Group helps victims through the legal system and provides support

The Alberta Victim Services article of faith is summarized in their watchwords “Victims Deserve to Be Heard”

I recognize the editors of Grainews and FarmLife have left their mandate of publishing only materials directly related to farm management by offering to print this article. We agreed the issue of family violence however was not confined to urban life and indeed in some ways this information is even more applicable to farm families since access to social services is relatively restricted by the nature of rural isolation.

Victim Services is doing its utmost to reach household members of rural farm families, and I wish to thank Lyndsey Smith, editor of Grainews, and Sue Armstrong, editor of FarmLife, for making this possible.

Most Canadians readily identify images of our Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They are seen as the world’s finest symbols of law enforcement, cultural unity and national pride, and the picture of red-coated Mounties standing in salute needs no caption to denote “Canada.”

Working in co-operation with all police services (federal, provincial and municipal) is Victim Services. These are community volunteers dedicated to working with victims of crime caught up in Canada’s criminal justice system.

The Alberta Victim Services article of faith is summarized in their watchwords “Victims Deserve to Be Heard” and wronged parties are encouraged to exercise this basic Canadian right — to be protected from violence and to seek redress from criminal injury.

Program funding (in Alberta) is supplied by the provincial solicitor general and minister of public security through the Victims of Crime Fund, a regulated fund set up in accordance with the Victims of Crime Act. The fund is financed entirely through a surcharge on provincial traffic offences and criminal code convictions.

Victim Services has relatively low community awareness as their main responsibility is to assist many victims of crime who cannot be publicly identified. However, this limitation is also its most powerful, underlying strength. Client confidentiality is the supreme consideration of every unit and this guarantee of personal privacy provides the assurance many victims (of family violence and sexual assault in particular) need before they will step forward seeking support.

Children often labour under the handicap of not being believed by family, friends or community leaders when reporting sexual or other abuse. Even if known to be fact however, these activities are sometimes concealed and denied in parents’ or guardians’ mistaken conviction that family, community and religious solidarity must take precedence over the suffering of a child. It is these people that Victim Services is determined to reach.

Taking into account the devastation of false accusations, the assessment process of guilt in these circumstances is so rigid Victim Services is encouraged to believe the child, while law enforcement specialists confirm or disprove abuse allegations. Advocates have security clearance equal to that of RCMP officers and are bound by the same legal commitments to client confidentiality.

Victim Services may be called upon to deal with other forms of suffering such as enforced housebound isolation and psychological abuse. Persons fearful of retribution by vengeful partners are encouraged to know they are not alone, that family, friends, neighbours and law enforcement agencies do care about their comfort, security and emotional well-being.

Knowing their child is not at home, a parent’s worst nightmare is to have a sombre uniformed law officer knocking on their door, often in the dead of night. An attending Advocate not in uniform, experienced in dealing with such situations can be of consolation in these circumstances.

When people die by suicide Advocates are available to comfort family members and make the necessary calls for the family.

Victim Services provides court support for persons unfamiliar with the legal system, to guide them through the hearings process. They will arrange meetings with court officials and if necessary explain judicial rulings.

GUIDING THROUGH COURT

Victim Impact Statements are available so victims may actively participate in court sentencing. If the accused is found guilty the injured party has the right to illustrate how this crime has affected them and the judge will use this submission as part of his or her deliberations when formulating sentencing.

Criminal activity that results in material loss may be eligible for a restitution order by a court judge. Advocates will guide claimants through this process if a request is made by the victim.

A financial benefits package is available for personal or psychological injury suffered during a violent encounter, determination of validity being made by the solicitor general’s office. Volunteers are again available for consultation.

The value of any social program is not measured in numbers of files, events, dollars spent or grand schemes involving hundreds of people. The true meaning of compassionate service is quietly holding one hand in another and telling an abused child or adult that we care, and that we will do what we can.

When children commit suicide, women in hospitals are unrecognizable because of beatings, victims have parts of their faces bitten off by drunken abusers, isolated farm women are confined inside their homes by having their doors locked from the outside with shoes and telephones removed, when threats of violence include killing of pets in retribution for calling one’s family, when farm women are more disconnected than persons in prison, when the doors of compassion close on child abuse and child pornography reaches the highest regions of office a corrupt level of society is laid bare.

SUCCESSFUL PROGRAM

Steve Marissink, director of Victim Services and Crime Prevention for Alberta said, “there are two pivotal points concerning our program. The first is that our program is successful because of the dedicated efforts of over 1,900 volunteers who in 2008-09 contributed almost 178,000 man-hours of their time.

“The second point is The Protocol (an information publication) — what victims of crime can expect from the criminal justice system from the time a crime is reported to police up to and including provincial and/or federal corrections and the National Parole Board. The Protocol also tells victims what is expected of them and what else they can do when in contact with the justice system.

“This was a first of its kind in Canada and seen as a best practice across North America. The Protocol is provided at no cost to all victims of a serious or violent crime in Alberta.

“The intent behind each province’s Victim Services Programs, regardless of the model they employ, is to ensure that victims have a voice within the justice system. For too many years the fulcrum has been out of balance in favour of the accused; with the continuing growth of victims’ programs the fulcrum is moving towards the middle.”

Victim Services is not the only agency involved in improvement of these ills. There are many community services doing exemplary work in social rehabilitation and each has its place. Victim Services, like many others, specializes in one small segment of needs and together we make it part of the whole. Our specialty is serving victims of crime and trauma — and we need to make such victims aware that they are not alone, that Victim Services can be their first line of support.

A “Victims Deserve to Be Heard” information package is available from any police service in Alberta through their Victim Services affiliation.

Other provinces employ variations of the Alberta program and persons interested in making contact should call their local police offices for information specific to their region.

There are variations between provinces but Victim Services units all share this sense of purpose — we are all unalterably committed to being non-judgmental partners in compassion with those victims of crime and trauma who are unable to speak effectively for themselves.

Stan Harder is a retired volunteer with Victim Services and writes from St. Brides, Alberta

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