An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Janice Rench
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Janice Rench
Interviewee:Janice Rench;
Northeast, U. S.
Date of Interview:January 11, 2003
Location:Washington, DC

Janice Rench




Biography

Janice Rench is a noted author, consultant and victim advocate.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

Janice Rench's passion for the victim movement grew out of her own victimization. She was a victim of sexual assault who joined the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center "to right a wrong." "It was a passionate time for women victims," she remembers, "to stand up, to speak openly about their experiences, and to become empowered."

"We didn't have any plans, any books, or patent, or anybody telling us what we needed to do, but as we listened to the victims, we certainly got a sense of what was going to work and what wasn't. It was the victims themselves that started this field."

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

As Director of the rape crisis center, Rench 's annual salary was $9500. There were no computers, no palm pilots, no faxes and case file data were handwritten on legal pads. Rench recalls it as a time of learning and camaraderie that she has not seen since.

"We need to remember that time," says Rench "Our office was in the YWCA. Domestic violence victims would come in and if there was no space at the Y, they slept on the couch in the office."

Before the national funding sources developed, the center where Rench worked relied on donations and grants from a few corporations to operate. The most important early development for the victims' movement from her point of view were the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) Grants, the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) grants and most important, Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grants because of the doors that funding opened for the field. At the same time, she believes that once financial support on a national scale became available, competition for the funds among different victim organizations had the unfortunate effect of fragmenting the field.

Greatest Challenge

Rench believes that a primary challenge was to educate people in the system about sensitive ways to work with victims, and then to institutionalize appropriate victim services in law enforcement, hospitals, schools, and churches. Developing workable relationships with these groups took a decade and with that came a lot of "blood, sweat and tears." What they had not expected was the degree and variety of abuse happening in the country that was largely unacknowledged.

"The greatest challenge was that we didn't know what was ahead of us...there was no way that we could project all of the abuse that was going on. And I'm not sure that we don't have another wave of surprises ahead of us because there are many areas of victimization that we have not touched upon."

Successful Strategies

While the primary strategy was to "plow ahead" and "stay focused" on victims, "listening to victims" has been the most successful strategy. Rench points out the risks involved in establishing service criteria and working with checklists. Every victim is different and there is no rule book of what a victim goes through following a crime. They have to tell their own stories. She believes that the research-based protocols developed over the years to help victims are useful tools, but they can have the effect of depersonalizing victim assistance.

Failures

Not understanding the extent of abuse in the country also meant that the differences in gender-specific responses to the experience of victimization went unexamined for a long time. They eventually realized that men may heal quite differently than women. An even greater failure, according to Rench, has been the lack of diversification in the field of victim advocacy. People from different cultures often respond differently to crime and victimization. She laments the fact that the national conferences are just a "body of white people." Furthermore, there is an absence of sufficient training in victim services about appropriate responses to victims of other cultures.

Greatest Accomplishment

The passion of the early victim advocates has rubbed off on many new people, and according to Rench, this is the greatest accomplishment. There are impassioned young people committed to the cause of crime victims who carry the effort forward. At the same time, Rench emphasizes the importance of mentoring the new generation of victim advocates, not only establishing mentoring programs, but seriously implementing them so that the lessons learned through experience are not forgotten.

Rench firmly believes that more people listen to victims today than they did 30 years ago. As a result, she thinks that people recognize the extent of victimization in our culture and the vulnerability that we all are subject to. However, the negative judgements and blame traditionally borne by victims have not disappeared. Rather, they come attached to social and cultural preconceptions.

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

Rench believes strongly that the field needs professional standards and a certification process to put advocates in a more professional arena. She also recognizes the many pitfalls that certification may bring. She emphasizes the importance of recognizing the advocate's experience in the field and warns that an academic degree should not be a determining factor in an individual's status as a victim service provider.

"I can honestly say that most of the advocates that are on target with victims don't necessarily have any degree whatsoever, but they have the training and the experience. Certification in the field should be about building a knowledge base," she explained.

Rench goes on to consider the pros and cons of national certification versus certification state-by-state, and she opts for the former--standards of victim advocacy that are recognized nationwide. The fragmentation that has developed among national organizations over funding unfortunately contributes to a lack of consensus about professional standards, but she believes that this situation can be overcome.

"There is no reason why we can't get around the table like we did in the '80s and work some of these things out, and if funding sources are needed to help us do that then so be it. Because we are not gonna' be able to do it ourselves," Rench said.

Rench's advice to newcomers in the field is to evaluate their experiences based on how they feel. People who feel the passion of the work will know if they are in the right field. She also believes that the field is changing quickly, that there are good things ahead, and that there is no job with as much personal satisfaction as there is in the victim assistance field.

"I will die remembering the face of a young advocate in Boston Massachusetts who after I told my story said, 'Janice, I'm so glad you told me. You didn't deserve it.' That changed my life, and that happens on a daily basis within our field."

Vision for the Future

Rench sees a day coming when victims and victim advocates in the field will have hindsight. They will be able to understand clearly where they have come from, the challenges they have faced, and the fears that they have had to overcome to move forward. Clear hindsight will help the movement progress further.

Rench, who has made a mark in the field working with youth, also believes deeply in the importance of investing in the juvenile justice system if the cycle of violence is to be prevented. Her vision is for a system that addresses and treats youthful offenders after their first offense--their first rape or assault-- even when they are elementary school age. "There is a lot of hope for rehabilitation for a seven-year-old or a nine-year-old," she noted. She believes that many young offenders have committed far too many crimes before they get into the legal system and have access to appropriate interventions.

Greatest Fear

Rench fears that people in the allied professions and academics that have no direct experience working with crime victims will take the heart out of the discipline.