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You Have Options: A Law Enforcement Advocate’s Response

by Heidi Flowers, CCASA  Blogger

We are a society filled with options and choices, and we like having the power to decide!  The everyday consumer can walk into any restaurant or store and we know that we are going to be given options so we can choose what’s best for us. Corporations spend millions of dollars on marketing each year to educate consumers on what people want, what options their company can provide and building our trust in order to gain a loyal customer. We know that giving people options gives them power, and allows us to feel valued!  The everyday consumer will research their options when it comes to important life decisions. So why can’t we use this approach in other ways so that we can help survivors of sexual assault after the crime has happened?

Ashland, Oregon’s successful “You Have Options” program does just that, and it’s exciting as a victim services provider to see this movement being introduced in Colorado communities. It’s time that we provide survivors and victims of crime with the same choices that they would receive in other parts of their life.

Let’s face it; no one wakes up in the morning planning on becoming a victim. After an assault, most victims are feeling violated, controlled, and overwhelmed with the process. As a society, we then ask victims to jump through hoops after being brave enough to report, which can be just as victimizing as the initial assault!  Being able to provide an environment for sexual assault survivors to have options up front, where they are not being told what to do, or when to do it, is a huge step in the right direction to being more victim-centered here in Colorado.

A victim-centered response focuses on meeting the victim where they are at, versus expecting them to meet us where we are. It’s about taking the control component out of working with survivors and giving them an opportunity to be heard and have control over what’s going on in their case. If we are going to provide a victim-centered response, why not start up front by taking the barriers out of reporting for survivors and allowing them to map out their justice, and access support and services?

You Have Options provides victims with an opportunity to be heard immediately, have access to information and resources immediately, and gives them the ability to make important decisions about their personal life. Survivors of sexual assault crimes should not have to jump through hoops to obtain services and information.

As a law enforcement advocate in a traditional model, I provide crisis intervention and support to victims who are usually reporting to law enforcement. We are called by officers in our department and respond to the hospital and/or wherever the victim may be at the time of the report.  Sometimes victims are not aware of how an advocate can help them and being able to provide services in the beginning is hugely beneficial to the survivor after these types of crime.  However, we know that the majority of sexual assault is underreported and our ability to connect with survivors who may not be reporting then decreases.  If our goal is to increase the number of reporting victims in order to hold offenders accountable, the You Have Options Model allows law enforcement advocates to become involved even sooner, so that we can help eliminate barriers that exist within the current system, assist in helping with the flow of good information, and alleviate the pressure that victims feel upon reporting. It does this by setting a positive victim-centered response which enables advocates, detectives, and SANE nurses to work together to ensure that medical and advocacy services are a priority. The process is set up so that:

  • Survivors can communicate with agents in the system even before they make a decision to report
  • Law enforcement advocates can assist survivors with identifying positive support systems and resources regardless of their decision to report
  • The door is always open for that survivor to change his/her mind.

Advocates are passionate about helping people. As a law enforcement victim advocate, I believe being able to help people immediately after the crime has a lasting impact. We don’t always get to see the end result in cases, sometimes cases are not able to be prosecuted; but regardless of the outcome, it’s refreshing to see a model set up that expands our ability to help people and knock down some of the barriers that prevent them from connecting with us.  For detectives, You Have Options provides a forum for victims to feel safe in providing as much or as little information as they want. I have experienced that when a victim is believed and supported by law enforcement, the impact is powerful and victims are more comfortable answering questions and providing information.

Changing the way law enforcement responds to these crimes is going to be a culture shift; no changes in the system are ever easy. We are asking law enforcement to give the decision-making power back to the victim, letting them control their case. Victims do not always stay involved in their cases and drop out of the process; sometimes because their needs are not being met. Being able to have these conversations up front, understanding what the victim needs, and having a safe place for the victim to discuss these concerns allows the system to help alleviate those barriers and also support the victim through the entire process.   Information is power! The more accessible we can make reporting options, including anonymous reporting, the more information law enforcement will get that can help hold offenders accountable in their communities.

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