My name is Kim Hawkins. In addition to being the Vice President and co-founder of SHIELD Task Force, I have been the Victim Advocate in the Marion County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for the past 12 years. In this week’s blog post, I wanted to explain what a victim advocate is and does.
To better explain the answer to this question, I will first explain a little about what I do on a daily basis.
What a Victim Advocate Does
I begin each day by checking voice mail and emails to confirm that no emergencies exist before I begin my normal routine. I prepare for the day by talking to clients who have hearings that day, prepping them (if necessary), answering any questions, taking them to the courtroom, and accompanying them during the hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, I will walk them back to the office and answer any questions that have arisen during the process.
I will repeat this same process for every hearing that I have. When a victim’s case reaches trial, I can expect that to take up the entire week. A trial requires more in-depth preparation for the victims, which involves both myself and the prosecutor on the case.
On a day with no court appearances, I spend the day talking on the phone, making and attending appointments, attending meetings with victims and the prosecutor, observing interviews at the Child Advocacy Center, attending MDIT meetings, and doing lots of paperwork.
Because this is a grant-funded position through the Victim Assistance Program, I have to submit daily and monthly reports regarding my activities and involvement with victims/survivors to the West Virginia Division of Justice and Community Services. I am also the grant writer for my position.
Having said all of this, my most important job is to listen and be present for survivors. I make sure they understand their rights during the legal process and keep them up-to-date on what is happening in their case at all times.
I also make it my goal to help them find their voice and thrive despite what has happened to them. I want them to know that it’s okay to be angry and that we will get through this together — they are not alone. This is true for every single victim of any type of crime in Marion County.
Once I become your advocate, I will remain such until I am no longer needed. I have cases where I am still involved with the survivor, even though the court case has been closed for ten years.
What Survivors Need Most
I have been involved in hundreds of cases as a Victim Advocate, ranging from murder to sexual assault of adults and children. One thing that presses foremost in my mind is that while each victim is completely different, having different trauma and different needs, they all seem to want one basic thing: to be able to say what really happened to them, uncensored, without hurting the person they are telling.
I have seen that this one thing — being able to describe their trauma without burdening others — is more important to them than other therapy processes. Survivors tend to internalize their hurt and pain because they do not want to project those feelings onto their parents, siblings, teachers, friends, or significant other. They know how horribly the trauma affects them, so they feel like they are hurting anyone who has to listen to it.
Because survivors believe that they are causing pain and anguish by talking about their trauma, they keep it to themselves and pretend they are just fine. They learn to “be” what those around them need them to be — or what they believe those around them want them to be — in order for everyone to be happy. They feel that they have to “be ok” and “just move on,” especially once they have talked about it.
Survivors often feel a huge responsibility and pressure to be perfect so that others don’t think they are just feeling sorry for themselves. They feel that, for whatever reason, they should be able to just get over what happened to them and become someone else — someone who has no scars.
Survivors do have good days, but they also have very bad days. I have seen weeks go by when a survivor seems to be doing great, and then one day, out of the blue, they’ll be in complete meltdown. Situations like this have to be handled delicately.
Just because a survivor felt good yesterday doesn’t mean they are not allowed to feel bad today, or that something is wrong with them when a bad day follows a good one. It’s extremely important for survivors to know this.
How a Victim Advocate Helps
A Victim Advocate has a responsibility to the survivor to listen calmly, help them understand where those feelings are coming from, and then find ways to overcome them for that day.
The art of listening — truly listening — and not reacting is not as easy as you may think. As an advocate, you have to put aside any beliefs, feelings, or pre-conceived notions you may have in order to help the survivor in front of you. You must always be able to cope with whatever comes your way without pressing your own beliefs onto the survivor.
An advocate’s relationship with the victim has to be based on what the survivor needs. That means setting healthy boundaries and staying focused on the main goal: helping the survivor process their trauma, learn to live with it, and ultimately overcome it.
It is not up to you to fix anything. You are there to help the survivor use the strengths they already possess but may not have the confidence to use. You help them develop the skills and tools they need to succeed in their life goals and thrive despite their trauma.
What I’ve Learned as a Victim Advocate
Being an advocate is a huge responsibility. You have to be committed to your survivors and want to make a difference in their lives. As an advocate, you have taken a moral oath to not only be present and speak up for survivors during the legal process, but also to walk with survivors as they process their trauma and help them reach their goals — even after the court case is over.
I learn from survivors every single day. They have so much to teach us, and we can achieve so much more together if we listen and really hear them, look and really see them, and then take what we have learned and give it back as tools for them to thrive despite what has happened to them.
Being an advocate has been one of the hardest jobs I have ever had — but also the most rewarding. It is a calling to help. It is a passion to serve. It is my hope that I have succeeded in making a difference and helping survivors overcome their trauma and thrive anyway.
If you are a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, the trained advocates at HOPE, Inc., offer their service and support through a 24/7 hotline at 304-367-1100.