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Community-Based Advocates

According to the Center for Sex Offender Management, community-based advocates "work in an independent, usually nonprofit, organization dedicated to assisting victims of sexual assault."6 Victims are generally referred to community-based advocates by rape crisis hotlines, hospitals, or law enforcement agencies. However, referrals also may come through prosecuting attorney's offices, educational institutions, faith-based organizations, social service agencies, or victims' friends, relatives, or colleagues.

Community-Based Versus Systems-Based Advocates

Here are a few of the differences between systems- and community-based advocates, according to the Center for Sex Offender Management:

  • Community-based advocates serve victims regardless of whether they report to the criminal justice system; systems-based advocates generally serve victims whose cases are in the criminal justice system.
  • Systems-based advocates are not able to offer victims confidential services; community-based advocates typically can.
  • Some systems-based advocates work with all crime victims; community-based advocates are specially trained in working with victims of sexual assault.

For more differences, check "Working with Sexual Assault Victim Advocates," in the Center's The Role of the Victim and Victim Advocate in Managing Sex Offenders: A Training Curriculum.

Read on for information about—

Roles and Responsibilities

Community-based advocates champion the rights of victims. They provide crisis intervention and accompany victims during medical and legal appointments and interviews. Advocates also give victims information on anonymous reporting options and sexual assault forensic exams (including timelines for exams). Additionally, advocates reinforce explanations offered by health care, law enforcement, and prosecution personnel and support victims' friends and family, as requested.

Advocates also help victims7

  • Find lock replacement, transportation, and childcare resources.
  • Access health services.
  • Obtain professional counseling.
  • Find culturally specific resources.
  • Receive followup care.
Sexual Assault Follow-up Evaluation

The Sexual Assault Follow-up Evaluation clinic program at the Medical University of South Carolina provides medical care to women regardless of whether they report the assault to police. In addition, the clinic provides followup care 6 weeks and 6 months after the assault. Such care includes reassessment and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, long-term followup blood testing for HIV and hepatitis B, and referrals for mental health treatment and other counseling services. The clinic includes a multidisciplinary team of OB-GYN professionals, staff from the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, and staff from the local rape crisis center.

Source: Dean G. Kilpatrick, Anna Whalley, and Christine Edmunds, "Chapter 10: Sexual Assault," National Victim Assistance Academy, 2002.

Crisis Intervention

Crisis intervention is the immediate support given to a victim after he or she discloses a sexual assault. An advocate's first concern should be for the victim's physical safety. Until it is clear that the victim is not in physical danger or in need of emergency medical services, other issues should be put aside. However, medical and safety needs may not always be immediately obvious. Victims who are in physical shock may be unaware of injuries they have sustained or the dangers they still face.

A parallel concern should be whether the victim feels safe. Even with law enforcement or security personnel present, a victim may not feel safe if—

  • The victim sees or hears the assailant being interviewed by police.
  • The victim is being interviewed at the scene of the attack.
  • The victim is not given time to replace torn or lost clothing.
  • The victim is hungry, cold, and uncomfortable.
  • The assailant has not been apprehended and has threatened to return.
  • The victim knows the perpetrator.
  • The victim's family, friends, or witnesses are threatened.

Ask victims where they would feel safest talking to you and move to that location.

Cell Phones

Consider carefully whether cell phones can safely be used by hotline responders. Although they are a great convenience for volunteers and staff members who answer calls 24/7, cell phones have some drawbacks, including the possibilities of diminished privacy or unreliability.

Some potential solutions? Use the phone like a pager: get the caller's number and return the call from a landline phone. Or, after assessing victim safety, inform victims of potential privacy issues due to cell phone use and let them decide how they want to proceed.

Source: Toby Shulruff, "Safety Bet," Reshape: Issue 20, Sexual Assault Coalition Resource Sharing Project, 2006.

Effective advocates anticipate victims' immediate and long-term needs and assist them in making informed decisions. To provide personalized services to both primary and secondary victims, consider assigning co-advocates. One could concentrate on the needs of the victim and the other could assist family and friends, and work with allied service providers. The pair of advocates may come from the same agency or, ideally, from two different agencies that provide different but complementary services (e.g., a rape crisis center advocate and a staff member from a culturally specific agency or an agency that serves individuals with disabilities or elder victims).8 Also consider assigning the same advocate from the victim's first contact with the advocate until services are no longer needed.

Medical Accompaniment

Advocates support victims during medical forensic exams or when victims seek followup medical care. To ensure that medical advocacy works effectively, make sure your SART develops activation protocols that address jurisdictional issues, HIPAA, multiple exam facilities, and timelines for first responders.

Once victims consent to advocate support during medical care, advocates can9

  • Explain SART member roles, including confidentiality rights and limitations, according to statute.
  • Assess victims' sense of safety at the time of medical discharge and help to arrange for safe housing, if needed.
  • Reinforce explanations by sexual assault forensic examiners and law enforcement.
  • Update family and friends in the waiting room, on request.
  • Offer comfort items after the medical-legal examination is completed (e.g., toiletry items, snacks to minimize the side effects of prophylactic medications).
  • Provide replacement clothing for clothing collected as evidence.
  • Arrange for childcare, when applicable.
  • Provide verbal and written information on community resources, including crime victim compensation assistance.
  • Confirm that victims understand their discharge instructions, including any appointments needed to address ongoing medical concerns.
  • Provide followup calls, with victim consent.

Informational Brochures

Many community- and government-based agencies provide informational packets and brochures to inform and help victims during the healing process. Providing victims with written information on self-care, reporting their assaults, medical forensic exams, criminal justice, immigration, advocacy or counseling, and culturally specific services can go a long way in strengthening a SART's victim-centered response.

For examples of brochures that can be adapted locally, see OVC's Sexual Assault Victimization and the Victim Rights Brochure (Word) in this toolkit.

Accompaniment During Investigative Interviews

Sexual assault victims can feel especially apprehensive about law enforcement interviews. They may be concerned that law enforcement will interrogate rather than interview them. They may have had negative experiences with law enforcement in the past. They may have been using recreational drugs prior to their assault. They may not remember all the facts due to alcohol-induced sexual assaults. Or they may have outstanding warrants and fear being arrested.

You can offset these concerns by addressing the victim's concerns proactively. For example, the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Adult Sexual Assault Response Protocol recommends that, unless there is a warrant against the victim for a serious offense (e.g., robbery, homicide), the warrant should be dealt with at a later time rather than at the time the victim seeks help after being sexually assaulted. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program Procedures state that commanding officers should consider delaying taking action against victims for misconduct before or during the assault (e.g., underage drinking) until after the investigation of the sexual assault is complete.

Generally, law enforcement conducts two interviews:

  • Preliminary interview: The responding or reporting officer generally conducts the preliminary interview at the exam facility or the crime scene.
  • Indepth interview: A uniformed officer or detective conducts this more detailed interview to determine all the facts about the assault (e.g., confirm the elements of the crime, identify witnesses, gather additional information/evidence from the victim).

Jurisdictions differ as to whether advocates or support persons can be present with victims during indepth interviews. In California, a state statute gives victims the right to have an advocate or another support person at any interview by law enforcement authorities, district attorneys, or defense attorneys. Law enforcement or the district attorney can exclude the support person, however, if they determine that his or her presence would be detrimental to the purpose of the interview.10

SART models that do not support advocates during interviews generally want to ensure that privileged communications are maintained as such. Professor Doug Beloof at Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon cautions against advocates attending interviews because they could be subpoenaed to testify against victims should their recollections differ from victims.11 However, in some SART models, law enforcement agencies videotape interviews, which can reduce the concern that advocates would be called to testify. In other jurisdictions that exclude advocates from interviews, advocates can accompany victims to the law enforcement agency and provide support directly after the interview.

Legal Accompaniment

Legal advocacy is about assisting and supporting victims as they interact with justice systems. Legal advocates provide victims with information about criminal and civil justice and victims' rights statutes, provide referral assistance for attorneys, assist victims with filing orders of protection, work to ensure victims are treated fairly and respectfully by justice personnel, and partner with government-based victim witness assistants to coordinate victim support.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office recommends that community-based advocates who accompany victims to court should coordinate their services with the prosecutor's victim assistance program. To ensure effective collaboration between community- and government-based programs, Kitsap Sexual Assault Center in Port Orchard, Washington, has a memorandum of understanding with the prosecuting attorney's office. This is especially helpful because the community-based legal advocate is located at the prosecutor's office but maintains privileged communications as an employee of the rape crisis center.12

Advocates who help victims with legal issues can—

  • Explain trial language, courtroom procedure, and courtroom etiquette in ways that victims can easily understand.
  • Keep victims informed about key dates and stages in the criminal case.
  • Accompany victims to defense interviews, prosecutor appointments, and court proceedings.
  • Assist victims with physical disabilities by notifying prosecuting attorneys of victims' needs so they can ask the court, in pretrial motions, to make any necessary accommodations in advance of trials.
  • Assist victims with victim compensation applications and victim impact statements (See Critical Issues: Victim Impact Statements and Critical Issues: Crime Victim Compensation, in this toolkit).
  • Assist victims with media requests.
  • Work to ensure victims' voices are heard at various case decision points (e.g., offender release, charging, plea agreements, sentencing).
  • Arrange transportation for court-related appointments.