Put the Focus on Victims
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Tailoring Your Services

Having a victim-centered approach requires you to look comprehensively at victims' needs and recommend how various agencies in your SART could best provide for each need in a coordinated fashion. Such an approach might mean that you minimize the number of victim interviews, assist with restitution, provide safe places for victims to wait when they are attending court hearings, inform them about victim rights, find ways to reimburse victims for transportation or parking costs, and so forth.

To tailor your SART's services to best address sexual assault victims' needs, first consider—

Interagency Protocols

Proactively address victims' needs by developing interagency protocols and having extended partnerships with agencies serving diverse populations. By formalizing responses and expanding community alliances, you can provide victims with customized support that can go a long way in helping them attain a sense of safety and justice.

Shared Language

It is critical to develop a shared, common language for trauma terms. Language that minimizes, distorts, or obscures sexual assault can cause additional injury. The word choices of law enforcement officers, judges, advocates, parents, journalists, prosecutors, and health care professionals send messages that can either describe the reality of victims' trauma or perpetuate myths about rape that insidiously affect all victims and the criminal justice outcomes of their cases.

For example, during the 1970s, Ann Burgess and Lynda Holmstrom identified symptoms and reactions to sexual violence as rape trauma syndrome. This identification was an important development that gave attention to the impact of sexual assault, but the term "syndrome" is problematic when attempting to define trauma within a legal context. For instance, "syndrome" labels victims by a cluster of vague symptoms and behaviors. When those symptoms and accompanying behaviors are inconsistent with public expectations, jurors may view victims' conduct as evidence of their lack of credibility. To offset this, the term "counterintuitive behavior" has been used in a legal context to describe victims' responses that could differ from conventional expectations.

Vicarious Trauma

You are at risk for developing vicarious trauma as a result of your work with sexual assault victims. Symptoms of vicarious trauma are similar to those experienced by individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder and include numbing, hypervigilance, sleep difficulties, and intrusive thoughts of traumas described by victims.

Guidebook on Vicarious Trauma: Recommended Solutions for Anti-Violence Workers addresses the impact of working with victims of sexual assault and provides some potential solutions.

For more information about vicarious trauma, see Sustain Your SART in this toolkit.

Directory of Resources

Take an inventory of existing local services to document agencies that currently respond or could respond to victims of sexual assault. Then compile that information into a directory and use it as a communitywide, multidisciplinary referral tool. Halton, Canada, has a particularly unique directory because it includes a comprehensive list of community agencies and documents each agency's commitment and accountability in the response to victims (see the Halton protocol and directory online).

Compiling, screening, and organizing resources can be extremely time consuming. Even more challenging is the fact that resources can become quickly out of date. To offset this possibility, the Denver Victim Services Network created an online resource directory, which provides a comprehensive list of governmental and community-based organizations and allows users to search by services provided, victim type, language, culture, ethnicity, and other options. Service providers can request and print a report from search results and give it to victims or service providers who do not have access to the Internet.7

Written Materials

Gather written materials designed to help victims through the recovery process. In some cases, this means creating your own.

Consider developing informational brochures and pamphlets to help victims understand common reactions to sexual violence. The materials can cover coping strategies, long-term stress reactions, support systems, criminal and civil justice systems, medical issues, resources for financial assistance, and so forth. See the Resources section for examples of brochures that can be adapted to specific communities. Coping With Sexual Assault, an example of a longer document, provides information about medical, legal, and emotional issues.

Support Networks

Create a victim support network in your community. Approaches to developing victim support networks can vary.8 For example, a California SART organization facilitates a psycho-educational support group to provide participants with information on confidentiality, safety, and models of self-care. In Texas, a government-based support group, through the Dallas Police Department's Cold Case Unit, provides information and support to victims whose inactive cases have been reopened based on DNA findings (see Cold Case Program–TX, in this toolkit). In Colorado, a law enforcement advocate cofacilitates a support group with a counselor from a nonprofit agency (see Cold Case Program–CO in this toolkit.)

Confidentiality and Support Groups

Keep in mind that information shared in support groups could potentially be made public because most privilege statutes do not protect information shared in group settings.

The National Conference of State Legislature's Web site includes information about victims' rights laws in the states. Additional information on confidentiality is available in Determine Communication Standards, in this toolkit.