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Ethics is knowing the difference: Being an ethical agency-based victim services professional

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.” – Potter Stewart

Since the President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime was published in 1982, the field of victim service providers has expanded enormously – we are in non-profits and police agencies, prosecutors’ offices and hospitals, correctional facilities and campuses, on military bases and in private practice. I am always reminded of the Fred Rogers plea to “look for the helpers” whenever a disaster strikes. This is never more accurate than when talking about victim services. Whenever you see a mass shooting, school shooting, news of a sexual assault, or hear of a horrific incident of child abuse, rest assured that there is an army of trained and dedicated victim service providers who arrive to help through a person’s worst day. With growth comes pain points, however. As we grow in our size and scope, it’s critical that we, as victim service providers, be clear that we all don’t share the same roles.

This concept is particularly salient for victim service providers who work within a criminal justice agency – and to a similar extent, any other organization whose mission is not explicitly to serve victims of criminal trauma. These agency-based providers are essential. They provide first-in-time services to people whose loved one was murdered, young people who were sexually assaulted on their campus, and critical information and support as a victim of domestic violence or child abuse prepares to testify against the person who terrorized them. And yet the truth remains that our agency- and organization-based personnel are there to serve the agency or organization first. Their role is – fundamentally – to help the victim work with the agency or organization, and provide critical support and information to the victim as they do it.

Are we really, truly serving a victim of crime to the best of our ability if that person doesn’t understand the limitations of our role? There is a way for us all to fix this – and in the process, provide true wraparound and holistic services for victims of crime. Here are five things you can do today as an agency- or organization-based victim services professional to ensure that you are providing the most ethical services possible for the crime victims you are serving:

  1. Be transparent about your role. Victim service providers who work in agencies and organizations have a dual relationship. They are tasked with serving the crime victim and with serving the agency’s goals and interests. It’s an important and critical dual relationship – but it is a dual relationship. There is no shame in that relationship – so let’s be honest about it. Do you have to report what the victim tells you to someone else? What is your goal for this victim of crime that may be different than the victim’s goal? What are the boundaries of your role? As with every agency-based victim services staff person, there is a point when your services end and another person’s services start. Be clear about where that point is so that the victims you are trying to serve are able to trust your words and actions.

  2. Collaborate, don’t compete. I have been in the field of victim services for twenty years and I have yet to figure out why victim service providers insist on competing with each other. Believe me, there are enough survivors of violence, abuse, and treachery to go around. Agency-based victim service providers have a big role to play in this – some of us tend to insist that we are all that a victim survivor needs. That is just not true. Build relationships with the community-based victim and survivor serving agencies in your community. If you don’t have any, look to non-traditional service providers, e.g., mental health agencies, immigration organizations, and advocacy organizations. If there aren’t any of those, find community activists and help build them! Victims and survivors are going to benefit the most when there is a continuum of services that meets their range of needs – they need more than just agency-based services. (And they need more than just community-based services – but that’s another blog!)

  3. Maintain your skills and build new competencies. It has become a trope that the world has changed drastically in the last 18 months, but it is true! A global pandemic, attacks on the American democracy, toxic divisiveness in American culture, and an increasing awareness among White people of the deep-seeded racial inequality that exists in American culture are just some drivers of a shifting society. And, as in any profession, victim service providers in agencies have an ethical duty to maintain competency in these areas – and many others. Are you a White person who doesn’t understand what people mean when they say “anti-racist”? Pick up a book and learn. Do you not understand cyber and internet crime? Do some research – it won’t be long until you have a client who is navigating the dark world of a cyberattack. Was your last training in trauma and brain science in 1995? It’s time to take a course. Because we work for large agencies and organizations – many of them government affiliated – people tend to believe that we sit in our jobs and get comfortable, never expanding our skills or the scope of our services. Prove them wrong! Be the most well-trained and competent person in the room – and if you’re not, find the person who is!

  4. Hold your non-victim service providing colleagues accountable. In my opinion, this is the most important role of an agency-based victim service provider, but it can also be the most difficult. Do you work in a police agency? Great. You have the opportunity to see the breadth and depth of service that law enforcement officers provide to our communities. You also have the ethical responsibility to be an active upstander when your law enforcement colleagues are doing things that are not trauma-informed and victim-centered. Do you work in a prosecutor’s office? Fantastic! You are on the front lines of ensuring that the community and crime victims see the offender held accountable. But you also have the ethical responsibility to ensure that the prosecutors in your office are taking the victim survivor’s perspective into account when making charging, plea bargaining, trial, and sentencing decisions. As someone who spent a lot of time working in a variety of government agencies serving crime victims, I know how exhausting it can be to be the only person in the room that has the back of the victim. I feel in my bones for you how easy it is to let the “harmless” jokes slide, to stay quiet just this once, to try to see “everyone’s point of view” when the victim is unhappy with the decisions your agency or organization has made. But it is our fundamental job to be that voice for the victim in the rooms where they are not. If we’ve done our job, proved our competency, built the relationships in our agency, our colleagues will come to respect our position. If they don’t, maybe what folks are saying about our systems needing wholesale reform isn’t wrong.

  5. Serve all victims in your realm of service. This can be a tough one for agency-based victim service staff but it’s our ethical responsibility to serve all people who were harmed by violence and criminal behavior – even if that violence and criminal behavior came from our own agency. Who is providing victim and survivor services to the victims of police brutality? Who is showing up for military survivors who were assaulted by military personnel? What happens to those campus survivors whose cases aren’t adequately investigated in their campus Title IX offices? It should be us, as the victim service providers who serve that agency. If that isn’t possible, it’s up to us to find someone else who can provide that service. We need to acknowledge that sometimes the people with whom we work do harm. Instead of automatically siding with our colleagues, find that victim the help they need and the help they can trust.

Ethics and ethical leadership for agency- and organization-based victim services personnel does not have to feel impossible. It can be – it is – a series of simple steps that each of us can take by ourselves to make sure that we are providing the most ethical and straightforward services to victims in our realm. Take the ethical leap forward. Contact me to discuss more about how we all can be ethical leaders in victim services. Like me on Facebook and Instagram, follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, and sign up to get notifications if I post a new blog.


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