Crime is pervasive and has an adverse impact on millions of people. Crime statistics, however, can tell only part of the story. Each person who is victimized by crime has to live with the impact that it has on his or her life; physically, emotionally, financially, socially, and spiritually, all of which may have long-term implications.
Furthermore, crime victims are often victimized by a criminal justice system that does not meet their needs. In fact, it is not uncommon for crime victims to feel like they are somehow being blamed for what happened to them and questioned about their behaviors before or after the victimization. They may have had little opportunity to express their feelings about what happened or to share their thoughts about what should happen next.
Not all victims have the same reaction to a crime, or the same needs. It is important to remember that every crime victim is unique, and there are no reactions that are common to all crime victims. A person’s response can vary depending on many things: the person’s life before the crime occurred, the crime itself, their perceived experience with law enforcement and justice professionals, the person’s level of resiliency, the degree of social support they receive or don’t receive, the outcome of any criminal case, etc. Crime victims can experience immediate, short-term and long-term impacts.
There are three major aspects that influence the crime’s impact on the victim:
- Person: the victim’s attributes, including personal traits, personal history, and the relationship between the victim and individual.
- Event: the when, how, and where of the crime itself. The crime may have happened once or was recurring (when), the perpetrator might have used violence or there may have been multiple perpetrators (how), it could have occurred in public or in the privacy of one’s home (where).
- Environment: the community and support system, including community supervision agencies, surrounding the victim. The community can include the immediate neighborhood or those in another state.
What Helps? What Hurts?
- Make connections with community-based and corrections-based advocacy resources
- Consider victim safety and confidentiality at all times
- Wait for the victim to initiate direct contact whenever possible
- Use respectful communication (verbal and non-verbal)
- Elicit their perspective: ask questions about what they need
- Share information and other resources
- Allow them to vent. Validate their feelings and concerns
- Assure victims that you will consider their safety in decisions that you make
- Explain the process of probation/parole/reentry and discuss special conditions of supervision
- Explain the benefits and limitations of community supervision
- Provide opportunities for choice to give victims back some control that was taken away by the person who committed the crime (i.e. ask the victim their preferred times and modes of contact (i.e. cell phone, mail, at work, at home)
- Explain protocols in the event that the victim’s perpetrator tries to contact them
- Make time to communicate (in person, email, or telephone) to address victim’s needs
- Contacting victims without their prior consent may increase their risk of further harm
- Assuming you understand the victims’ perspective
- Being judgmental
- Being a lone ranger and trying to do your work without the support of advocates and other resources
- Leaving victim information in an unsecured location like on top of a desk, caller ID/phones
- Forgetting to include the victim in status change updates
- Making promises you can’t keep or follow through on
In speaking with victims, try to avoid using generalizations and comparing them to other victims. While crimes may be similar, each victim’s circumstances and their reactions to the crime are unique. Try to keep an open mind and to listen to their stories with empathy. Asking open-ended questions (“What do you need?” “Are you safe?”) is always a good place to start. Being non-judgmental and willing to listen goes a long way.
Helpful things to say to victims
- What do you need?
- What can I do for you?
- I’m sorry this happened.
- What happened to you is not your fault.
- I believe you.
- Your case is important/unique.
- Are you safe?
- Do you have any concerns about your safety?
- Who else have you spoken to?
- Would you like a referral for further victim assistance?
- Can I make any calls for you?
- Do you need anything else? If you do, contact me at….
- Is now a good time to talk? Is there a better time to talk?
- You’re not going crazy.
- I can’t imagine how difficult this was or is for you.
- I am going to try my best to help you.
- I don’t know, but I’ll find out.
- How are you doing?
- Let’s see if we can figure out your most important needs right now.
- I’m glad you called
Things not to say to victims
- I know how you feel.
- You should forgive.
- I understand what you’re going through.
- Time heals all wounds.
- Why didn’t you?
- Why were you…didn’t you?
- It could be worse.
- Your case reminds me of another victim I dealt with.
- What you need is…
- As a general rule of thumb…
- You’re so lucky.
- It’s God’s will (or any religious platitude).
- Get over it. Get on with your life.
- Move on, put it behind you.
- You’re not the only victim I’m trying to help.
- You need to get over it/get on with your life.
- They aren’t really bad people.
- I can promise you that will happen for sure.
- The poor defendant had a really tough childhood.
- If I were in your shoes… You should have…
- You’re so strong…
- At least you weren’t hurt…
- Nothing at all
- Giving advice
- Using generalizations
- Comparing with other victims or cases
- Making promises you can’t keep
- Telling the person you know how he/she feels
- Telling them that they are safe now
Dealing with Disclosures of Trauma and/or Victimization
Here are some important Dos and Don’t’s:
- Examine your own beliefs about victims & abuse
- Deal with your own history of trauma
- Give choices
- Inform him/her of relevant policies, laws
- Be aware that what survivors report may only be a small part of what they have experienced
- Stay supportive
- Offer resources
- Tell survivors they have to talk
- Assign blame in any way
- Feel sorry for the survivor and look upon her/him as helpless
- React with disgust, revulsion and anger at what they’ve been through
- Be judgmental about coping strategies
- Use it as a forum to talk about your own history
- Ask for details that you don’t need
Different Crimes, Different Strategies
It is also important to remember that every case is unique, and that supervision strategies and communications with victims will vary and will be specific to each case. Part of understanding a victim’s needs and experiences is understanding the possible impact of various crimes and knowing the national and local resources that you can refer to in order to better meet the needs of victims.
Source: National Institute of Corrections: info.nicic.gov