to dislodge the cases [in court],” ADA Masciantonio states.
She has continued to keep in contact with victims throughout. “Once you make those relationships, it’s that much easier to keep in touch with them. I FaceTime and Zoom with people since [the pandemic] started. I still make sure to follow up. They need to know, ‘Somebody has my case.’ Just having that outreach call puts them at ease.”
Masciantonio is also concerned about the effects of the pandemic on victims of domestic violence and abuse. “There have been articles on COVID that violence in the home is on the rise, and people are stuck in the house with little to no outlet and little to no relief. It’s been recognized but hasn’t been given the attention it deserves,” she says. “We will see victims saying that COVID hit and that abuse got worse. Because of financial insecurity, many potential victims of domestic abuse are really restricted now more than ever.”
Ultimately, what matters most to ADA Masciantonio is providing the survivor some sense of closure, even if a conviction cannot be secured. “They know that they did have someone on their side, and that’s what means the most to me: that there is someone to give them a voice when they aren’t able to do that for themselves.”