An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
Video and Audio Archive

Directors Panel
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Directors Panel
Interviewee:OVC Directors Panel
Date of Interview:February 24, 2003
Location:Sacremento, CA

OVC Directors Panel

  • Judge Lois Haight
    Former Assistant Attorney General and
    Former Director Office for Victims of Crime, 1982-1986
  • Jane Nady Sigmon
    Former Director, Office for Victims of Crime, 1987-1991
  • Aileen Adams
    Former Director, Office for Victims of Crime, 1994-1997
  • John Gillis
    Director, Office for Victims of Crime, 2001-current
  • Kathryn Turman
    Former Director, Office for Victims of Crime, 1998-2001
    Kathryn Turman was unable to attend this interview session


Tenure as Director of the Office for Victims of Crime

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) was created after Judge Lois Haight was asked by President Reagan to chair a Task Force on Victims of Crime in 1982. After traveling around the country and holding hearings that included crime victims, justice and allied professionals as witnesses, the members of the Task Force released a Final Report with 68 recommendations to improve rights and services for crime victims. One of the recommendations led to the creation of OVC. As Haight recalls, "we got a lot of information and we wrote a report, gave it to the President, and he really loved it. He said, 'I want you to implement these recommendations,' and then he made me Assistant Attorney General to do that."

Jane Nady Sigmon began her tenure as Director of OVC during National Crime Victims' Rights Week in 1987. Sigmon's task was to prepare the Office to effectively manage the new funding stream generated by the passage of the Victims of Crime Act. With no idea how much funding would be generated, Sigmon and her staff had to create an efficient process that would allow the funds to be disseminated to the states as smoothly and effectively as possible. Sigmon recounts how the money had to be "administered in a way that it could prove how useful it could be and critical it was, because there was a Sunset Law. The law was going to go away in 1988 if we didn't administer it effectively."

For Aileen Adams, who came to OVC during the Clinton Administration, "the seeds were really planted" by her predecessors, Haight and Sigmon. During her tenure, one of her priorities was to work with Federal prosecutors to increase the fines collected for the VOCA fund. Her success was demonstrated by the fund growing to $550 million. Adams proudly recalls "that meant that we could send so much money out into the field to support crime victim services. It made such a difference." The other landmark project during Adams' tenure was producing New Directions from the Field, Victims' Rights and Services for the 21st Century. New Directions was written to build upon the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime Final Report and to highlight promising programs that have been developed nationwide since1982.

John Gillis came to OVC during one the most difficult times in the victim assistance field, as well as the nation. Gillis' Senate confirmation hearing was set for September 13, 2001. Having arrived in Washington, DC on September 10th, he was confirmed and was in his office at OVC the following week leading the response to the terrorists attacks of September 11. Gillis acknowledges the groundwork that had been laid by the previous OVC Directors:

"...thank goodness that we did have the things to fall back on, some guidelines that had been set by earlier Directors, and although it dealt with a small number of victims, it gave us the framework to actually expand that and deal with a large number. So I think overall it went very smoothly. The staff did a fantastic job in dealing with the victims of 9/11, and I really have to attribute that to all the work that had gone into getting OVC ready for that kind of a mass violence operation."

Interview Summary

Greatest Challenges

Gillis links one of his greatest challenges back to the attacks of September 11. OVC and other Federal agencies must now work together to coordinate their services, support and rapid response to future victims of mass violence. Gillis' other challenge is to provide increased funding and support to grassroots victim assistance organizations, and help them build capacity to sustain and expand.

"There are organizations, kind of mom and pop operations out there that have been providing services to victims for many, many years and in the past they've kind of been overlooked, mostly because they don't have the ability to write the kind of grants that will get them funding. So the challenge to me is to reach out to those organizations and try and get them coordinated, try to make sure that they keep on providing those services because it's invaluable to the victims."
-- Director John Gillis

Adams dealt with the challenge of providing training during a time when there was a "huge culture change going terms of definitions of jobs and how people perceived themselves within the field." She recalls service providers changing their roles, and working together more to ease the process for crime victims. One area of amazing growth was the establishment of Children's Advocacy Centers; by the time Adams left OVC, there were more than 300 Children's Advocacy Centers in the United States.

In OVC's early years, expanding funding for compensation programs was a high priority. When Sigmon began, the average award was approximately $1,200, with some catastrophic injury claims only receiving a few thousand dollars. Her greatest challenge was getting VOCA funding to the states as an incentive to expand coverage and raise the award amounts. During that period, the funding for compensation from VOCA increased from $23 million to $46 million.

Judge Haight dealt with a challenge that was more basic than funding, but no less important -- educating people about the issue. Haight regularly briefed the Cabinet on crime victims' issues and was the national voice for victims in the early years. She jokes that her husband called ABC's "Good Morning America", "Good Morning Lois".

OVC's Role in Leading the Field and Its Greatest Accomplishments

Haight praises the leadership of her fellow Directors, saying, "we're really fortunate to have had leaders that really took the helm and, like the people on this panel today, that really cared." Haight also acknowledges that at the center of OVC's efforts is ensuring that victims' voices are heard.

"The things that I think were most important is not only giving a voice to victims, who just simply didn't have a voice, but giving a voice to victims at really important stages of proceedings -- giving a voice to victims after they had been intimidated and harassed, giving a voice to victims that they want to speak at sentencing."
-- Judge Lois Haight

Sigmon feels her greatest accomplishment was bringing much needed attention to the issue of victim assistance in Indian Country. While it wasn't part of her initial plan, it quickly became a priority after a large-scale child molestation case involving 141 children on one reservation came to light. That first case was followed by another one involving 200 children, and in the first few years of her tenure, there were more than 1,000 child sexual abuse victims identified. Sigmon learned that there were no services available for the victims or their families. Her initial response to the crisis was to establish an emergency assistance fund to pay for counseling and other needs. Realizing that they could not respond on a case-by-case basis, Sigmon and her staff established special grants to develop victim assistance programs on Reservations. Within a year, 50 programs had been created.

Adams believes one of the unique qualities of OVC is that "it is within government, on the cutting edge, always an advocate, always trying to disseminate victims' voices within the system .....we're using them to train everybody in the Federal system, which was one of our great challenges." She also acknowledges that OVC is the main voice for victims in the Justice Department and therefore must remain vigilant to the needs of crime victims.

"One of the struggles is the cap on the Crime Victims' Fund. We know today that we are reaching only a small percentage of the crime victims through the services that we have in our communities and through the victim compensation programs. Even the best programs are only reaching maybe ten percent of the victims in terms of victims' compensation."
-- Former Director Aileen Adams

Looking back on OVC's accomplishments, Director Gillis refers back to his days in law enforcement and credits the1982 President's Task Force on Victims of Crime with initiating greatly needed changes in the system. He recalls responding to sexual assault calls and learning later on that victims would receive the bill from the ambulance company or hospital. The work of the Task Force and his predecessors is responsible for the changes that have occurred since his days as a law enforcement officer. He notes, ".....the changes have been great. We still have a long way to go, but we're working on it and hopefully I'll see changes while I'm in as Director."

The Future of OVC and the Field

The Directors all agreed that what they want most for the future of OVC and the field is better treatment of crime victims. Sigmon wants "comprehensive and consistent and very compassionate victims' services and rights for all crime victims." Adams reflects on the amazing growth of the Crime Victims Fund -- $64 million to $600 million in 15 years -- and is amazed that we still have a small number of victims receiving compensation. She would like to see a "seamless system, so that people could go from one phase of the criminal justice system to the next and not get dropped from the investigation to the prosecution to the corrections side of things....." Haight and Gillis elaborate on the current problems victims face in receiving services and rights. Haight reminds us that there are still many courthouses that do not provide a separate waiting room for victims. Gillis explains that crime victims who attended roundtable meetings he hosted around the country are still reporting that they were not receiving basic notification of hearings, offenders' custody status, or continuances. All the Directors strongly agree that what is needed to start addressing these problems is a Federal constitutional amendment for victims' rights.

"Even today you look at, 'are our victims' services comprehensive?' Well, in fact, in most cases they aren't. We have 300 children's advocacy centers, which are comprehensive, but most communities don't have that. We have Jacksonville with its comprehensive victim services for all crime victims where you can go to one location and get your compensation and have your interview by the police and the DA -- the kind of partnership approach for all victims, but most communities don't have that. We have a long way to go, but we have the base for getting there and I think the vision to get there, and the support to get there and we just need to keep pushing."
-- Former Director, Jane Nady Sigmon

Advice to the Field

The Directors Panel offers an insightful roadmap for the future of the field. Judge Haight's advice is straightforward -- "Keep fighting. Keep fighting. It's important." She encourages service providers to be vigilant and find out what's going on in their communities. Haight knows that, "when we slack off, when we think it's done, when we go off to something we think is more important, it all slips back. It's just human nature." Jane Sigmon echos and expands on Haight's advice. She recognizes that progress takes time and that service providers need to "be in it for the long haul, because you have to know going into it that change, real change, takes a huge amount of time and a long-term press."

Aileen Adams and John Gillis offer a slightly different perspective with their advice to the field. They both encourage service providers, criminal justice officials, and anyone who is working with crime victims to be sure to listen to the victims. Adams wants service providers to know that when one victim identifies a problem, most likely there are hundreds and thousands of other victims who are having the same problem. So she advises them to "become an activist, and look at creating a law or a program that can help solve the problem." Gillis urges service providers to check their thinking with the people they are serving -- crime victims. He advises them to "go out and do a reality check, go out and talk to the people that we serve, and find out whether or not what we're doing is really making a difference for them and making them happy."