- 1 DEFINING CRIME & VICTIMS
- 2 NEEDS OF VICTIMS
- 3 STAGES OF VICTIMIZATION
- 4 DEALING WITH EMOTIONS
- 5 OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP
- 6 TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF
- 7 CONCLUSION
No group or individual is exempt from the possibility of becoming a victim of a violent crime. A victim can be anyone; no matter gender, age, socio economic status, religion, or ethnicity. As such, being victimized is never planned, rarely foreseen, and often unavoidable.
As much as victims can differ, so can their response to their victimization including injuries, emotional suffering, and recovery time. Some people may be affected in the short term, while others will carry their physical and emotional wounds for life.
Being a victim is a difficult reality. There are a variety of programs and services available to help those in these types of situations, but friend and family support is equally, if not more, important than any type of professional help. This booklet is designed to help friends and family members of individuals who are victims of violent crime.
DEFINING CRIME & VICTIMS
A violent crime can be defined as a crime in which the offender uses or threatens to use violent force against the victim. Violent crime can come in many forms, most commonly; sexual or physical assault, or murder, amongst others.
A victim, in the traditional sense, is an individual who has been harmed, injured, or killed as the result of a crime, accident, or other event. However, when it comes to victims of violent crime, family members of the victim, including spouses, siblings, parents, or children, can also be considered victims, especially in terms of homicide cases. An individual doesn’t necessarily need to be physically injured to be classified as a victim, the use of threats can be enough to cause emotional or psychological suffering in an individual and classify them as a victim. No two crimes are the same, and as such, no two victims are the same.
NEEDS OF VICTIMS
Although no two victims are the same, there seems to be a general list of needs that each victim requires. The main three are:
- SAFETY: Thoughts of personal safety will increase after being victimized. Ways to improve this can include: changing locks on doors and windows, installing an alarm system, changing personal routines, taking a self defence course, or even changing jobs or residences.
- INFORMATION: Victims do not want to be left in the dark. They deserve to be kept up to date on the latest findings and processes relating to their case.
- SUPPORT THROUGHOUT THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: The criminal justice system can be incredibly difficult and confusing to those thrust into it through no fault of their own, and the victim may need personal and emotional support throughout the process, as well as help and support in understanding the criminal justice system process.
Five additional commonly described needs are:
- FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE: Financial assistance may be needed to help cover the costs incurred as the result of the crime, including property damage, medical costs, counselling/ therapy, funeral expenses etc.
- COUNSELLING: Many crime victims require professional help in order to help them move forward with their lives. This is especially true in terms of child victims, for which outside professional support is especially important, to help them realize that what happened wasn’t their fault.
- ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF VICTIMIZATION: The victim is as much a part of the offense as the offender; however they are often left on the side-lines. This lack of acknowledgement is insensitive in cases where the victim wishes to play a role, and can result in what is known as secondary victimization.
- VICTIM INPUT OPPORTUNITIES: Criminal proceedings are very offender based, and the victim’s story is often left to the Crown Attorney to describe. However, many victims would like an opportunity to have a voice and be involved in the criminal justice process. Because of this need, there several opportunities victims to do just that. Examples include victim impact statements and attending parole hearings
- ASSISTANCE IN FINDING APPROPRIATE VICTIM SERVICES AND PROGRAMS: There are a lot of victim services out there and it can be a challenge to know what exists and what would be best for one’s personal needs. Someone to assist a victim to sort through all the services and find one or two that are best for them goes a long way.
STAGES OF VICTIMIZATION
The following section outlines the stages of victimization from initial victimization to the end of the court process. This is a generalized model, as not all cases go through the court system, or go through all of the stages. However, every victim still needs help and support, and the tips and suggestions made in this article may be beneficial to any victim, regardless of their specific case.
1. INITIAL VICTIMIZATION
THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH
The first step is to report the crime to the police and assess whether or not the victim needs immediate medical attention. If the individual shows any signs of physical harm they should be taken immediately to the hospital where they will receive appropriate treatment (an ambulance will respond with the police if you report injuries). If the individual is a victim of sexual assault, the process may be more invasive and therefore more frightening as the doctors or nurses will want to gather evidence including: bodily fluids and skin cells (commonly found under the victim’s nails). Having a close friend, family member, or other support person nearby can be calming and reassuring in this uncomfortable situation.
Even if the victim does not suffer any physical harm, they may be in need of mental health assistance. The experience of being a victim can be traumatizing and everyone acts in different ways and goes through different emotions. If you think your loved one is in need of mental health assistance don’t hesitate to call a distress line, call their doctor, or go to the hospital. Some police services also have Victim Crisis Units which could assist the victim by providing immediate crisis counselling.
DEALING WITH POLICE
Crimes are not always reported to the police. It can be difficult, especially in cases of sexual assault, to admit what you have suffered through. However informing the police is important, not only because it can help protect others, but also because it can bring closure to the victim. Knowing that the offender has been recognized, punished, and sentenced can be healing in an emotional way. That being said, admitting to police what happened and having to go over your traumatic experience again can be terrifying.
If your loved one is afraid of going to the police, offer to go with them. Police officers now receive victim sensitivity training and are more sympathetic to victim’s needs than ever before. They can be a wealth of information and support both before and after the trial. Going to the police is important for every victim of crime; please try to encourage your loved one to take this step and reassure them of the importance of doing so.
Victims of crime can be hurt not only physically and emotionally, but also financially. From acquired injuries resulting in medical costs, to damage of personal property, or even unexpected funeral costs, anything is possible. In these cases there are funding programs available across Canada. The majority of Canadian provinces have crime compensation funds (forms and guides on how to fill them out can be easily found online), but there are also other means to financial aid including emergency funding, workers compensation, and disability programs amongst others. It is recommended to look into these programs as soon as possible since applications generally need to be made within a certain timeframe after the occurrence of the crime. For more information on these types of services, including links to criminal injuries compensation forms, please refer to the Guide to Financial Assistance for Victims of Crime, also located on the Victims of Violence Website.
2. COURT PROCESS
The court process is made up of many steps, and each process differs in every case. As a friend or family member of a victim it is up to you to help them in whatever way you can through each of these stages, remembering that what they need most is to feel included and supported throughout the entire process.
Once an offender has been arrested and or charged by the police some Canadian courthouses offer victim/assistance programs to help explain to victims what is happening and what to expect next. As a friend or a family member, you can help the victim in finding a suitable program to help in this process. If the court in your area does not offer these services, talk to the police or Crown Attorney about where to find a similar service. Victim services with the police may be another option to turn to for finding suitable assistance.
Offenders are frequently arrested and then released with a promise to appear on the date of their trial. Sometimes however offenders are arrested and held in custody, in which case they would attend a bail hearing (usually within 24 or 48 hours.) At the bail hearing, the judge determines whether the accused should be held in custody until trial, or if s/he can be released back into the general public after a payment (bail) is paid to the court.
At this stage, the victim may need assistance in understanding what is happening, understanding the terminology, and knowing what to expect next. The victim may also need help in making an appointment with the Crown Attorney before the bail hearing in order to get help with these explanations, as well as to indicate any concerns s/he may have. Any concerns that the victim has about the accused being released on bail should be taken to the Crown Attorney beforehand so that he/she can take them into consideration during the bail hearing.
Once the offender has been charged, the Crown Attorney and defense lawyer will frequently meet in what is referred to as the pre-trial meeting. The point of this meeting is to discuss the case, exchange information and evidence, and try to come to an agreement on how the case should proceed. These meetings may also include the judge to clarify any questions and/or inform him/her about their intentions.
At this stage, the defence lawyer and Crown Attorney may also negotiate a plea bargain. A plea bargain is an assurance the accused will plead guilty to a crime and in return the Crown may agree to, among other things, withdraw some of the charges, ask the court for a light sentence, agree to proceed summarily rather than by way of indictment, or reduce the charge to a lesser offense. They may also, once their plan has been made, meet with the judge to ensure that all parties are on the same page. One of the main reasons plea bargains occur is because it saves money and time as a trial does not need to occur. It also guarantees a conviction where if someone were to go to trial there is a chance they may not be convicted. Many are critical of the plea bargaining process however because offenders are often seen as getting off easy for agreeing to plead guilty. This can be especially challenging for victim to understand; for instance some victims may ask “why would someone only be charged with manslaughter when they clearly planned the murder?” This means that it is incredibly important that the victim is informed of this process, and why these decisions were made. As a support person, you may be required to ensure that this information is provided to the victim and properly explained.
This is also the stage where arrangements should be made for the upcoming criminal trial in terms of work, child care, and transportation if needed. Friends and family members can help make suitable arrangements on behalf of the victim where required, or offer to take on these responsibilities themselves; hiring a babysitter or taking care of children yourself, or, if you are a co-worker, offering to cover work shifts or finding others to do so can be very helpful.
This is probably the most stressful of the stages for the victim, and can be incredibly difficult since the offender is close by. Court houses today frequently have a special room reserved for victims and their families to wait before the trial. This prevents the victim from coming into contact with the offender and perhaps being intimidated or harmed further.
Having a close friend, family member, or court support person with the victim throughout the trial can be very helpful. The emotional support and strength that a support person can provide is invaluable. Accompany them everywhere, even if they just want to take a breath of fresh air outside – they should not be left alone at this time. If they seem confused as to what is going on, approach the Crown Attorney, a V/WAP staff, or the police on their behalf.
The victim has the choice to play an important role in sentencing by submitting a victim impact statement. The decision to do so is not necessarily easy, but can be beneficial both to the court in making their decision as well as being emotionally satisfying to the victim. Although the victim impact statement needs to be in the victim’s own words, they can have help with writing it. The statement should be short, concise, and focus on all the ways in which the crime has impacted the victim’s life: financially, physically, emotionally, etc. The process for submitting a victim impact statement varies by territory and province however a form is generally obtained through either the Crown, the police, or a court based Victim/Witness Assistance Program. Victim/Witness support programs operating in the court house can assist victims in writing their victim impact statements. For more information regarding victim impact statements please see the Victim Input Opportunities booklet posted on the Victims of Violence website.
POST-SENTENCING AND PAROLE
Although the criminal trial is over, the process may continue for years to come. The offender may appeal the decision, perhaps multiple times, which thrusts the victim back into the process all over again. The victim will also be faced with parole hearings for perhaps many years after the original criminal trial.
Parole is the early supervised release of an imprisoned offender. Parole is based on a set of conditions that if broken will result in the offender being returned to prison. For offenders serving a sentence of two years or more (a federally classified offender), it is the Parole Board of Canada’s (PBC) responsibility to decide whether or not an offender is released on parole. For offenders serving a sentence of two years less a day (provincially classified offenders) the responsibility varies by province; Ontario and Quebec have their own provincial parole boards and the PBC deals with the rest of Canada. Victims wishing to remain involved in the process after the offender has been sentenced may submit a victim statement to CSC or the PBC. A victim statement is similar to a victim impact statement that is used at sentencing, but has more open guidelines allowing the victim to speak more broadly about the effect of the offense on their life. Victims can also speak about specific concerns they have regarding the security of the offender and/or specific issues that institutional programming may help to address. For more information about victim statements at parole hearings, please see the Guide to Victim Input Opportunities.
In order for the victim to be involved in the process and to be informed of the opportunity to submit a victim statement they must first register with CSC or the PBC. Once registered victims are entitled to receive information and ongoing updates about their offender including when their sentence began, the length of the sentence, the institution they are serving their sentence in, notice if they move institutions, dates that the offender may be eligible for parole, the decision as to whether or not the offender has been granted parole, the institutional programming the offender is participating in, etc. Additionally, victims are now eligible to receive a written annual report on the offender’s program participation and serious disciplinary infractions. Further information may be provided if it is found that the victim’s interest outweighs a possible invasion of the offender’s privacy.
Registering as a victim requires the completion of a short 1.5 page application: Application to Register as a Victim. You may also call CSC at 1-866-806-2275 or the PBC at 1-866-789-4636 and they will fill out the form with you over the phone and send a completed copy to you for you to sign.
For victims who wish to attend a parole hearing and present their victim statement personally they must apply to attend the hearing by filling out a Request to Observe a Parole Hearing Form. They may also apply to the Victims Travel Fund for help with associated costs for their travel expenses. The victim may need to be accompanied to a parole hearing. Like with the criminal trial, there is funding available to help the victim and a support person with their travel costs so that they may attend. Applications must be made at least 30 days in advance by completing an Application For Financial Assistance for Victims and Support Persons to Attend Parole Board of Canada Hearing.
3. POST- CRIMINAL JUSTICE PROCESS
Even though the trial and criminal justice process is over, the victimization is not. Much of the support that the victim had throughout the criminal justice process may no longer be available at this point. Many victims complain of this experience; suddenly being left without the support and services they had before.
There are however lots of community services and supports that exist which can still assist the victim on their road to recovery. Generally the best programs are those relating to the specific type of crime that the victim was a part of, but they aren’t necessarily the easiest to find. Friends and family should help the victim in their search for an appropriate service. The police or court may have made some suggestions, but if not, a family doctor may know where to direct you, or a victims service may have further resources to help you find the most suitable organization.
DEALING WITH EMOTIONS
Victims of violent crime can go through a roller coaster of emotions that will likely change from one day to the next. Common emotions are: emptiness, numbness, grief, shock/disbelief, shame, guilt, or self blame, feelings of helplessness, panic, and feeling detached and/or separated from others, tired, and depressed.
Outbursts of anger are also very common, and often they will be directed towards friends and family members. This may be frustrating, and often seem uncalled for, but it is important to remain patient and understand that it is not really you that is the cause behind the anger. The victim is unable to direct her/his anger towards the offender and other venues or individuals may be inappropriate. As a close friend or family member you are likely to be the target of the anger only because you will be the most likely to understand and forgive. All victims, at some point, experience anger and just need to let it out. All you can do is be patient and understand that, no matter what is said, the anger is not truly directed at you.
OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP
The victim may also go through a stage of denial, wanting to avoid everything about the event. Or, they may be unwilling to discuss it for fear of burdening others with their problems and fears. Everyone reacts differently and takes different amounts of time to adjust. The following tips are simple ways that you can help them on their way to adjusting to a new life.
- Be there to talk about it. Even if you don’t know what to say in response, just listen. Getting their emotions and story off their chest can help in the emotional healing process.
- When they do talk don’t be judgmental, believe in them and their story.
- Don’t try to tell them that you know how they feel.
- Exercise can also be beneficial to the healing process. Make plans to do physical activities together, whether it be just be evening walks, signing up for a class, or going to the gym together.
- Eating properly is another important aspect of recovery. Cooking and meal preparation can seem like such a huge effort. If you are worried about someone not eating properly, take over a couple of meals that they can just stick in the fridge and eat when they are hungry.
- Spend time with them. It’s hard to know what to say to a victim, and as such they may unintentionally be ignored and left alone. Take the time to do things with them, whether it be going out somewhere or even just sitting and watching T.V. together.
- If they don’t want to talk about it, try to convince them to keep a journal so they have somewhere to let out how they feel.
- Try to help enforce a daily routine, even if it’s a simple one and not the same as it used to be. Structure is important. In cases in which children are victims, this is especially important as they are easily able to detect when you are stressed and upset.
- Be patient. This can be a difficult and frustrating experience, but it is important to remember that people recover and adjust at different rates.
TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF
Being a victim is never easy, but neither is being the friend or family member of a victim. As a close friend or loved one you have the potential to play a huge role in the recovery and progression of a victim’s life. However, the experience can be exhausting and it is important to remember yourself in this process. Feelings of guilt and helplessness are to be expected, and it is ok to take a step back and take a break. You can only be of help to the victim if you take care of yourself as well.
The process of being a victim is lengthy, intimidating and incredibly stressful. Police, legal professionals, and support workers are there to help along every step of the way, but having a family member, friend, or other support person to help the victim throughout the process is invaluable. Just remember that the process can be equally trying for you as the support person, and you can only help your loved one as long as you also take the time to look after yourself.
Feedback about our Victim Library is greatly appreciated.
Please vofv(at)victimsofviolence(dot)on.ca if you have any comments, or to report errors or omissions.