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Building a more ‘victim-led’ system means asking victims of crime what they want – Part One

In this two-part series, we share key findings from research conducted by the Centre for Innovative Justice in 2019, which involved in-depth interviews with 37 victims of crime across Victoria to understand what they wanted and needed from the victim services system, and whether it was meeting their expectations. We encountered a diverse range of needs and circumstances, as well as surprising insights into how we can improve support for people who have experienced crime.

As part of a project commissioned by the Victim Services, Support and Reform branch within the Department of Justice and Community Safety, in 2019 the Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ) conducted in-depth interviews with 37 victims of violent crime against the person from across metropolitan and regional Victoria. The interviews explored victims’ needs, both in the immediate aftermath of the crime, but also as they progressed through their recovery journey; the extent to which the existing system of supports for victims of crime addressed those needs; and how victim support could be improved.

What victims of crime identified as being important to them, or what would have made their experience of the system better, frequently challenged long-held assumptions about ‘what victims of crime want’ from the service system.

The insights they shared also did not necessarily imply a more intensive service response. Rather, they pointed to opportunities to design and deliver services for victims of crime in more responsive and meaningful ways. This included options for providing lighter-touch support, as long as this support was proactive and informed by the individual needs, goals and preferences of each victim of crime. The research also highlighted the need for the design and delivery of service responses to be cognisant of the impacts of trauma on victims of crime and the way in which they experience and engage with the service system.

Intensive support is not always what victims want, including victims of significant crimes

For example, many victims of crime, including some who had experienced what we would understand to be significant crime types, were comfortable receiving some or all support by phone rather than face-to-face. In fact, a model premised on face-to-face service delivery actually functioned as a barrier to engagement for some victims of crime, including those who had limited mobility due to physical injuries; those experiencing significant anxiety or psychological injury; and those with childcare responsibilities.

Where previously it was assumed that all victims of crime wanted or preferred face-to-face support, this highlighted the need to offer victims of crime choice in how they engage with services, and to identify how different modes of delivering support can either mitigate or exacerbate barriers to service engagement for individual victims of crime.

Familiarity with technology; specific communication needs that might make phone-based support less effective or unsuitable; and personal preference, should therefore all be considered when working  with a victim of crime to determine whether phone-based support is the right option for them.

‘Victim-led’ and ‘victim-initiated are not the same thing

Phone-based support should not, however, be designed around relying on victims of crime to pick up the phone and ask for help – and here, the research made a clear distinction between a service response that is ‘victim-led’ and one that is ‘victim-initiated’.

Where victims of crime were managing well or had established a strong rapport with their caseworker, they were sometimes able to seek help when they needed it. One victim of crime described calling his caseworker when he needed to talk, particularly in the weeks following the crime, as he worked through his experience and how it had impacted him.

More often, however, victims of crime needed the service system to provide them with a window to ask for this support, or to assess their needs proactively and offer an appropriate response, rather than expecting victims of crime to identify and articulate these needs. There were multiple reasons why victims of crime often did not seek support when they required it – although a common issue reported by victims of crime was that they simply did not know what kinds of support were available to them.

Crucially, victims of crime also said that a regular phone call to see how they were doing reminded them that the system had an eye on their wellbeing and that they had not been forgotten. A ten-minute exchange on the phone can, therefore, have a powerful impact on the extent to which a victim of crime feels that their experience of harm has been recognised and validated by the system.

Phone-based support can also function as an important opportunity for victim support practitioners to reassess client needs and adjust supports accordingly – both in circumstances where a victim’s needs may have escalated, but also where they are coping well and may be ready to take the next step in their recovery journey, such as re-engaging with education or employment.

Information is empowering but only if suitably tailored to victims’ needs

Just as relying on victims of crime to ask for help meant that many victims of crime were often not receiving the support they needed, the provision of generic information also caused some victims of crime to have their needs go unmet.

Understandably, victims of crime often felt overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of a crime – in this context, they wanted to receive information that was relevant to their individual needs and circumstances so that they could make informed decisions. When victims of crime received generic information, it placed the burden of identifying their own support needs, and navigating a complex system to address those needs, back on them. In some cases, this resulted in victims of crime disengaging from the system entirely.

By contrast, when done well, information provision was empowering for victims of crime and provided them with a clearer sense of what to expect in relation to any subsequent criminal justice (or other legal) processes, as well as the various supports and entitlements that were available to address their needs at a particular point in time. This could include victim-specific supports, such as brokerage to address practical support needs, but more often was about connecting victims of crime with broadly available entitlements such as childcare subsidies or a mental health care plan to access subsidised counselling.

An effective ‘Victim Support System’ is not just about victim-specific services

Victims of crime also redefined what we understand to be the ‘victim support system’, to incorporate a much broader suite of services and agencies. In addition to those services which are designed and delivered specifically for victims of crime, this broader system encompassed justice system agencies; mainstream services; and other agencies with which victims of crime may need to interact in the aftermath of a crime, such as Centrelink, State Trustees and the National Disability Insurance Agency.

The research highlighted that, because the needs and circumstances of victims of crime are so diverse, so too is the breadth of agencies and services with which they need to engage. It also highlighted that, at each point of engagement, victims of crime could feel validated and well-supported, or they could be re-traumatised when interacting with an individual or service that did not understand, or even recognise, their experience of victimisation. This was true of all services and agencies. In particular, however, positive or negative interactions with legal services had a significant influence on whether a victim of crime felt supported and validated by the system overall or, conversely, felt that their experience did not matter.

Building an effective and trauma-informed victim support system is not, therefore, just about victim-specific services. It is vital to build the capacity of all services and agencies with which victims of crime are likely to interact to respond to victims of crime appropriately, including by understanding the impacts of trauma and victimisation, as well as by not minimising victims’ experiences and the harm that has been caused.

Access pathways cannot assume that all victims of crime report to police

Because victims of crime will not always report their experience to police or present to victim-specific services in the first instance, it is also crucial that services and agencies across the broader service system know where to refer victims of crime for specialist support. This is particularly true for services and organisations that work with victims of crime who face specific barriers to reporting and who were under-represented in victim services client data examined as part of the research. The other side of this equation is that victim-specific services must ensure that they have the capacity to respond to these cohorts in ways that are responsive, respectful and culturally safe.

Mainstream services can also play an important role, with one example identified through the research involving a Centrelink worker linking a victim of crime to much needed supports by encouraging them to contact a local specialist family violence service.

The research also found that, even where victims of crime do report to police, they do not always take up the offer to be referred to victim services for support. This occurred for a range of reasons, including because they were feeling overwhelmed; did not understand what was being offered; did not understand the extent to which they have been impacted by the crime and may require support; or feared that there would be negative implications if they engaged with services, with the latter being particularly true for research participants from migrant backgrounds and those who experienced a crime in the workplace.

Again, this highlights the need for the full breadth or services and agencies to which victims of crime may present at different points in their recovery journey to have the capacity to identify and refer victims of crime to specialist support, including where they may not have taken up a referral previously.

Smarter service design and delivery means listening to victims of crime

The need for proactive support; choice in how victims of crime engage with services; tailored information provision; and improved capability to identify, respond and refer across the service system, are all examples of service delivery which is smarter, rather than simply more intensive.

These examples, and others identified through the research, confirmed the importance of engaging directly with service users to understand what would improve their experience, rather than designing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ service response that is based on assumptions about what victims of crime want, and that treats victims of crime as a homogeneous group when in fact their needs and circumstances are highly varied.

In the second post in this series, the CIJ will consider the circumstances in which more intensive service provision is absolutely crucial to supporting individuals and families, not only to recover from their experience of crime, but also to address factors that make them more vulnerable to future victimisation and harm.

A resource for practitioners, service providers and policymakers that summarises our research findings and key practice insights is available here.

Riley Ellard, Senior Adviser, Research and Advocacy

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