What Does a Victims Advocate Do?
In social work, there are community-based advocates and system-based advocates, like myself. When I got my first job about three years ago, I was a community-based advocate specializing in domestic violence, meaning I worked for an independent non-profit. I continued to for non-profits and NGOs until I transitioned to my current position, where I now work in a sex crimes division, but as an employee of the state within an attorney general’s office.
Community-based advocates usually help victims navigate the resources of social services, like housing or employment, while system-based advocates help victims through the lengthy process of the criminal justice system. I’m not an attorney nor am I a mental health expert, but I do have training in crisis intervention, evidence handling, and forensic and trauma-informed interviewing.
System-based advocacy often looks like updating victims and their families on the status of their case. While the process may differ slightly depending on what state or jurisdiction you live in, cases usually begin in grand jury, where 23 people decide whether or not to indict an individual based on the evidence presented by the state. If the grand jury decides to hand down an indictment, the case is then set for preliminary hearings, pre-trial, and jury trial, unless the state decides to offer a plea – which depends on tons of factors, like the evidence, the severity of the case, how many charges there are, the cooperation of the victim (or lack thereof), the defendant’s criminal history, and more.
I have training in crisis intervention, evidence handling, and forensic and trauma-informed interviewing.
As an advocate, I update victims on where their case is within the system and, when it’s time, accompany them to court if they wish to attend or have to testify. I can also communicate the victim’s wishes to prosecutors, specifically if they have an opinion on the defendant’s sentencing or how much or how little they want to be involved. A sex crimes case in our office can take anywhere from two and a half to five years to prosecute from beginning to end – though, because of Covid, cases these days tend to last on the longer side.
My Day to Day
Depending on the week, I work anywhere from 50 to 60 hours. If there’s a trial scheduled, I’m in court from 8 AM until late afternoon for however many days it takes both the prosecution and defense to present evidence, testimony to be given, and the jury to deliberate (anywhere from one day to an entire week).
If it’s the first week of the month, I’m sitting through voir dire, which is a fancy, needlessly hard-to-pronounce French word referring to the process of jury selection. Because I’m a people person (and nosy), this is one of my favorite parts of the job, as both the prosecution and defense are allowed to ask whatever questions they want from the people drafted for jury duty. Most of us would agree that jury duty is a pain and a hassle, but a good jury is absolutely imperative to the outcome of a case. Depending on the circumstances of the case, the ratio of men to women and even the age and racial makeup of a jury are crucial, as any prosecutor or defense attorney knows, which is why voir dire is so important to both sides.
When I’m not in court, I might be in my office where I’m behind my computer 95% of the time, looking for victims on social media and researching cases. Though we have a number of other ways to find information, social media is the quickest and easiest way to build a profile on a victim, which we can present to prosecutors within a case. A profile includes basic information, but also criminal history, employment, children, relationships, and any other relevant information. In my experience, many people are unlikely to have up-to-date phone numbers, but all of them have Facebook.
I could also be meeting with prosecutors, or working with a team of criminal analysts and investigators, discussing cases and specific victims. Our office works with over 30 law enforcement agencies, including federal agencies, and law enforcement can ask us to contact victims and family members, or accompany them to sexual assault exams and interviews. If I’m working out of the office, I’m sitting in on interviews with victims alongside investigators, at a forensic lab looking through evidence, or physically tracking down victims or potential witnesses.
How I Handle the Hard Stuff
The first thing I realized about this job (and what most victims quickly realize about the process) is that it isn’t like Law & Order. If anything, the system and the process are extremely frustrating. It’s not uncommon to have victims who don’t want to prosecute or have been treated badly by law enforcement and thus have a distrust of the system, and to have delays in a case that can last for years at a time.
I usually don’t have issues working with adults; the hardest cases for me are ones involving children.
Any advocate will tell you they wear a lot of hats, whether it’s mom, sister, best friend, or therapist. Sex crimes are extremely difficult cases to work, but they’re even more difficult for the person they happened to. Though I usually don’t have issues working with adults, the hardest cases for me are ones involving children. Nine times out of ten, whether the case is rape or child pornography, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows. In some cases, they’re even related to the victim or connected to their family in some way.
For me, balance is key. When I’m not on the clock, I don’t answer my phone or email, especially if I’m at home with my husband. I try to devote my full attention to victims when I’m at work, and my full attention to him and myself when I’m at home. I also invest time in hobbies. I do a lot of experimental cooking (sometimes successful, sometimes not), reading, weight-lifting, and admittedly, online shopping.
One of the dangers of being in this type of work is feeling like you’re the only one who can do the job, which is oftentimes a sign of burnout or compassion fatigue and is definitely an occupational hazard. While I sometimes feel this way, I also genuinely love and appreciate my career. I work with a team of extremely dedicated, talented individuals, and I believe that although we’re not accomplishing big things on a grand scale, we’re making a small difference and an impact in the lives of the victims we serve.
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