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

Marlene A. Young J.D., Ph.D.
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Marlene A. Young J.D., Ph.D.
Interviewee:Marlene Young;
Washington, DC
Date of Interview:January 12, 2003
Location:Washington, DC

Marlene A. Young, J.D., Ph.D.

Executive Director, NOVA


Dr. Young is a founding Director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA). She served as President from 1979 to 1981, when she became Executive Director. She has pioneered crisis response protocols and international efforts on behalf of crime victims, among other issues.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

Marlene Young describes that in the early days of the movement, victim assistance work was done by individuals and programs in relative isolation. Her attempt to educate herself about the subject of victimology and victim assistance led her to the conclusion that there was a need to consolidate the written works and expertise in order to enhance and advance both. Encouraged by her employer at the time, Multnomah County Sheriff Lee Brown, she began to conceive the idea of creating a national network that became the National Organization for Victim Assistance in 1975.

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

Very early on in her work, Young was struck by the dearth of information available about the subject of crime victims both in conceptual and practical terms.

" one really knew what they were doing in terms of skills in serving victims. [We] used to laugh a lot about, you know, flying by the seat of our pants because there was no map for you. There was no way to say, well, I'm gonna' turn to this person and ask them how to do stuff because there's no one to turn to. [So] in that sense there was a huge void. "
"I think another thing that was real clear to me is that no one outside of victims that you talk to directly cared about victims, and in fact, many people who were victims didn't even know they were victims because the terminology or the concept of what a victim was, wasn't really well recognized. I mean, there was nothing about... defining... it, so they didn't have a role, they didn't have an identity, and I think that was striking to me even in terms of part of how the movement got started."

Young points out that the earliest "victim research" did not even focus of victims per se, but rather on the experience of witnesses and their experience or treatment within the criminal justice system. She cites a publication entitled Witness Cooperation, written by Frank Cannavale as the best example of such early work. Further research, particularly in the development of victimization surveys "contributed a lot to the initial impetus to do something for victims," which led directly to the broader concept of direct service and assistance for crime victims.

As for crime victims, Young recounts that for the most part, they had no rights:

"In 1975, there were no protections for victims -- protection from harassment. There was no protection from intimidation. There were no protections in the courtroom. There was no... sort of assistance for victims when they went into the courtroom. There was no information given to them usually. They didn't find out about their case status. They didn't find out about whether or not anything happened, the disposition in the case. If they were used at all, they were used as witnesses, but there was no acknowledgment that they had any role otherwise."
"There were no rights to participation. In fact, we often referred to victims as just one more piece of evidence in the trial process. ...If you were not involved in the criminal justice process, you just were not counted."

Greatest Challenges

Apart from the lack of conceptual and practical knowledge of the field in the early days, Young also points out the general lack of awareness about victim issues among members of the public.

"The fact that people didn't have a concept of it unless they'd been a victim and if they'd find themselves as a victim, and that most people didn't want to hear about it either unless it touched them..."

She notes that a lack of public awareness is what gave rise to NOVA's efforts to create "National Forgotten Victims Week" which later became National Crime Victims' Rights Week. Beyond the focused effort to make victims less "invisible," the effort also highlighted the lack of "institutional support in the way of laws, legal institutions and anything that gave victims any kind of method of being heard in the institutional system."

Young points to the lack of research as the most serious challenge addressed:

"... We had do the research. We had to get the knowledge base. We had to form the framework for understanding. We had to develop the theoretical concepts that were needed, and we had to publish them.......and I don't say that simply from a sort of researcher's perspective. It was desperately needed to sort of bolster the conceptual basis of our field."

Successful Strategies

Young believes that one relative area of success is the fact that leaders in the field were able to draw attention to the issue and the plight of victims through public speaking, awareness and education.

"I think in terms of public awareness, one of the things that I know some of us did was simply to say, there's no voice for victims ... we're gonna' become that voice..."

Young also counts the significant progress in the legislative arena as important for the transformation of the victim assistance field. Yet she indicates that success was accomplished more by individual lobbying efforts with the support of only a few legislative leaders:

"...We resorted to what I figure was kind of an effort of target lobbying and kind of an effort of secrecy in some ways, of slipping legislation through the legislature with the help of maybe one or two legislators taking on that issue, and that was much better for us than trying to either do grassroots efforts or even trying to do a lot of awareness within the legislature because we would find opposition."

A direct outgrowth of NOVA's legislative advocacy was the development of a "Bill of Rights" for crime victims.

"So we came up with a list of seven basic rights......the right to protection, the right to information and notification, the right to counsel, the right to reparations, the right to property (loss recovery) and employment, the right to due process, and the right to dignity and compassion."


Young acknowledges that many challenges remain. She fears that what she terms the "institutionalization of the movement" has created a "career track" that sometimes omits the passion possessed by early activists in the field:

"I think that when I go out and talk to groups now, in many cases I find that it takes a lot to inspire groups, even of victim advocates, because they have a nine-to-five job ....they have salaries. They look at it as a job. Many of them graduate out of college on a career track, which is good with the idea...I'm gonna' become a victim advocate which was unheard of early on. But as a result, it's looked at as a job. It's not looked at as a mission, and there's a big difference in the energy you pour into a job versus the energy you pour into a mission in most cases."

Another major challenge that remains today is funding. She relates that while the passage of VOCA infused considerable resources into the field, and as such remains one of its "best accomplishments," it "seems like it is always in jeopardy."

Finally, she sees extending services to traditionally underserved or unserved victims populations as an area that needs more attention:

"We haven't yet begun to serve the victims of financial exploitation. We haven't ... begun to serve victims that have been victims of terrorism because we never really have been exposed to it, and I suggest that's gonna' be a major field. We haven't yet really begun to even think about victims of war, which could be a major challenge for the field as a whole in the next few years. So we haven't begun to address victims... who are immigrants, who are refugees. We haven't done well enough even in the traditional fields to reach those people of color, those people who are differently-abled. All of these are victims that are left to be served."

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

Young emphasizes the need for training and education. She reflects that there are still many victim advocates that have been in the field "... working for three, four and five years and never have gone to a training and are working with victims." She points to the lack of resources as one barrier to comprehensive training. She even suggests that perhaps they should have included a specific allocation for training in the original VOCA formula as a way that might have assured more consistent funding for victim service training.

She also cites the need for certification rather than credentialing as the best way to assure quality in the delivery of victim services.

"I believe that involves more than just training. It means testing. It means establishing accountability. It means establishing commissions, if you will which is fearful, but so that you can be -- to use a parallel -- disbarred. I mean....if you have really sort of messed up with a victim, I think you should be told you're not gonna' be able to work in victim services and that should be a part of your record so if you go to another state."

Young emphasizes the need for young professionals to train and educate themselves. She also offers that prospective victim professionals not even enter the field "...if you are getting into it for a nine-to-five job."

" know, victims are victims at any time and most of us know that some of the quote, worst cases happened on Friday night, on a Saturday, the weekends, or Christmas holidays or New Year's....and you have to be available for that. You have to be willing to commit yourself to that."

She also suggests that young professionals need to know themselves well enough to know they can handle the inherent stress involved in the job.

"This is a field where...... everyone has financial stress and everyone has probably family stress or job stress, but in this field you're gonna' be exposed to murder, mayhem, and misery, and you need to prepare yourself to be able to take that in and survive and that's a crucial issue for any new professional."

Vision for the Future

Young's vision is a global one: "quality victim services internationally in every country for all crime victims." In her estimation, this will require "broadening our views of providing technical assistance and training to other countries, helping them establish laws and the like:"

"I can't help but be aware of the fact that our global community as we all know is shrinking and more and more people are traveling, and if you are a victim say in South Africa as a United States citizen, I would like to see in South Africa the same services available as you would have in your jurisdiction here. We have a long way to go in equalizing services across state boundaries and equalizing rights in this country, but we have a far greater way to go in trying to make this clear that the world is bound together in this."

Young also pointed out that NOVA had always included in its vision the idea of "violence prevention."

"When we talk about the right to protection, ... the first right the victim should have... before they are victimized... a right to protection from violence means violence prevention....."

Young cites the establishment of the International Declaration of the Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power (passed by the United Nations) as just one example of how setting international standards can actually begin to bring about change on a worldwide basis. She sees the development of an international victim service community where networks allow for the ongoing exchange of ideas and service strategies. Such approaches are "mutually beneficial" and will help with "constructing this long-term vision."

"....we have to enlarge our vision of what those rights should be and probably enlarge our vision of... what victims we're going to serve.
"....We have to keep re-figuring that so that we have an understanding of that and also looking at the rights that may be there, what they should be. I've argued for years, first much to the humor of my colleagues, but I said from the very get-go with victim rights that a victim should have a right to counsel, and I didn't mean counseling, a right to counsel.
" ... Well, right now we have an international criminal court being established where there's gonna' be three parties with legal representatives... a defense lawyer, prosecutor lawyer, and a victim's lawyer. Well, I think it shows that we can do something like that .......if we just said, you know, 20 years ago, let's stay in our box of what our rights should be, then we would never have gotten to a place where a criminal court would even think of it and that's what we have to do as part of the vision -- is not just say let's establish what we have today throughout the world, but let's establish what we have today throughout the world but also recognize the enhancements that we may find along the way."

Greatest Fear

Young makes a strong case for why we need to preserve the past for the field's future. She notes that much of the work done in the field is not documented in a traditional historical sense. Even work, such as training, that inherently generates documents are not being preserved in historical context by the traditional means of preservation:

"There are not good textbooks, so we're here, you know, 20 or 30 years after the movement has started, we're looking at professionalizing the field and there's very few good documents, and.... that's difficult to think of because...... where's the legacy? I mean, this exercise, this (OVC Oral History) project goes to record some of.... the history of where we've been, but in terms of recording the actual knowledge and transferring the knowledge, we don't have a project to do that in documentation."