Good morning, everyone.
Thank you so much for that very kind and warm introduction. I have been looking forward to being with you at this conference since Dan Levey first mentioned it to me, shortly after my appointment last July.
I’ve known Dan for awhile now and he is one of the fiercest advocates that I know. You all are lucky to have him in your corner and I’m grateful to call him a colleague.
Thank you to Beverly Warnock for extending the invitation – it truly is an honor to be part of your welcome ceremonies today.
Although this is my first time at this wonderful conference, OVC’s connection with POMC [Parents Of Murdered Children] goes way back to 1988!
I know I stand in the shadow of a long line of OVC Directors who have supported POMC and have worked closely with your organization. In fact, I understand you named one of your awards after former OVC Director John Gillis.
POMC was instrumental in helping OVC update the OVC TTAC [Training and Technical Assistance Center] training “Serving Survivors of Homicide Victims,” a training still used to this day.
I’m most proud of OVC’s scholarship support for this conference of the years. This year, OVC was able to provide $10,000 to POMC for 40 scholarships.
This is so important because being together in community, especially after the isolation we all experienced with the pandemic, is truly a gift. I can’t think of a better investment of our funds.
Today I want to talk with you about what’s going on at OVC and bring you up to date on some of the highlights, my priorities as the Director, and share some general thoughts with you. So, I’ll start with this.
Bill Bratton, the former New York City and Boston police commissioner and former Los Angeles police chief coined the phrase “Cops count, police matter” when describing the importance and value of the police profession.
I like to say “Victims count and their voices matter.” This is a signature component of my term as OVC director.
The voices of survivors, like yours, are especially pertinent in discussions about criminal justice reform policy, strengthening relationships between law enforcement and the community, and building community trust. When your voices are included in these conversations, they add a level of authenticity; richness; and, importantly, hard reality.
It took spending 8 months as a victim advocate in 2013 to drive this home for me.
Let me say up front that being the Director of OVC is my dream job. It truly is. But the job that had the most impact on me—the one that best prepared me for this job—was when I was a victim/witness specialist in the District of Columbia U.S. Attorney’s Office.
When I was the Deputy Director at NIJ [National Institute of Justice], I was accepted into a DOJ [Department of Justice] leadership program. The program offered the opportunity to spend 4 months “on detail” to another DOJ agency. The point was to identify an opportunity to build your leadership skills. Most went for opportunities to work closely with high-ranking leaders within the Department. I wanted to know what it was like to work in direct services with victims, survivors, and their families because I thought it could make me a better leader. It took some convincing, but they agreed to let me do it. I was assigned to the Victim/Witness Assistance Unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a victim advocate.
It was during that detail that I was able to get my first real glimpse into how violent crime impacts surviving family members, friends, co-workers, and others.
I had a full caseload and was assigned to the “general crimes” unit, meaning all violent crimes, including homicide. I helped victims and survivors with their crime victim compensation, I prepared them for grand jury, I helped them navigate the criminal justice system, I connected them with programs, I sat with them in court, and I helped them write victim impact statements.
I loved that job and stayed another 4 months. I cried for a week when it was over.
During that transformative experience in [Washington,] D.C., I noticed there were three things that were extremely important for victims and survivors in the aftermath of violent crime.
Options. When it comes to services, one size does not fit all, so not all remedies and responses are going to fit all survivors. We have to make sure there are enough options in place to give victims and survivors a choice that will work for them.
Access. It doesn’t matter how amazing the program or intervention is if no one can get to it or if they don’t know about it. We know that many people who experience crime in underheard and underserved communities have no idea that help is available to them and may not learn of services until years and, even decades, later. The same with cases of unsolved homicides. When there’s no suspect, there’s no prosecution. And that often means no victim advocate and no connection to resources. We have to meet individuals and communities where they are, and we have to make sure that we remove barriers to access. We have to make sure they are not only being seen, but that they are being served.
Information. This is something our criminal justice system struggles with – ensuring that crime victims or surviving family members receive information about their case, about their options, and about the services that are available to them. When it comes to case information, victims and survivors should be given the choice to “opt in” or “opt out” of receiving information, including decisions about who, how, and when information is delivered. And then it needs to be delivered.
These three things have shaped my priorities as the Director at OVC and we have used them to inform the funding opportunities we’re offering this year.
If you go to the OVC website and look at the FY 2022 solicitations, you’ll notice the focus on options, access, and information.
For example, we will be making awards to increase access by co-locating victim service professionals in hospital emergency rooms, where they can meet with victims of violent crime and their families and connect them with the services and support. This becomes especially critical in underserved communities with high rates of gun violence and do not always know that they can get help in the aftermath of crime.
We’ll be making awards to expand access for persons with disabilities and those who are deaf and hard of hearing, so we can eliminate barriers that keep these populations from getting the services they need.
We will award funding to put more victim advocates in police departments and we’re hiring a policing fellow to promote the importance of building community trust between police and crime victims through trauma-informed practices.
We will continue to award funds that will enable domestic violence shelters to become pet-friendly so that victims of domestic violence have the option to seek safe shelter with their pets. A large majority of domestic violence shelters do not allow pets for various reasons. So this program will provide funding for those shelters that want to be able to house domestic violence victims and their pets. No one should ever have to choose between leaving a beloved pet behind and being safe.
We will make an award to update and expand upon the previously released 2014 OVC guide, Responding to Transgender Victims of Sexual Assault. This will be accomplished through the development of a web-based toolkit that will provide guidance, resources, and referrals for those who provide services to all victims of crime who identify as transgender, especially women and girls of color.
We will fund innovative technology grants so victim service organizations can be more efficient and make it easier for victims to receive information, seek services, and get help in real time.
And these are just a few of them!
This is an exciting time at OVC and I know that the grant programs we fund this year have the potential for creating lasting change in how we respond to violent crime.
I don’t know what it is like to lose a loved one to homicide. However, over the years I have had the great privilege of working side by side with parents, grandparents, wives, husbands, and siblings of those who have suffered these losses.
Just in the past couple of months I traveled to Buffalo in the wake of the shooting at the Tops Friendly Market and to Uvalde, Texas after the shooting at Robb Elementary School.
I witnessed the heartbreaking grief of the families who lost their loved ones. I met with members of the community whose sense of safety and security were absolutely shattered by what happened. I went to the memorials. I observed as the crime scene investigators examined victims’ personal effects that were left behind in the panic.
They were hard, sad trips. But for me, as the Director of the Office for Victims of Crime, they were absolutely necessary. As leaders in this field, we must bear witness to these tragedies. We must continue to be outraged about the shameful and uniquely American phenomenon of mass gun violence.
We can’t yet know the toll these traumatic events will have on the survivors, families, students, neighbors, school personnel, first responders, and the local community in the years to come. But we do know it will have one.
And that’s why OVC administers the Antiterrorism and Emergency Assistance Program (AEAP). OVC directs funding through this program to the communities that are impacted by mass violence events. That funding can be used for many things, including deploying mass violence experts to work on the ground with the local community, standing up long-term resilience centers, providing mental health counseling, peer support, and many other services.
We’ve seen this funding being used even years after an event, to help those that are still grieving and processing the trauma. We’re indebted to organizations and service providers, like many of you, who are there to respond to the trauma, no matter what form it may take.
In addition to the AEAP, we also have a mass violence toolkit that communities can use to prepare for responding to victims of mass violence.
These are just some of the many products, programs, technical assistance, and training that OVC funds for the victim services field. Each year, VOCA [Victims of Crime Act] funded programs serve over 10 million individuals.
But we have a long way to go and many improvements to make.
I have heard over and over again that the VOCA crime victim compensation program is just not meeting the needs of all crime victims.
For example, some people are denied compensation because of previous criminal history or the criminal history of a relative; for some it takes way too long to receive their reimbursement; and for many the process is just too cumbersome and complicated.
I have made reimagining the compensation program a call to action for OVC. Specifically, OVC intends to replace the current guidelines that govern the funding allocated to state victim compensation programs, which have not been updated in more than 21 years, with a new rule.
The intent is to modernize the guidelines to better respond to the needs of crime victims, with an emphasis on equity and addressing programmatic barriers.
We are working with our many partners – state administrators, Tribal communities, survivors, and other advocates – to best understand how the guidelines can be strengthened to increase access and equity.
We expect to publish the draft rule in February 2023, with the hope that the final published rule will be released in January 2024.
As you can imagine, this undertaking requires a lot of work and it’s going to take some time. But that’s what you do to ensure that policies and programs are victim centered and trauma informed.
And ensuring that the voices of survivors are part of those conversations is key.
As advocates, we have to wedge ourselves into places that some may not think we belong, but we must be adamant that crime survivors have a voice in all places where decisions are being made.
POMC’s work is a perfect example of what can happen when survivors make their voices heard and take action.
For example, POMC’s peer support model served as an inspiration to one of our recommendations in last year’s report from the Department of Defense Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military.
I served on this Commission and we were tasked with fixing the military’s sexual assault problem in 90 days. I led the Victim Care and Support Line of Effort and one of the recommendations we made was to “Create survivor-led peer support programs that allow for in-person, virtual, and telephonic interaction.”
As you all know too well, victims, survivors, and their family members suffer profound isolation and loneliness in the days and months after a crime occurs. When I was on the Commission, we listened to survivors in the military who felt so alone and hopeless after a sexual assault that they contemplated or attempted suicide.
When we asked them what would have helped, the response was often that they wished there had been someone they could talk to who could relate to their experience and offer support.
The concept of peer support is based on the belief that people who have faced, endured, and overcome adversity can offer useful support, encouragement, hope, and mentorship to others facing similar situations.
There are many models for peer support, but the one defining characteristic is that they are run by and for the people they serve. And POMC has perfected this.
I am very interested in exploring how OVC can expand access to peer support. We will be looking at examples of lessons learned, challenges overcome, how to reach underserved communities, and everything else we need to know to build a solid, effective program. You can bet that POMC’s model is one we will be looking closely at.
In closing, I want to acknowledge each and every one of you. Wherever you are in your journey towards healing, I hope these next few days bring you fellowship, connection, information, and anything else you may need.
I want to thank you for your advocacy for the rights of survivors, for the comfort and support that you offer one another, and for all you do to ensure that your loved ones and all victims of homicide are not forgotten.
It is an honor to share this space with you. And remember, Victims Count and their Voices Matter.