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

In this two-part series, we outline our findings from research conducted 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.

Our previous blog post reflected on the CIJ’s research with victims of crime, which pointed to a need for smarter service design and delivery. By continually improving our understanding of what victims of crime need; what they expect from the service system; and how they would like to engage with services, victim support can be more effectively targeted and tailored to the needs of individuals and families as they progress through their recovery journey.

At the same time, the research highlighted a significant subset of victims of crime for whom intensive and holistic support remained crucial.

Stepping up for victims of crime who did not have existing support networks

The CIJ’s research found, for example, that victims of crime did not always have existing support networks and that this could play out in different ways across a victim’s interactions with the service system.

In the immediate aftermath of a crime, a lack of social support networks meant that victims did not always have a safe place to go following their experience. For example, one participant in our research described how, in leaving a situation of intimate partner violence, she was required to return to her family home where violence had previously been perpetrated against her by a parent. Other victims of crime who were able to be supported by family members following their experience of crime reflected on the value of these informal supports where nothing else was available. In this way, the absence or presence of social support can mitigate or escalate the impacts of the crime itself, such as by keeping – or placing – a victim of crime in a situation where they feel unsafe or vulnerable.

Over the longer term, victims of crime who did not have strong, local support networks often struggled to manage their day-to-day needs. In fact, social isolation was identified through the research as a key determinant of the extent to which a victim was able to manage the impacts of crime, regardless of the crime type they experienced. Crucially, social isolation appeared to be self-reinforcing – the lack of a supportive social network often meant that needs went unmet and could escalate, which in turn tended to make the individual or family more socially isolated as they struggled to cope.

A robust victim support system, therefore, cannot assume that all victims of crime have existing support networks that can address immediate or longer-term needs. This means that, where social support is absent, victims of crime may require more intensive support, as well as more frequent and proactive contact from the service system to maintain a strong lens on their wellbeing and to ensure that these individuals and families do not fall through the cracks.

Working with families, including those with multiple and complex needs

The research also demonstrated the multiple ways in which crime victimisation can impact an entire family, a reality which sits at odds with a system that is currently oriented around an individual victim.

Most commonly, adult victims of crime described feeling that their capacity to parent was impaired to varying degrees. Maintaining a lens on this and providing practical support, such as facilitating parents’ access to childcare subsidies and brokerage for help with household management, was therefore crucial. This included in terms of reducing the actual impacts on children, as well as providing the adult victim of crime with space to process their experience and engage with therapeutic supports.

For one participant, a sole parent, her impaired capacity to parent her children effectively was the most significant impact of her experience of crime victimisation. This was compounded by the fact that the crime she had experienced was perpetrated by the children’s father. One of her adolescent children then subsequently started to use violence towards her. This example highlighted how, where victim support does not consider the needs of the whole family, there is potential for families to be pushed into an ongoing cycle of violence, trauma and justice system involvement. This, and other examples identified through the research, also made clear the need for family violence capability to be built across the victim support system and for risk screening to occur, even where the initial contact with the system was not in relation to family violence.

The need for whole-of-family support was particularly pronounced in families where both the adult carer and children had experienced or witnessed the crime. Within these families, primary carers were not only managing their own needs, but were also working to manage children’s stress and trauma responses. These included nightmares; difficulty concentrating; behavioural issues at school, including use of violence; fear of leaving the house; and physical symptoms, such as sleep issues and hair loss. Although these families were engaged with support to some extent, this tended to be centred around the adult victim of crime, with children often not receiving specialist therapeutic support as a victim of crime in their own right.

Interviews with practitioners also highlighted the challenges faced by victims of crime and practitioners alike where a crime is perpetrated by one family member against another. This included examples where adult children experiencing mental health issues or drug and alcohol dependency had perpetrated a violent offence against a parent. A significant limitation identified by practitioners was the system’s focus on the individual victim, which often meant that they could not meaningfully assess and manage risk within the family, including by facilitating the adult child’s access to relevant services to address underlying contributors to their offending.

Overall, the CIJ encountered a range of complex family circumstances and dynamics through the research which highlighted the different ways in which crime victimisation can create or compound issues within a family unit. Similar to the challenges involved in supporting victims of crime who do not have social support networks, the service system needs to be able to step up to provide more intensive support where multiple family members are directly or indirectly impacted by crime. The CIJ’s research suggested that this must include having the capacity and flexibility to work across the family to understand the different ways in which crime victimisation can be experienced within a family unit – both in the immediate aftermath of the crime, as well as over time.

Understanding victim support as harm prevention

As well as being oriented around an individual victim of crime, the research also pointed to a system designed primarily to respond to an isolated incident of crime. In this context, service responses had the narrow aim of returning the victim of crime to the position they were in before the crime occurred. This failed to account, however, for the complex circumstances and co-occurring needs that were often present prior to a person’s experience of crime and which make them particularly vulnerable to future victimisation and harm.

Family violence; child protection involvement; housing instability or unsafe housing; intergenerational disadvantage; previous or protracted experiences of victimisation; and family members engaged in risk-taking behaviours, were identified across a number of the interviews we conducted. This signalled a clear trajectory in some cases from victimisation to offending – reflecting wider research which indicates that this nexus is more pronounced than many assume. In fact, the broader evidence base confirms the high prevalence of prior victimisation in the lives of many people who then come into contact with the criminal justice system as offenders. A lack of adequate support early in experiences of crime – particularly where this crime involves sustained offending in the context of family violence or child sexual abuse – can have lifelong impacts which then escalate into mental health issues, substance dependence, poverty and, ultimately, offending.

Though concerning, this finding also signalled an opportunity – pointing to the capacity of the victim support system to respond as a positive intervention in a person’s life. The victim support system can do so by addressing the breadth of needs with which victims of crime present at the earliest possible point. This includes those needs that did not arise as a result of a person’s experience of victimisation, but which may leave them vulnerable to future harm if not addressed. This finding also highlighted, once again, the requirement for our system to be flexible enough to respond to the diverse needs and circumstances of victims of crime – including for victims whose needs are multiple and complex, and those who may themselves have engaged in offending behaviours.

Building a system that can respond to complexity

Victims of crime are not a homogenous group and multiple, intersecting factors will shape how a person is impacted by their experience of victimisation – including the needs with which they present to the system, as well as the level and nature of support required across their recovery journey. To deliver meaningful support to all victims of crime, the system must therefore be designed in a way that allows individuals and families to ‘step up’ into more intensive support when they need it.

While the type of crime experienced is one part of this picture, whether an individual or family requires more intensive support can also be informed by their relationship to the offender; where the crime occurred; the availability of informal supports; and a range of personal factors, including those that may make a person particularly vulnerable to further victimisation and harm. Service responses must therefore be informed by comprehensive and ongoing assessments of an individual or family’s risk and needs, with program eligibility criteria that is sufficiently flexible to enable a needs-based response.

The capacity to work holistically to address the breadth of individual and family needs – with a focus on building protective factors that can both support recovery and mitigate against future victimisation and harm – is also crucial. This means that services must be resourced and scoped a way which provides practitioners the flexibility to deliver intensive case management where it is required, as well as to work in ways that are person-centred, rather than being limited to addressing those issues that have arisen as a direct result of the crime experienced.

Most victims of crime who participated in the CIJ’s research wanted a single point of contact where they could go for information, and which could actively navigate them through the system. This goal was shared by those victims of crime who required relatively light-touch support, as well as those requiring support that was far more intensive. The research pointed to a clear need for a victim support system that is designed to respond to the breadth of victims’ needs and experiences. The research also indicated that, when holistic and needs-based support is able to be accessed, victim services can play a meaningful role in harm prevention for individuals, families and the broader community.

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