An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Adkins: Jeannette Adkins, J-E-A-N-N-E-T-T-E, A-D-K-I-N-S.
Seymour: Great. Ready to roll? All right. Thanks for coming today, Jeannette. Starting off, how did you first get involved in the victims' movement and/or why?
Adkins: I got involved in 1982. I was working in Dayton area at Juvenile Court and a friend of mine was approached by Bill Schenck, who was trying to start a victim assistance program in his prosecuting attorney's office. And at that time, uh, the program in Dayton and a few northern, uh, larger city prosecutor's offices had programs, but it was not a common thing at all at that time.
And a friend of mine was approached, what was funny was after she had written a kind of derogatory letter about Bill on a case... regarding a case, he went to her and said she seemed like a real advocate for people and would she be interested in starting a victim assistance program for him.
And she told him she was a radical feminist and that she wouldn't compromise her values for a politician but she had a friend that might be interested (laugh). And that's really how this, it was just a fluke that it came about. That I went over and interviewed with Bill and talked to him about his goals for starting a victim assistance program and he said, "I won't look over your shoulder, I just want A, B, C and D done." And I said, "I think I can do that for you" and that's how it started for me.
Seymour: 1982 when you started, Jeannette, can you describe the field of victims' rights and services including, if you will, the context of the era?
Adkins: I think we were just kind of getting into what I call like the legislative area. I mean there were, I was certainly aware of the grassroots efforts at that time, sexual assault, domestic violence -- had come across some of those in the other work that I had done to that point. But I can tell you that starting out in a prosecuting attorney's offices... office, I felt like I was standing in a big field all by myself at first. I really felt like I was on my own and that I was going to have truly eke this program out on my own without any real guidance.
That's when I contacted some of the larger programs, which where I was establishing a program, we affectionately called the area Mayberry because it is a small kind of a semi-rural community and I didn't know how much I'd be able to learn or how much I'd be able to adopt from the larger programs. And there weren't a lot of programs that were my size out there. So the legislative movement had started when it came to Bill of Rights in the State of Ohio we didn't have any of the things that we have today, of course, and my main concern was providing crisis intervention to crime victims in Greene County and trying to make sure that they had some support and assistance as they went through the criminal justice system.
And I felt like with my professional background, I could provide the crisis intervention, but I wasn't really sure what things other people were doing. And so I ended up finding out that there were national organizations that might be helpful to me and some state organizations and I immediately joined those to get some guidance.
Seymour: And can you talk a little bit more about that, and the kind of guidance you got from maybe an example of national and maybe an example of state?
Adkins: Sure. I went to state first because the very first thing some of the larger programs told me is, "We have a statewide association, they'll have a victim witness association and there's not a whole lot of us but we get together every month and we talk about, what it is that we're each doing and how we can help each other and we share brochures and material and everybody, you know, will give you their stuff and you take anything you want of any of it and we're all willing to share and so nobody has to reinvent the wheel." I started in January of 1982.
I went to my first meeting I think in March of '82 and I have been going religiously to OVWA meetings ever since and still do today because I get some of the best support primarily for myself as a... as an advocate, but excellent exchange of information, to do new things, to establish things that we aren't doing or to share information about things that I'm doing that maybe others aren't.
So the Ohio Victim Witness Association was like a godsend to me and I remember the first meeting I walked into I was expecting a roomful of people and there were 5 people around a table that was smaller than this. And we just met together monthly and the 5 grew to 10, grew to 13, grew to 20, 25 and it just kept going. And now today our meetings are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 people that come regularly for that very same thing. Primarily the support, the camaraderie, to, you know, share information and that sort of thing. Through OVWA, I found NOVA.
That was the first national organization that I became familiar with. I went to my first conference in 1986 and I've had some exposure to NOVA before that because my prosecutor had a connection at that time in Congress who invited him to come and testify about the VOCA, Victims of Crime Act, that Congress was considering and so that was my very first contact with NOVA. John Stein called and said, "We... we're trying to find out who this Bill Schenck is and he's supposed to be coming here to testify and we want to, you know, at least hook up with him beforehand."
So that's where I first got exposure to some of the, information that was available at the national level. And when I heard about VOCA, I got so excited because in the earlier parts of my position at the Prosecutor's Office, when I started trying to find money to hire additional staff to help me, I was the Lone Ranger. I was doing victim assistance for uh, the entire county by myself on a 24 hour crisis intervention basis when we offered a 24 hour response. But what I, one of the things that I discovered was there were grants available for sexual assault programs to establish, prevention for rape, prevention for child sexual abuse.
And I would creatively write a grant and say, "I'll do prevention but if I get any identified clients, you know, may I provide direct services to them, too, as a part of this grant?" So we just tried to be real creative with those types of funds uh, and when I heard about VOCA, I just felt like this is it. This will be exactly what we need to just provide direct services in general.
Seymour: In your specific area of victim witness, what was the greatest challenge that you and your colleagues faced in affecting change, starting in the early days?
Adkins: I'd say in those real early days it was just trying to get people to understand that they needed to pay attention to victims and... and it started with law enforcement, I think was my biggest challenge. It was such a big challenge to me that I felt like if I can't beat them, I'm going to join them and I went through the police academy in 1983, and became a peace officer in the State of Ohio because I thought maybe they'll listen to me if I'm a cop. And that, to me was, a way of, you know, I guess kind of becoming one of them and trying to get them to listen to the needs of crime victims.
I think they were some of the early victim advocates truly, but they had biases and they had certain cases. If they had what they called, and it used to kill me when they would do this, call it a "good victim," then they got excellent advocacy services, support, assistance from the detective or the law enforcement officer that was helping them. But if they were, you know, one of the women drinking in a bar, goes out with a guy and ends up in a sexual assault situation, as a result, then they were very negative, very biased and they wouldn't take the investigation forward. And so that was our biggest battle, I think, was trying to get law enforcement to look at every case, at least initially, in a fair way so that they would complete the investigation before they made any judgements or decided to get rid of the case.
And it was... that was a major challenge. That and other people in the criminal justice system had the same attitude, I think. That, you know -- victims are witnesses; we don't really need to be concerned about what they want or what they have to say, we just need them if we end up, you know, prosecuting this case. Those are probably the major things that I battled. And victim advocates were unheard of at that time, other than the traditional grassroots, advocates that were operating in domestic violence and sexual assault programs and they were at constant battle with the police.
And I can remember one of the first cops that I met said to me, "Are you going to be like those NOW women?" That was his response to me when I shook his hand and introduced myself. So I knew we had a major battle on our hands when it came to law enforcement and others in the criminal justice system, too.
Seymour: What are some of the secrets, tactics and strategies that you employed that were successful?
Adkins: One of them was going to the police academy. And that was, I have to say, I always had an interest in being a law enforcement officer but that was simply a sneaky strategy on my part to try to win these cops over or to, like I said, if I couldn't beat them, I was going to join them and that maybe they would listen to me if I was a cop. That was one.
I think that another thing that was something that I ended up preaching to all of our volunteers, because at that time I had to use volunteers I still didn't have any paid staff was preaching diplomacy and I felt that that was a strategy and it still works for me today, 21 years later. You have to be diplomatic about it. No matter how frustrated, no matter how angry, no matter how much of an idiot you think this person is and the problems that they might be causing for crime victims, you have got to be diplomatic about it and be professional about it.
But another thing that I think that was a little sneaky on our part was trying to make law enforcement officers, for example - and I don't want to pick on them but they were a major barrier, was trying to make something... make them think that something was their idea. And that was a strategy that we used a lot and if they did one thing right and maybe they did a hundred other things wrong, we would zero in on the one thing they did right, write a letter to their chief about it and talk about how great they were, keep complimenting them about that and then we found that they started responding to that.
So we started giving an award. That was another little kind of a sneaky tactic - I shouldn't say sneaky, I shouldn't use the word sneaky, that's not really fair - but, it was a strategy on our part to really recognize the positive and try to use some behavior modification, if you will, to keep them doing that. And we started an award that became a coveted award in our county a law enforcement award, that they began to, we'd have officers walk in and say, "What do I need to do to get that award?" when they'd see a picture of some officers being given the award. And we felt that also helped.
Seymour: What were some of the failures of then or today?
Adkins: I think, for me personally some of those people that we never won over. That we never, never, got to a point where they truly were sensitive to crime victims' needs or ever really cared. I mean that was probably the saddest part for me and there are still people that I feel we failed in some way. That we weren't successful in all those little sneaky strategies in trying to win them over or trying to get them to recognize victims' rights, or just be respectful of the crime victims that they were providing service to.
So I feel that there were some people in law enforcement and criminal justice and even people I've met at state level and national level that we were never quite able to get them to see it, you know, to see the need or to care about it.
Seymour: Do... do you see that changing now in the context of the Oral History Project, we're talking 1972, you know, when the field began...31 years later, are we becoming more institutionalized or not?
Adkins: Yes, I think we are. I think that, and it's hard to convey that to new people coming in who it's already like this for them, it isn't anything like it was for us. So I think yes, we've come a long, long way and we are not as institutionalized as I'd like to see us become. But I think that if you can get most people recognizing that crime victims do have a right to be a part of the team in the system, and to recognize those rights, we've made major leaps and brown... bounds towards that. I think we still have a long way to go, though.
Seymour: What do you perceive to be the one greatest accomplishment that's promoted victims' rights and issues? And if you have more than one that's okay, but...
Adkins: I would say if I could focus on any one thing that certainly has had the most major impact during my tenure in this field would be VOCA, without a doubt. And I, as I said earlier, it was like a godsend for us because it was the first funding that provided money to just do direct services regardless of what type of crime victim it was. Everything up to that point for us had to be a target population and that was a good thing. I mean, you know, don't get me wrong, that was really good that we could, you know, focus a particular project or program on domestic violence or child sexual abuse or whatever, you know, the RFP was requesting. But VOCA was the first time that we had money that would allow us to just provide direct services and we wouldn't have to run and do prevention programs at the same time for the grant.
And I think that VOCA helped institutionalize us. In my opinion, prosecutors, I'm very fortunate for the prosecutor that I work for who's still there in his seventh unopposed term. But there are colleagues of mine who are not so fortunate and whose prosecutors didn't really care to make victims' assistance a part of their offices or to recognize those rights. And I think that VOCA, just even the, just the funding helped to establish those programs in so many offices that otherwise I don't think would have ever had them.
Seymour: What is needed today to continue the growth and professionalism of our field or... and/or what... what's missing?
Adkins: If I look at the whole picture as it relates to crime victims, I would say the Constitutional Amendment and not just words, not just something that's assembled, but something that is actually establishes their rights to equal that of a defendant. I think that goes without saying. My big thing in the field that I think is absolutely crucial is credentialing for those that are providing services to crime victims.
And I know that there are fragments of our field, when you look at it as a whole, who have, like I'm a licensed counselor, there are licensed social workers, they are our ends that are working in our field. There are certified peace officers or law enforcement officers but I think an overall credentialing and identification of our field as a profession is missing and is important and is right around the corner, I hope.
Seymour: What advice can you give to professionals and volunteers who've joined our field recently in the past one to ten years?
Adkins: The very first thing I would say to any of them is hang in there because I'm afraid that some of them are still being greeted by the good ole boy cops, as I like to call them and I hate to stereotype but they're still there, and, and those in the system that would be very frustrating for them. So hang in there with that kind of stuff and keep trying to, I guess, eke their way into that whole system. But the other thing that I think is so very important that new people don't realize, and I remember feeling this way myself, is that we need them. Those of us who've been in this field for a long time need them desperately (cough in background) and we need their input, we need their ideas we need their perspective so I would encourage them to get involved.
Get involved, not only locally and even if they have to do it themselves, establishing a local coalition of their service providers, but get involved with their state organizations whichever ones are, they're the most comfortable with and at the national level. Because I think that we're in a time period where our field has certainly evolved and, as you say, we're... we've institutionalized to a certain extent, but they have every right to be a part of the say so in where we're headed and what... what this field becomes. So I hope that they will... will get involved and they'll speak up and not be shy about it.
Seymour: Jeannette, what vision do you have for the future of our field?
Adkins: I'm gonna harp on it again, but I think that credentialing for victim service providers is probably my greatest vision. That, to me, is very, very important for the individuals who are providing services to crime victims for their self-worth because we have so many people without degrees and who volunteer their time who may come from different backgrounds or different professions that need that belonging and need that, not necessarily the recognition, but the opportunity to belong to a profession.
What goes hand-in-hand with that I think are the standards and the, well I guess the standards that we ask them to adhere to, can only improve victims' services and so I think that that is very, very important. I think the pie-in-the-sky vision would be that everybody would recognize victims' rights and respect them and respect the facts... fact that victims deserve a place in the system. They deserve to be a part of the team.
That is so second nature to me because of my prosecuting attorney who has made them a part of our team in prosecutions in our county from the time that I started that I don't see why everybody doesn't get it and how... how they, why they make it so difficult when it really isn't difficult at all. We do not jeopardize the rights of defendants in our county and we give victims a voice and equal participation right along with the law enforcement officer, right along with the prosecutor, right along with adult probation in our process. And it can happen and it, I don't know what's so hard about it. I don't... I don't understand that.
Seymour: Last question. What is your greatest fear for the field?
Adkins: I would say the greatest fear that I have is a lack of funding because, I think, at any time you, anybody has a vision or anybody goes ten steps forward, it's always got funding attached to it. And when I start seeing the cap stuff on VOCA and then I start seeing a pool of money disappear or nobody can really account for what happened to a chunk of that money - not that it was misused, I don't mean to imply that, I just mean that it was earmarked for crime victims and then suddenly it's not there or it's been reprioritized or whatever, it frightens me because the minute you don't have the funds, and if we look back to the old LEAA money in the earlier years and the, you know, the programs that were started that were wonderful uh, with those monies and then when those monies were gone those programs were gone.
And people cannot do this without funding. And one of the things that I hear right now, just with a little bit, see I don't know that they understand at the national level, no matter how many letters we all write, no matter how phone... how many phone calls we make, I don't think they understand that even what's happened right now and how it's affected 2003 funding, how that has trickled down and what impact it's had at the local level. I don't think that our legislators understand that. And as a result, I've already seen people who can't expand their programs and the need is there. We've gone, you know, up probably nearly maybe 50 percent and our federal funding is just in Mayberry where I am and we don't have the opportunity now under VOCA to expand staff or to come up with another creative program to target a particular population or do anything because there's been, you know, a freeze put on the funds and we're only getting, and for the last two years, we were only getting the level of funding that we had the previous year, so that's a problem.
That's a problem and... and, you know, I worry about that money being used for other things and we don't end up with it going where it needs to be.
Seymour: Let me ask you a bonus question. If you had a new staff person coming on board or a new victim advocate in the field tomorrow and you need to tell them just one or two things that was different between when the field began in '72 and now, what would that be?
Adkins: I probably would tell them that we had to work very hard to, and actually beg, for a position in the criminal justice system. And as it is today, this person is gonna walk in the door and they're gonna walk right into that accepted role as a part of the criminal justice system. They're gonna walk right into that pretrial hearing and the judge is gonna expect them to be there and they're gonna have a seat at the table and the judge is actually gonna look at them - this is my county I'm speaking about, but it's happening other places as well - where the judge is actually going to say to him, "And what does the victim advocate have to say?"
They need to know that that wasn't always that way. And I think they need to know it to appreciate it and to cherish it and to be (cough in background) very, very careful with it because it could easily be taken away as... as, you know, as quickly as it was, uh, well it wasn't quickly bestowed on us but it was, it can easily be taken away. And I... and I, so I want them to know that so that they're very, very careful with what it took us so long to create.
|This project was supported by Grant Number 2002-VF-GX-0009 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this product are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.|