In 1997, as part of my studies at Anderson University, I participated in an internship with the victim advocacy program at Anderson Police Department. This article reflects on insights gained during that exercise.
When I first began my internship, I thought I understood what victim advocates did. I soon found my understanding lacking. The advocate at the Anderson Police Department, Lessa Parkison, and I have worked together since 1991. I recognized the vital role she plays in my work. The internship gave me an even greater understanding of her advocacy function. I now see the tremendous role of victim advocacy, and I recognize the need for additional dedicated advocates.
In the early ‘80's, I started investigating assaults, with a primary focus on sex crimes. Investigators commonly believed that the best way to help victims was arrest the assailant, then prosecute and put him/her in prison. I believed this as well, but as I became more involved with victims and the crimes they suffered, I saw they needed more. They needed more than justice. Too often that justice produced even more trauma for the victims through the prosecution phase. I tried with my limited time available to support the victims through this process, and relied on social workers to pick up where I left off.
When I began working assault investigations, social workers were brought in to train police officers in victimology. Initially, this training was provided by social workers with a seemingly critical attitude toward police officers and the way they investigated crimes and treated victims. Law enforcement officers, like myself, desired to learn how to minimize additional trauma to victims during investigations of crimes. The training also encouraged male officers to seek help from female social workers when interviewing women and children who were victimized.
Some investigators began soliciting experienced social workers, such as those employed as Child Protective Services caseworkers, to actually conduct victim interviews, report their findings, and later testify in court. That arrangement did not work out well locally because the social workers did not understand criminal law or rules concerning evidence well enough to thoroughly interview the victims. Many times they had difficulty testifying under the duress of cross examination. Some investigators found more success handling the cases entirely alone, which resulted in allegations by social workers that they were insensitive to the needs of victims.
The use of video equipment to document interviews came on the scene. Many officers, myself included, were initially reluctant to perform interviews on video. Some of the reluctance was due in part because investigators recognized their limitations with respect to child psychology. They realized that the video tape could and would be scrutinized by social workers, psychologists and others, including "hired guns" for the defense. To avoid such potential hazards, investigators once again began asking social workers and psychologists to conduct the video interviews with victims. As before, those efforts often failed to produce evidence that could be used in court. Sometimes the evidence was too tainted to be used for prosecution. Other times, cases were overturned on appeal due to missteps or leading questions used by the interviewers.
Social workers often resisted encouragement to attend essential training sessions on criminal law and forensic interviewing techniques. Even today, social workers employed as CPS caseworkers still lack this training. Often suggestions for such training are summarily rejected with comments such as, "I know how to talk to kids; I'm a mother," or "I'm a woman; I don't need a man to teach me how to interview a rape victim".
Many officers, like myself, began to hone their own skills in conducting video-taped interviews, combining consideration for the needs of victims with guaranteeing the admissibility of the evidence. As the use of social workers to conduct investigative interviews declined, there came a clamor for advocates to sit in on interviews by police officers. I recall many such interviews, but not with fond memories.
These accompanied interviews were very tense and not always because of the nature of victimization involved. At times, the advocate would actually interrupt the interview at very critical times . This created the appearance that the victim, not the officer, was being coached. During one interview, an advocate interrupted and took over an interview. She thought I was not asking the right questions. Her questions, though appropriate in a counseling setting, were so leading that the whole interview lost any possible evidentiary value.
In this situation, it seemed the advocate perceived that his/her most important role was to protect the victim from being ravaged by an uncaring policeman who asked unnecessary questions of the most embarrassing and personal nature. Advocates were typically critical about why an investigator had to ask such detailed questions, eliciting terribly personal and painful information from the victim. Perhaps the assumption was that the investigator somehow enjoyed hearing these sordid and sad details. One such interview I recall came to an abrupt end when the advocate stopped the interview, announced that the interview was over and left, taking the child by the hand. Tragic was the effect that this atmosphere of suspicion and confusion had on victims.
These type of interviews were undermined by the tense air of competition and distrust between the officer and the advocate. Each viewed the other in very stereotypical ways. Crimes were being solved and successfully prosecuted but not as many as could have been and the victim's needs were being only minimally met.
Throughout the years described above, social workers/advocates and policemen and women seemed to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. They glared at one another across a gulf that seemed impossible to bridge. Investigators appeared as faceless, heartless and unfeeling persons in uniforms, whereas advocates seemed to be emotional, hypersensitive robots in jeans and pullovers. Each disrespected one another's intelligence, motivation, and concern for the victims of crime.
One problem in communication arose from their training. For example, an important theme in child sexual abuse investigations training says it is harmful to victims of sexual abuse to be given the impression that his/her story is not believed. The evolution of that theme exceeded the primary premise. Those receiving such training at times came away with the idea that children, although they may fabricate other things, do not lie about sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is learned experience, children only fabricate stories from their own realm of experience, and therefore any statement that can be interpreted as sexual abuse must be believed.
Investigators were often charged by advocates of being callous and ignorant of child victimology when they failed to bring charges in cases where a child complained of a touch on a private area. They fail to understand that evidence is necessary that the touching was sexual. This does not reflect on whether or not the investigator believed the victim's statement.
I recall several cases during those troubling years where an advocate was particularly unhappy with cases that failed to result in charges. Many situations involved young children who made a simple statement about touching of a private area, without supplying details to indicate the touching was of a sexual nature. Certainly children of the ages in question have the ability to describe unwelcome touching. They also have the ability to lie about being touched, for instance, by a sibling who placed a hand on their head. "He hit me!" "No, he hit me first!" When the investigation could not determine that the described touching was of a sexual nature, charges were not filed. Again, investigators were charged with not believing the child. Pointing to such cases, stating incorrectly that children cannot or do not lie about sexual abuse, advocates continued to call for more training of police officers on child victimization. They failed to understand that the problem was not callous and uneducated officers who did not believe the children.
Also underlying the division between advocates and police investigators were myths. One such myth is the belief that men have no business interviewing females of any age about sexual victimization. This myth states that such victimization causes victims to fear all men, or in particular all male strangers. A parallel myth suggested it was improper or immoral for a man to interview a female about a sex offense, because definite psychological trauma results from such interviews. Both myths are contrary to common sense and the real life experience of many victims. Many victims have positive male role models in their lives and continue after the victimization to see those males the same way. They recognize the abuser as the deviant, not the entire gender. This myth ignores the fact that most interviews leading to conviction are made by male policemen. Charges are successfully brought against abusers, and many positive relationships developed between investigators (male as well as female) and victims.
Ironically, both police officers and social workers enter their professions for the express purpose of "helping people". Why then did there exist such a vast distance between the two professions? It was "us against them", faceless officers against faceless social workers. Essentially, both types of individuals were operating from the same foundation-- a desire to help those victimized. Yet because there was no opportunity to get to know one other, they remained ignorant of how similar were their goals. Caught in the middle, the victims remained with needs only minimally addressed.
Fortunately, a change began several years ago as some social workers, seeking to advocate for victims, entered the law enforcement camp. Here in Anderson, advocates went to work at police departments and in the prosecutor's office. They began advocating for victims from within the system. Both advocates and law enforcement officers began working together, learning about each other. More importantly, they began to recognize their fundamental motivation to help people. They found a common ground.
The first social worker locally to enter the law enforcement encampment was Jan Fitz. She started at the Madison County Sheriff Department, funded by a government grant. She became their primary interviewer in child abuse cases. She worked with a sworn officer, an investigator, and as a team they brought many cases to prosecution. She was trained on criminal law and on investigative interview techniques. Her primary role was not what is now recognized as that of a victim advocate. The role she played was more a quasi-police/social worker. I worked with Jan on several cases. I remember encouraging her, on more than one occasion, that she could accomplish so much more if only she would become a sworn officer. When she left Madison County, I worried about the void left behind. Since then more traditional victim advocates have stepped in and helped fill that void.
Another advocate, Cindy Lanane, initiated a victim advocacy program through the Madison County Prosecutor's Office. She kept victims informed of case status as the cases progressed, prepared victims for the courtroom experience, accompanied victims to court, and often intervened when cases assigned for investigation were not being diligently worked. At times, I found Cindy to be a thorn in my side, but I appreciated her as a tremendous asset in preparing victims for the investigation and prosecution of cases. She did a more comprehensive and efficient job than I had ever done for victims because advocacy was her primary focus. I discovered that victims and their families better endured the emotional stress of trial because of Cindy's advocacy. Today, in Cindy's footsteps, advocates continue the advocacy program at the Madison County Prosecutor's Office. It continues to be a tremendous asset for investigators as cases, victims, and witnesses are prepared for trial.
Around 1991, Lessa Parkison created a victim advocacy program at Anderson Police Department with a program funded by a grant. At the time, domestic violence seemed to be her primary focus but soon her role expanded. She scheduled a forty hour week, but was on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. She attended the needs of victims at crime scenes, hospitals, in their homes, wherever officers or victims asked her to be. She would comfort and console victims, provide them with information of services available, and support them in many other ways. Services she provided included; crisis intervention, emotional support, criminal justice information, case status information, advocacy, referrals, and education through community speaking engagements, as described in a pamphlet she designed for distribution. She has since added a part time assistant victim advocate to the program. There exists an ever-growing demand for services for victims.
In difficult cases involving traumatized victims, I developed ways minimize the fear and uncertainty victims and caregivers feel in an investigation. I looked for ways to make friends with them prior to any interview. Often I would meet them and a caregiver in a neutral setting, such as at home, at a park, a restaurant or playground, so they would feel comfortable with me. Those efforts, while rewarding, were too time-consuming, slowed the investigative process, and kept me away from other needy cases.
As Lessa and I became acquainted, however, I soon realized that she would increase efficiency and bring better balance to victim issues in my investigations. She began on a regular basis to assist during interviews with victims. Lessa began taking on preparation of victims, helping cases to be more efficiently worked. She also became a contact person, in my stead, for victims and their families when I was not available. After this, I no longer needed to spend a great deal of time explaining the investigative process to families because Lessa took on that responsibility. Lessa developed a record system, tracking persons with a history of family violence which became an invaluable resource in many cases I was assigned to investigate. We also became involved in joint public speaking engagements to educate the public and professional groups on issues related to crimes and victims of criminal behavior. Most importantly, I could concentrate on what I was trained to do--solve crimes. The victim's needs were being attended to by the advocate, a valuable investigative partner.
My internship with Lessa has enabled me to reflect on the local history of victim advocacy and law enforcement and also to take a closer look at the marriage between the two locally. What discovered that the relationship continues to grow and expand. I have been able to participate in advocacy related to policy development, community education, training of police officers, and to a lesser extent direct victim advocacy.
In some ways I can involve myself in victim advocacy, but in other ways my position as a law enforcement officer hinders such effort. Dealing directly with victims is difficult because of mixed perceptions of who or what policemen are. I cannot appeal to them as Lessa and other advocates can but I found I can groom my investigative role with victim issues in mind.
Victim advocates present themselves as persons solely interested in the well-being of the victims. Their role, although multifaceted, is focussed on the needs of victims, not complicated by an investigative role or image of authority. My attempts at direct victim advocacy sometimes left me feeling like a person wearing two hats, balancing each awkwardly on my balding head. Nevertheless, I was able to perform a role of advocacy in a limited fashion while dealing with victims as a police investigator.
I discovered advocacy roles that are not difficult for an investigator to engage in. They involve indirect advocacy. Finding overlooked but workable cases to be reopened for investigation, advocating for changes in policy affecting victims, involvement in speaking engagements to educate the public on victim related issues, and the training of advocates and officers on how to act to protect victims, are examples of indirect advocacy that I participated in. I also became involved in advocating for victims upon learning of a local hospital that had changed its sexual assault policy in such a fashion that would impede the reporting of such under-reported crimes. That initial advocacy effort has resulted in more attention being brought to the particular problem as evidenced by recent newspaper articles. During the internship, I addressed two civic groups on topics related to the victimization of women and children. Lessa and I also began a joint training project to educate police officers on the dynamics of family violence and how the proper law enforcement response can protect victims. That project is projected to extend well beyond the time period of the internship.
Perhaps the most important of all, I learned that the relationship between law enforcement and victim advocacy is maturing. It remains not stagnant, but growing. It will continue to do so as long as investigators explore new ways to attend to victim needs, advocates continue to expand services, and the efforts of each overlap and compliment the other's efforts.
Indirect victim advocacy is an area that I, as a law enforcement officer, can in a more productive way focus my attention, while relying on persons such as Lessa to provide the direct advocacy. I can improve my function as an investigator by incorporating indirect advocacy into my investigative role. In addition to improving my investigative function I will be learning more about victimology and advocacy in preparation for a future career changes. Whether I enter into a new career as an advocate, an educator, consulting field, or a counseling area, what I learn will only enhance my ability later. That success will be measured in my ability to help people in our ever changing and increasingly complex society. Not long ago, victims did not fare so well but perhaps from now on the partnership between advocates and police investigators will increasingly meet the needs of victims.
The victim advocacy program at Anderson Police Department has become recognized as a valuable asset for the law enforcement effort and for victims. Unfortunately, it is not financially self-sustaining, but rather it is dependant on grant money. There may come a time when the grant money runs out and decisions will have to be made about how to keep the program afloat. Perhaps now is the time to begin addressing that issue. Perhaps that is yet another area of indirect victim advocacy in which I, a law enforcement officer, can participate.