Saturday, February 27, 2010

Help for Victims of Crime

- Barbara Castle-Farmer -

The Victim Support Programme (VSP) was started by Business Against Crime (BAC) in 1997, and remains one of its flagship projects. Over the years strong, sustained relationships have been built with the South African Police Service (SAPS), the Department of Community Safety and Nicro regarding the provision of standardised training, mentoring and monitoring of victims of crime.

The help offered by VSPs can mean the difference between hope and despair for rape survivors, those who suffer domestic violence and victims of other violent crimes. In cities, help might be a cellphone call away. In rural areas such as ours, it is even closer - in a ‘comfort’ room in the police station staffed by civilian volunteers.

Often volunteers are people who have either been victims of crime themselves or have seen friends of family affected by crime. Many others simply want to give something back to the community. Their training is specifically in the area of traumatic crime and they are not to be confused with Welfare or Social Services.

In the past, little attention was paid to the needs of victims of crime and violence. The focus was primarily on offenders’ rights. And this often led to victims experiencing a double dose of trauma: firstly at the hands of the perpetrator and secondly at the hands of insensitive ‘professionals’ tasked with managing the case.

In 1996, the Government adopted the National Crime Prevention Strategy with specific provision for the establishment of the national Victim Empowerment Programme.

The aims of the programme

  • to make the Criminal Justice System more understandable and accessible to victims
  • to provide a more central role for victims in crime prevention
  • to address the devastating consequences of crime and violence – for example by means of counselling and support services

Victim empowerment is also recognised as being a key to more effective justice, as empowered victims are more likely to contribute positively to the process of investigating, arresting and convicting offenders. The man responsible for Prince Albert’s Victim Support team is Inspector Eddie Hattingh.

BAC Victim support kit
From the lessons learnt from two Pilot projects (one in Rosebank, Johannesburg where volunteers dealt with 12 to 15 cases a month, and the other in Alexandra, where the average was over 80) BAC put together a victim support kit. This usually consists of step-by-step guides on the rights of victims, the training of volunteers and managers, victims’ rights, the psychological effects of trauma and the importance of good listening skills. There are also usually a number of helpful booklets, pamphlets and brochures available to help victims through the many phases of trauma. Plus there is usually a directory of services with everything from AIDS information to children's homes, legal aid bureaux, hospitals, and NGOs that deal with trauma.

Over 795 victim support rooms are currently in place at police stations throughout South Africa.

The traumatic experience of a victim of violent crime may also affect many others with whom they have contact. Known as ‘indirect’ or ‘bystander’ victims they include witnesses to the event itself as well as the families/friends/colleagues of victims. They can also be children who witness domestic violence, as well as those such as emergency personnel and the police themselves who deal with the effects of violent crime on a daily basis. All of them, both direct and indirect victims are entitled to the help offered by the Victim Support Programme.

Victims have rights
  • As part of the process to empower victims it is important to know that victims have rights. They are enshrined in the terms of the United Nations Declaration on Victims Rights and include:
  • the right to respect and dignity
  • the right to get information e.g. regarding progress of the case, name of investigating officer
  • the right to protection
  • the right to legal advice

So if you, your staff, your friends or your family are victims of – or witnesses to – a violent crime, remember that there is a Victim Support Programme and a ‘comfort’ room at our Police Station. Victims have a right to be heard and volunteers are there to listen with empathy, one-on-one, in the safety of the comfort room with no police personnel present. They are there to nurture and to comfort, to encourage and, if necessary, to refer onwards. Volunteers may also assist by helping to complete a Protection Order, accompanying victims to hospital and even supporting them in court.

A victim who has contributed to the successful arrest and conviction of an offender feels that justice has been done. And the other upside of that is that they are less likely to take the law into their own hands by themselves committing an act of violence in revenge.

Barbara Castle is a Certified Victim Support Volunteer and served six years with the Unit attached to the Hout Bay SAPS.

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