An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Aileen Adams
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Aileen Adams
Interviewee:Aileen Adams;
Sacramento, CA
Date of Interview:February 24, 2003
Location:Sacramento, CA

Aileen Adams

Secretary of State and Consumer Services Agency, California




Biography

Aileen Adams is California's Secretary of State and Consumer Services Agency, and served as the Director of the Office for Victims of Crime from 1994 to 1997.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

Aileen Adams first became involved in the movement as a consumer advocate. She was a prosecutor in Los Angeles, California and among her first cases were criminal prosecutions against nursing homes. After talking with hundreds upon hundreds of victims who had been abused in nursing homes, Adams drafted the first Nursing Home Patients' Bill of Rights, which was passed by the California legislature. She met her first victim of violent crime while volunteering with the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, whom Adams credits with changing her life forever. As she recalls:

"Her name was Emma. She was a UCLA graduate student. She had taken the bus from downtown Los Angeles where she worked to her campus at UCLA. And the bus driver locked her on the bus....he came toward her in a very menacing way and she went into a state of frozen fright or shock and was incapable of resisting his attack...when he was finished attacking her, raping her, he let her off the bus...she came and reported the crime to the Rape Treatment Center about a week or two later. Her case could not be prosecuted because, in the words of the District Attorney, she had not 'resisted the crime.' California law at the time required victim resistance.... So to make a very long story short, we became her advocate. We took the victim resistance provision out of the California rape Law. It was the first time a pro-victim law had really passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee...."

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

Adams describes the field as a "vast wasteland" when she first became involved. There were no victim services or victims' rights laws in California. Even though California had one of the first victim compensation programs in the nation, it was very bureaucratic. Adams also recalls that the police officers, prosecutors, social workers, judges and others who were working in the system lacked any victim sensitivity training. At the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, the staff saw first hand how the system "shut them (victims) out literally." It became their mission to turn the system around. They took a holistic approach and reached out to everyone involved in the justice system and beyond. They worked with television producers to include victims' stories in their programming. One of their first successes was on All in the Family. The producer, Norman Lear, brought the issue of sexual assault to the forefront with the story of the attempted rape of Edith Bunker. The Rape Treatment Center staff also went into the schools and worked with teachers and students.

"What we learned from our victims, we translated into public policy. It was a holistic approach and it really helped to change the system."

With the holistic approach in mind, the Rape Treatment Center staff created one of the first Children's Advocacy Centers in the country. After working on cases where young victims would typically go through multiple, excessive physical exams or investigative interviews, the staff listened to the victims and family members and realized that the system was re-victimizing children. Through the establishment of the Children's Advocacy Center, the staff were able to create a child-friendly environment that made the children more comfortable and able to talk about what happened to them.

Greatest Challenge

The greatest challenge Aileen Adams faced while initially working in California was the lack of education about victims' issues among professionals. She encountered district attorneys who didn't want to prosecute sexual assault cases because they were "one-on-one" cases. It was difficult to get them to listen to victims. When she went through the police academy and law school, Adams "doesn't even remember hearing the word 'victim' being mentioned...". While she recognizes that the field has made great strides in getting victims' issues incorporated into numerous training programs, she believes this will always be a "hurdle" for the field. Adams encountered a similar challenge when she became the Director of the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) in 1994. In many respects the Federal criminal justice system was a "decade behind the times." She made it one of her goals to "integrate the voices of crime victims" into the Federal system.

Successful Strategies

Throughout her career, Adams has found one strategy to be the most successful -- getting victims' voices heard. By creating opportunities for victims to speak out, legislators passed victims' rights legislation and police and prosecutors improved their response to crime victims. Adams also recognized the importance of developing relationships with key decision-makers.

Early in her tenure as Director of OVC (1994), the Murrah Federal Building was bombed in Oklahoma City. This terrorist act was the first time the Federal system's response to crime victims demanded an a highly organized response and received such high profile coverage. Not only did Adams ensure that these victims were being heard, but she understood that in order to lead an effective response she needed the support of her boss, Attorney General Janet Reno. Thankfully, Reno was known for being passionate about crime victims' issues. Through their efforts, the Federal justice system provided services to the Oklahoma City bombing victims that had never really been offered before. As Adams recalls:

"The U.S. Attorneys for the first time provided briefings to all the victims... so that they would know the status of the investigation and later of the trial, what was going on at the trial. We coordinated victim transportation to the trial which took place in Denver, not in Oklahoma City. We provided safe havens. We provided a telephonic link and video link so that victims could see in Oklahoma City the trial that was taking place in Denver. Every service that we could provide, we did. And I think we helped establish a model for the Federal system, but we also helped to establish in the mind of everyone who worked in the Federal system, a high standard for the treatment of crime victims."

"I was so excited to become the Director of the Office for Victims of Crime because I viewed it as an opportunity to open the doors of the Justice Department to crime victims and let in their voices."

Failures

From Adams' perspective, one of the strengths of the victims' movement is how strong it is when all the groups come together for a common cause. Unfortunately, there can be divisiveness among the groups when competition for funding and other resources exists. Adams believes "it's really important that we speak separately, but with one voice, not in competition, but always in coordination, even if there are different views in our field...". One area where Adams has seen this is in the effort to lift the cap off of the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) fund. Adams believes that if all the groups work together, they can lift the cap and provide services to a larger percentage of crime victims in America.

Greatest Accomplishments

Among the many accomplishments of Adams' career, a few stand out for their long-term impact on victim services. Her first effort was to update the 1982 President's Task Force on Victims of Crime Final Report. The Report was a seminal document for the field that put forth 68 recommendations for improving services to crime victims. To update this landmark effort, Adams' staff held public hearings around the country, where more than a thousand witnesses testified. The effort was not only to focus on what was lacking in victim services, but to highlight what was working in the field -- what "promising practices" were in place around the country. New Directions From the Field, Victims' Rights and Services for the 21st Century, published in 1998, offered more than 250 recommendations for the field and included written and videotaped resources.

A tenet of Adams career, making sure victims' voices are heard, brought about another accomplishment. One of her goals was to take the VOCA Fund to the next level, to raise the amount of funds available to the field. One untapped area she focused on was to train U.S. Attorneys about the effect they would have on local victim services through increasing the collection rate of Federal fines. Through training and showing the U.S. Attorneys the impact of VOCA funds, the U.S. Attorneys increased collections in the Fund to more than $500 million.

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

The key to the field's continued growth is funding. Adams believes that with increased funding, compensation programs can reach more crime victims, especially underserved populations. She also would like to see the development of comprehensive victim service centers where victims can receive all the services they need in one location.

Vision for the Future

In Aileen Adams' mind, her vision is quite clear. She believes we need "consistent, comprehensive and compassionate services and rights, and fundamental rights for every crime victim."

Greatest Fear

Adams' greatest fear comes back to the power generated when victims' voices are heard. She has seen first-hand the power of victims' organizations to affect legislation. Her fear is that these organizations are dissipating and not working together as they once did. Adams suggests we find a way to keep diverse groups and voices in the movement:

"We need them. We need them right now. We need them now more than ever. We are never going to have a constitutional amendment for victims' rights without them. We are never going to lift the cap from the Crime Victims' Fund without them. We will never be what we can be without the diversity and strengths of these groups."