An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Viki Sharp
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Viki Sharp
Interviewee:Viki Sharp;
Tucson, AZ
Date of Interview:April 13, 2003
Location:Washington, DC

Viki Sharp




Biography

Viki Sharp is a victims' rights consultant and former Director of the Victim/Witness Program at the Pima County District Attorney's Office in Arizona.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

In 1975, Viki Sharp began working with the new Victim/Witness Program in the Pima County Attorney's Office (Tucson, Arizona), which was very different from the court-based services that were offered in a few prosecutors' offices at that time. It was one of the first programs funded by a Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) grant. Although it was housed in the county attorney's office, it was a product of the entire community. It was a program that endeavored to respond to victims' needs at the moment a crime occurred, and then to take them on through the system, if that was what occurred as a result of the crime, but to also connect them with existing resources in the community and to provide the services where there were gaps. The Pima County Attorney's Victim/Witness Program is famous for this approach because there was not much in the literature at that point about crisis intervention. It was innovative and important work.

"We quickly learned that what we did immediately in the aftermath could save people months and years of counseling, and I truly believe after all the years that we've done crisis intervention that in many cases we could even prevent PTSD."

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

Sharp remembers that there were very few victim service programs in 1975 and no victims' rights on the books. However, at the time the program began, Dennis DeConcini was the County Attorney in Pima County and he was followed by Stephen Neeley. Both of these leaders were creative, innovative and truly cared for victims. They were so focused that from the beginning, they decreed that victims should be notified about everything, be present, and have certain rights. The difference this made, according to Sharp, was that the program operated "as if that was true before it even occurred." They were able to listen to victims to hear what they needed, and then try to do that and, in many cases, "we could do that without the rights on the books."

Sharp points out that in the early days, advocates were not brought together at all, so it was difficult for them to know what other people were doing in their jurisdictions. She recalls that it was organizations like the National Organization for Victim Assistance that began to bring people together for training, sharing of information and networking.

Greatest Challenges

As Sharp relates, providing crisis intervention to crime victims was "tough" in the early days. Law enforcement really did not like the concept of having "bleeding-heart, social worker-type folks" at the crime scenes. The biggest initial challenge in offering crisis intervention was winning over law enforcement, and getting them to agree to "call us to a crime scene, to allow us to be there and to work with people."

Another challenge for Sharp was victims' lack of recourse when their rights were not observed. She identifies this as one of the biggest gaps in victim services.

"We put rights into effect, and we put services into effect, but if victims are not given those rights or not given those services, there's really no recourse. There's no stick over...the criminal justice system .....and it's just pretty hit or miss about when people truly get the services and the rights they desire."

Successful Strategies

According to Sharp, one of the most important strategies for success with their program was that they "started small", initially on weekend nights providing on-scene crisis response. Then, as things mushroomed, they went to seven nights a week, and eventually to 24 hours-a-day. As she describes it: "We started small and did it well, because if you screw up around law enforcement in the early stages, then you've lost the trust and then you're sunk." They had to make sure they did it well, and that they understood the culture of law enforcement and procedures so they didn't interfere with crime scenes. In order to do that, she says cross-training was critical.

It was also important in the early days, she says, that they had law enforcement liaisons, not just from the top who said it was important, but from sergeants who were on the street doing the actual work who believed in what the program did, and who helped the advocates if they made a mistake or made law enforcement unhappy. Having that kind of relationship was extremely critical in the beginning stages so they could be aware of issues and bridge those gaps, according to Sharp.

Another strategy that led to the program's success was developing a volunteer component. Their crisis intervention efforts began as a joint project between a staff member and a volunteer driving the crisis unit. It evolved over the years to becoming strictly done by teams of volunteers.

"... I think volunteers are just critical to any program, not just from the cost savings, and that's what folks usually look at, but from the involvement and from what they bring--the heart they bring and the energy they bring and the different views they bring."

Failures

Sharp's biggest problem with crisis intervention was getting law enforcement to consistently call and request it for victims, even though state legislation said that crime victims should have a right to be notified of crisis intervention services. She says she worked for years to make this service automatic for crime victims in Pima County, but she was never able to effect that change. She believes, however, that it will be solved by advocates in the future.

Greatest Accomplishment

Sharp identifies the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime and the passage of VOCA as the greatest accomplishments of the victim assistance field, and also cites the passage of the Arizona constitutional amendment for victims' rights. In Pima County, they had a very unique group called "We, the People" that grew out of a group of community activists who led the charge on the constitutional amendment in Arizona. Yet it was quite a challenge because it was heavily contested in Arizona by defense attorneys and public defenders. She describes a lot of creativity that went into this work: "I can even remember times around the holidays dressed up as a snowflake or a Santa Claus outside of different stores to get petitions signed. I mean we did ridiculous things to get names on those petitions and to get the constitutional amendment passed. And I think Arizona was even tougher because the constitutional amendment that was written in Arizona was a tougher one and so it was harder to get through."

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

The best advice that Sharp can give to victim service providers is to remember: "After all the years of doing this work where we try to look at different techniques and different ways to make things happen, the bottom line is when people are traumatized or victimized or hurt, they need somebody to listen. If you do nothing else, but you listen and you care, you make a huge difference. You make a huge difference in any language."

Sharp also believes the field needs to take care of its professionals. She thinks the field has not paid attention to how difficult this work is for advocates, and this is a critical issue for the field in the future. She strongly believes vicarious trauma prevention plans and ways to address job stress should be developed and implemented. Sharp also thinks it's important for people who are in management positions within victim service programs to continue to attend training programs and not just train, so they get re-inspired and "don't lose sight of what this work is truly about."

She feels strongly that in the field's growth, it is critical that community service programs should reflect the community. In Pima County, they did a lot of outreach to ensure, as Sharp relates, ".....that we had both on our staff and our volunteer corps at least one or two of everything..... and by that I mean every size, shape, color, belief, everything we could come up with.....and then not only do you reflect the community, but you learn from each other."

Vision for the Future

Sharp sees a tremendous foundation that has been laid by many pioneers--staff, volunteers and crime victims. With this foundation and the advances in technology and the influx of young people into the field, the possibilities are endless even though there's lots of work still to do. She thinks the field is going to do nothing but "grow and get better, and that victims are going to become much more a part of the fabric and the conversation."

Although Sharp feels that the field as it's evolved has lost some of that personal contact and caring with the increased use of technology, she observes that "progress is always a double-edged sword." She strongly believes that for experienced advocates and for new advocates:

"I think it's important to look back and see where we started, but I don't think we need to stay there and muddle around in it either. I think we need to look to the new generation and the technology and the exciting ideas they have because they're going to take it in an entirely different way than we've taken it. And I think it'll be exciting to see where it goes."