written by Arlene Miller & Sydni Ewell
Read Arlene's story of why she became a victim advocate below:
A question that I am often asked is: what made me become a Victim Advocate? I have several reasons why I love being an advocate. There is a lot that people may not understand about the role of an advocate and how important that role is to the victims/survivors as well as their family and friends.
Advocacy can be defined as speaking and acting for change or justice on behalf of oneself or another person or cause. As a sexual assault victim advocate, it is important that we bring awareness to the rights of victims and how we continue to advocate for their rights. One of the most valuable tools of advocacy is identifying what the individual views as necessary to protect their rights and help with asserting those rights. This will look different for every person, so as an advocate, we are there to safeguard their right to make decisions.
However, while this a critical part of advocacy, in most cases that I have worked, advocacy has become so much more than the dictionary definition. I have often become the victim’s security and safety blanket. Victims are often alone when I see them, and they feel even more alone after having just experienced one of the most horrifying things that can happen to a person. Many times, they have not even told anyone of the sexual assault because of fear and shame. As an advocate, I am an unbiased person that is there for them and the person that can hold their hand if they need it. I am the person that can help them with getting resources to help them cope with what they have been through. More importantly, I am that person that is there to listen to them. Listening to the victim is vital. The advocate may be the first or second person that the victim has had a chance to speak to about what has happened to them, and how we respond to them can have a significant impact on who they choose to tell going forward.
Whether it is court, hospital accompaniment, or an office/phone conversation, it is important that I let the victim know that I am there for them. I am there to listen to what they have to say, and I believe what they are telling me.
My role as a Court Accompaniment Advocate is attending all the court hearings and explaining the judicial process to the survivor and, at times, their family. Often victims are not aware of their rights after being victimized, and it can be overwhelming to go through the reporting and legal process if they decide to report. I am there to help them through that. We as advocates are responsible for letting individuals know what their rights are, which include:
The right to be treated with dignity, respect, and sensitivity by law enforcement and other officials.
The right to be informed of the following events:
Arrest and arraignment of offender
Bail and pretrial proceedings
Release or escape of the offender
Probation or parole hearings
Dismissal of charges
The right to protection from threats, intimidation, or retaliation during criminal proceedings
The right to a speedy trial
The right to enforcement of victims’ rights
The heart of what we do as advocates is for the safety and support of the victim, and at the core, we listen and believe, provide information, and help make referrals for specific needs. Sexual assault victims who choose to report may be catapulted into a legal process that can be difficult to navigate, and so advocates are there not only to inform and protect their rights but to continue to be a support system for them. I am expected to do whatever I can to make the process easier for the victim. Facing their abuser can take a tremendous toll on a victim. When they are testifying on the stand, I usually will tell a survivor beforehand to look at me or focus their attention on something on the wall.
On a hospital accompaniment, there is no telling how long the advocate will be there. One thing I do to get the victim comfortable is explain what will be happening while at the hospital and what their rights are. Many times, I must call and advocate for a safe place for the victim to stay once they are discharged from the hospital. More importantly, I am working on getting to the point when we can start having a conversation and getting the victim laughing or smiling. This can help take their mind off what is happening around them and what they just experienced.
When I meet a victim in the office for the first time, I am also openly working on getting them to trust me and relax as much as possible. I let each victim know that I am there for them and to help them get through this traumatic experience. By working together with the victim, I help ensure that they have all the tools to make informed decisions. I let them know to call me if they have any questions or need help with services. I also often get calls from survivors that are having a rough day. I welcome those calls gladly because it warms my heart that they can talk about what is going on with them and that they feel comfortable enough to call me to do so.
Now let us go back to why I choose to do this line of work. I love being an advocate! I feel that this is my calling. I myself am a survivor of related traumatic experiences and, while every case is different, I know the importance of letting someone know what happened to you, getting checked out by a forensic nurse, having the decision of reporting or not reporting the incident, understanding the judicial process, learning coping skills, and most of all knowing that there are resources and people that care and want to help during this traumatic time in your life.
I have been asked, how do I continue to do this type of work? My answer is that this is also therapeutic for me when I meet and work with a survivor that is thankful for the help that I was able to support and give them. If I could help every person that has been assaulted that would be wonderful. Knowing that I cannot, getting the information out, and educating both survivors and those that have not experienced an assault is especially important to me. To see a survivor smile after what they have endured is priceless