An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Aurelia Sands Belle
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Aurelia Sands Belle
Interviewee:Aurelia Sands Belle;
Fremont, NE
Date of Interview:April 13, 2003
Location:Washington, DC

Aurelia Sands Belle




Biography

Sands Belle is a Director of Justice Solutions and has served as an Administrator for victim assistance programs in various capacities for over 25 years.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

As a young social worker, Aurelia Sands Belle began working at a children's home in Georgia in 1977, where she worked with children whose behavioral problems helped her realize were the result of unaddressed victimizations. She completed her Master's degree in counseling during the same time, and her professor suggested she take a position at the local rape crisis center. There, she soon began to take notice of the broader community context of victim services beyond sexual assault, and in 1984 accepted a challenging job with the Metro Atlanta Crime Commission to establish a comprehensive city-wide program, funded by the city, that provided services to all victims of crime in Atlanta

This was the first such program in Georgia, as the only other available services at the time were sporadic child abuse, domestic violence and rape crisis programs spread across the state.

"I think we were unique. We were a grassroots program sponsored by a grassroots organization located in a building that housed the police headquarters as well as our municipal court. So we had access to police files and information as well as court files and information."

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

In Georgia, the victim service programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s were not available in most areas of the state--in fact, according to Sands Belle, they were "almost non-existent." She had to go outside the state for training and assistance. The Texas State Clearinghouse for Crime Victims and the National Organization for Victim Assistance provided her with information, training and opportunities for networking with other victim programs around the country. She served several terms as an elected member of the Board of Directors of the National Organization for Victim Assistance.

Sands Belle recalls that there was not a clear focus on victims' rights and services at that time in Atlanta or the state of Georgia. She identifies the early 1980s as the time when victim advocates really began coming together as organizations to "put a voice and a face to the experience of crime victims."

Greatest Challenges

Because Sands Bells sees victim services in a "holistic vein," she feels providing comprehensive services and referrals is critical--and that meant her agency did not have to do everything, but they did have to collaborate with other agencies and individuals in the community to address victims' identified needs. That meant getting other programs in the community to not see them as a threat, but as a partner. As she recalls:

"For instance, if it was a sexual assault issue, we were not doing ongoing sexual assault counseling. What we could offer our rape crisis center was to help victims in the court process and help identify when there were victims and refer them back to rape crisis, so there was a wonderful relationship that way; the same way with domestic violence. We were there helping victims through court. We were not able to do the ongoing, long-term counseling that they were able to do. So when we sat down and realized that we were not competing.....that it wasn't a turf issue.....we didn't need to fight that war. We had other wars that needed to be fought, and so with putting things in perspective, it worked out well. We had a lot of great alliances that were developed."

This challenge is not unique to Georgia. In her subsequent victim services work outside of Georgia, Sands Belle has found the challenge of collaboration among victim service programs in particular to be an uneasy alliance.

"It grieves me that advocates--people who are supposed to be helpers--they get into fights, wars, turf issues. And we really do have a common enemy--that's the criminal, and so we don't need to be struggling amongst each other. We need to work on how we get along and that is a key piece that's missing."

Another major challenge identified by Sands Belle was changing the "mind set of a system that was not designed to address crime victims' issues and to change the minds of people who were entrenched in not addressing people.....and victim services is certainly about people." It was convincing politicians that victims' rights were a "good thing to get behind" and convincing the "powers that be" that it was not just about money, but it was about people and "getting behind lives and helping shore up people where they were at the most vulnerable time in their lives."

Successful Strategies

In addressing the major challenge of changing the mind set of the criminal justice system, Sands Belle described her program's strategy as a conscious decision to assist the professionals within the system to investigate, prosecute, and move the docket along, by helping them with the victims and attempting to meet victims' needs. For example, they would help homicide detectives who didn't want to sit for hours and talk to victims by phone by offering to contact the victim and pass on the information for the detective. It ensured that the victim got the information and allowed the detective to spend his or her time investigating the case.

"I knew we had to make ourselves indispensable to the system. If we could make ourselves indispensable to the system, such that it benefitted victims, we would be in and that's what I was looking for."

Another successful strategy dealt with funding issues. As the needs increased in the program, Sands Belle and her staff had to think of creative ways to meet the needs of crime victims without being a tax burden. While they did get some committed funding from the city, they still had to go outside of that base and find other resources to sustain the program and allow the program to expand. They implemented a strategy based on the national model of assessing fees and fines in traffic court and were able to generate a "nice little pool of money." This later led to legislation that allowed for fines on other types of crimes in state courts that provided further funding to help sustain victim services.

Greatest Accomplishment

Sands Belle does not see any one thing as the greatest accomplishment that has promoted victims' rights and needs, but believes it was the merger of many different things, such as states' passage of Bills of Rights for crime victims and state-level victims' rights constitutional amendments. As she sees it:

"I think it's all of the efforts in every place and having people working on different things that made a difference in where we are in victim services."

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

Sands Belle believes a necessary element is validation of what victim service providers do. She believes that once people have been victimized and have had contact with a victim advocate, they value that service, but now the entire system needs to see that value. When victim services are not valued, then what service providers do is not validated within systems, programs or society. Sands Belle is not sure if professional certification of service providers is the way to go because it might exclude people who come to the victim services field "by virtue of what they've experienced."

Vision for the Future

Sands Belle's vision for the future is that victim assistance organizations begin to understand that the communities they serve have become pluralistic and, therefore, they should not operate in a vacuum. Planning and decision-making have to be inclusive and reflect the communities served. Her vision is also that humanity and compassion never be forgotten in working with crime victims.

She also strongly believes that all victim service providers have to learn how to work together and not see each other or collaboration as a threat, but rather as a way to enhance what's available in the community for crime victims. As she sees it:

"...if we're truly committed to victim services and truly committed to helping people and not so much to helping ourselves, but seeing the vision of eradicating crime or having a zero tolerance for crime--then that means that we've got to work together, all of the systems.....our approach can be broad, but we don't have to do every aspect of it. We can ask for help."