“Victim-centered means putting the person seeking services truly at the center of the work, which starts with engagement and recognizing that they are whole people, not just victims or survivors.” ~from the Office for Victims of Crime
If you have been the target of or suffered consequence from another person’s criminal conduct, you may have found yourself wearing the legal label of “victim.” That term doesn’t feel very empowering.
What about “survivor”? Better? Sigh . . . .
Were we “victims” according to criminal law definitions? Yes. Did we “survive” sexual violence? Of course. But aren’t we more?
So much more.
These labels are restrictive. Sexual violence is very serious in the criminal laws of every state, superseded only by murder (and attempted murder, depending on the state). Undoubtedly, being unfortunate targets of another person’s willful acts of sexual violence changes us in part. But not in whole. We aren’t mere numbers or statistics. We aren’t merely a movement–political, feminist, or otherwise. We are people. Whole people. Whole people with whole personalities, whole families, whole careers, whole friendships, whole lives. Whole people with whole rights.
Sadly, the criminal justice process is long and grueling, and often more burdensome on the ones who’ve already suffered than on those who perpetuate suffering. It’s a process that can break down more rather than build up. Rather than “make whole.” It’s an imperfect system. Due process is fundamental and necessary for all in our nation. However, we hear you. It’s illogical, isn’t it? Why even pass laws against crimes if the process of enforcing and prosecuting those crimes means more harm for the very persons the laws are intended to protect?
Shouldn’t there reasonably be a way for due process to co-exist with dignified treatment of crime victims? We think so.
If you’ve found yourself in the role of “victim-witness,” these resources are for you.
We see the whole person you are. We believe you deserve to be treated with dignity.
- First, YOU HAVE RIGHTS. Most states have a Victim’s Bill of Rights. Check your state for yours.
- You are allowed an advocate throughout the process during all interviews. This site, Advocate for Victims, explains how an advocate can help you navigate new and unpredictable legal waters.
- Your advocate can help you with coping strategies.
- Your advocate can help demystify the reporting process, explaining things like “jurisdiction” (how you report crimes with the police department where the crimes occurred).
- Your advocate can help you find an attorney. Having legal counsel is beneficial for understanding legal terms, state statutes, and administrative regulations.
- Many laws pertain to collection of evidence from the person of a sexual assault victim. For example, laws may prohibit disclosure of your private personal records: “These include records of every sort, including victim advocate records, crisis counseling records, pre-assault counseling records, medical records, school records, employment records. For many or all of these records, there may be confidentiality laws that prevent their disclosure. These confidentiality laws range from evidentiary privileges in the case of therapy record or crisis counseling records, to statutory declarations of confidentiality. State or federal funders, including funding through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) or the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), often require victim confidentiality.” ~ The Center for Law & Public Policy on Sexual Violence
- Your advocate can help put you in touch with your own investigative team / sources: “Generally, a victim has the right to conduct a private investigation as long as it does not interfere with criminal or civil laws. Survivors should be aware that competent investigations often require a degree of sophistication that will require hiring a private help and legal advice.” ~ The Center for Law & Public Policy on Sexual Violence
- A lawyer can advise you where defense investigative tactics cross red lines. General limits on private investigation include “criminal” and “tortious” conduct, and this includes the collection of Electronic Stored Information (ESI). Material collected by unauthorized access to personal property or in violation of a legitimate privacy interest is likely beyond the legal limit. Be aware that lawyers must follow ethical rules (professional rules of conduct). An attorney may not misrepresent “his or her identity” or supervise misrepresented “purpose when contacting someone who is likely to be adverse to the lawyer’s client.”
- An advocate can put you in touch with therapy access (some are provided by the state for crime victims).
- Advocates can provide much-needed emotional and courtroom support, which can be paramount for those persons speaking out against crime occurring within their nuclear families and communities.
- Advocates can help you tell your story.
- Depending on your state’s laws, you may have the right to have an attorney speak on your behalf: “If the victim has a right to be heard, then a lawyer for the victim should be permitted by the court to appear and represent her as a matter of due process under federal or state constitutions. Failure to provide the victim her right generally should result in a motion for reconsideration, seeking a hearing to allow the victim to speak and have that information incorporated into a new release decision.”
- You may have an independent right to approach a grand jury if authorities refuse to investigate, depending on the laws of your state (though prosecutors have discretion to “charge” or not in nearly every state).
- If you’re not in a grand jury state, then you’ll likely have bond and preliminary hearings scheduled. In Pennsylvania, victims may obtain a preliminary hearing when the state hasn’t sought to charge, as a check on a prosecutor’s decision not to charge where that decision was made based on “lack of probable cause” (See Commonwealth v. Benz, 565 A.2d 764 (Pa. 1989).
- Advocates can help you in making the difficult decision to report to law enforcement, informing you of the loss of control and autonomy that may occur (and possible compelling of your testimony).
These are just a few ways an advocate, Victim’s Bill of Rights, and lawyer may be able to help you retain the dignity due to you as a “whole person.”
Here are some additional resources for you or someone you know (from the United States and beyond):
Victim Support: https://www.victimsupport.org.uk/help-and-support/young-victims-crime/teachers-and-professionals/useful-resources
Child Law Services from the ABA: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/child_law/
Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists: https://www.atss.info/index.php
Gift from Within (on Trauma): www.giftfromwithin.org
NYC End Domestic & Gender-Based Violence: https://www1.nyc.gov/site/ocdv/index.page
SC Coalition Against Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault: http://www.sccadvasa.org/