An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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McCann: It's Michaelene O'Neill McCann, M-I-C-H-A-E-L-E-N-E, O'-N-E-I-L-L, McCann is M-C-C-A-N-N.
Beatty: Can you state your position and agency?
McCann: I'm an Assistant District Attorney and Chief of the Victim Witness Services Program in the Essex District Attorney's Office in Salem, Massachusetts.
Beatty: Okay. Let me start by asking you how did you get into the victims' group. What brought you to this field and got you personally interested in it?
McCann: I guess it took me a while from the time that I can trace ... to my interests. I was a very naive 19 year-old student nurse in an emergency room, and a um, police officer came in with a 12 year-old girl and her mother pulled her... the... her husband, the father of this child off of the daughter. He had been raping her. And so I can remember being very horrified and really I just... I can still see the looks on both the mother's face and the young girl's face, and I think that stayed with me for years until I was asked by colleague in nursing if I was interested in getting involved in a community group that was looking at services for rape victims in our community, and I immediately said, "Yes."
And she laughed and thought she would have to do a selling job and I said, "Oh no, I'm very interested, I really am", and I became interested even further. I got involved with that group, and in fact, was Co-chair of that initial group and we tried to make contacts with the police departments, with the hospitals in the area, and I also discovered I needed to learn a whole lot more, and so I took my first course in sexual assault, and through that I was connected with Dr. Ann Burgess and a group... this was in 1975, and with a group of nurses and social workers that had evolved out of the study that she and Ann Wolbert did at Boston City Hospital, started in 1972.
So that group became volunteer rape crisis counselors in their home communities and educated ourselves, and it was really a support group as well in terms of peer supervision and counseling as well.
Beatty: Okay. Great. Well, you are a victim of... excuse me, a veteran of the field, and obviously, have been doing this work for quite a while. I was wondering if you could take a few minutes and sort of take us through the evolution of victim's services and victims' rights and your experience over the last... how many years have you been doing this work?
McCann: Since 1975.
Beatty: 1975. Could you kind of take us through just so we can get a sense of how things have evolved?
McCann: Well, I initially I think that as a rape crisis counselor the fact that I was a nurse helped enormously in gaining trust and credibility and I think that was a huge issue but it helped a lot with police officers that I was a nurse. Cops like nurses. It also helped that, for me personally, that I had a retired father-in-law who was a police Captain on... on the local police department, so he opened a few doors for me, that I didn't know about until much later actually which was interesting but I think that people are very threatened by the presence of counselors.
They thought they, police particularly, were going to be told how to do their jobs. Hospital people were more afraid of non-medical people being in the area. Again, being a nurse, an RN, helped me tremendously in that area. I was allowed to go into examining rooms with victims and that didn't always happen. Prosecutors really welcomed, for the most part, at least in my experience, welcomed the assistance, and from being a volunteer rape crisis counselor, I then was employed in the late '70s, actually mid-70s um... I'm sorry... under a what I believe is a human service grant from the Federal government, and it was required that rape prevention and treatment and services be provided.
And I was paid for it 10 hours a week and worked about 60. We didn't have hotline numbers in those days, so police in hospitals had all of our home numbers. We did the first training course that I put together, Dr. Ann Burgess spoke, Dr. Nicholas Groth spoke, people who came and didn't charge a few for training, and I had I think 65 people signed up for that first course and I was astounded. There was such a hunger for information and education, I think both from professionals as well as people in the community.
So, I think there was just beginning to be a stir, and in the late '70s, I was hired to be a victim witness advocate. In that same community in um, which covered Middlesex... which was in Middlesex County in... in Massachusetts, and I covered all sexual assault crimes for children and adults for two other jurisdictions, as well. And when I look back now, the fact that I was young, I think allowed me to that um, but you know, I think we worked a lot of hours and we made sure that we responded promptly when asked and that I think we were trying to be accepted and to ... we knew that victims were getting the assistance because they told us they were. They were telling us how much it helped.
It was the providers, I think, that the police, the hospitals, the courts, that I think we were trying to... to get to accept that process. And in... in the '70s I think prosecutors went for federal funds from LEAA, which was Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funds, and they were required to have victim advocates at that time. And I don't know that many of them quite knew what to expect. I know that I was hired in one for a District Court and I asked if, when I started, if they minded if I followed sexual assault cases through to the Grand Jury process and the Superior Court trial. Um, and they... I was told by the prosecutors, "Well, sure," and so that just evolved because I had cases that were already in that process and did they mind if I followed through on those.
And so it worked out well and now that is so much of an institutionally accepted process. It's... it's... that's kind of... of great to see. Um, and that was happening in the late '70s, the early '80s. We've definitely come a long way. I think through the '80s there was a lot of establishment of services, a lot of expansion. I went from that program to law school in... in the early '80s, and um...
Beatty: Now what caused you to want to go to law school in the midst of all this?
McCann: I was once asked that when I was in law school, and I...my immediate response was credibility, and my second response was power. That from observations in the court system that attorneys had a lot of credibility and power, and social workers didn't necessarily have that or were not necessarily seen in that... in that view, so I had attempted to go to graduate school and spent a year as a part-time graduate student and really felt that could do all that I was doing with a lot more clout if I were an attorney, and and that's proven to be very, very truthful, I guess.
It's ... it has definitely helped tremendously to have a law degree and to be an Assistant District Attorney. It... it does give you additional credibility. I think you have your feet in both fields, victim services, as well as... as the law, so it does help tremendously.
Beatty: Okay. Well, great. Well, I was curious to know in your experience over those 20 some years, what do you think has been the greatest challenge and how is those... how have those kind of challenges affected that uh, we attempt to provide rights and services to crime victims?
McCann: I think the greatest challenge is... is acceptance, and the greatest... and the acknowledgement that victims have rights. That there's always the fear that victims are going to take over the system and that victims are going to call the shots, and, in my experience what they want is imput, what they want is a say and we really at... in most states cannot prosecute a crime without a victim's testimony, and with... with few exceptions and so I think that they are such an integral part of our system, and yet it has been... it has taken so long for us to acknowledge that and I think the fears have not come true.
I think that a lot of victims don't want to make all of the decisions. They want input. Um, and I think that that that's been a challenge for many to see that that happens. And I think the other challenge is seeing that victim rights are enforced across the board. That it's not in many ways- the early days you... you were lucky if you were able to get an educated nurse in an emergency room who was very familiar with a sexual assault exam, and a police officer who had been to rape prevention training, and that... I mean that was considered so wonderful if you could get that.
And while you have many more uh... I mean, I think police were the really first to embrace victim rights and the first to, you know, to really be victim advocates and the hospitals I think the courts ... and I think in some areas of the court system, there is... there's still, you know, some concern particularly with the defense bar that that victim rights might erode defendant rights. So I think that that trying to keep that balance is important.
Beatty: What... what are in the context of challenges or... or just sort of the general accomplishments of... of the field and your work? What strategies, tactics have you found have been most effective and sort of promulgating and moving the profess... profession forward in helping victims and their interests?
McCann: Well, in the early days it was as... as simple as... I'm going back to the mid-70s now, as wearing skirts to the police department when we responded instead of jeans. I look back now on that say wow, but we were very careful to, you know, to create an image that... that was accepted. I think I've learned over the years not to battle every single issue. I think um... and I could tend to do that, so I've... I've learned... I... the better you're educated about issues, the more intelligently you can discuss them, and also the strategies are I've... I've been very lucky to have worked for a District Attorney who was a primary drafter of the Victim Bill of Rights in our State.
And I've... I've worked for him... or had worked for him for 18 years, so I have that...
Beatty: His name is?
McCann: Kevin Burke. District Attorney Kevin Burke, who has left office and retired, and I'm happy to say that his successor District Attorney John Blodgett feels the same way about victim rights, and so it's very beneficial to be in my position and to have that kind of support because it has to come from the top down. I think that's where you have to create the acceptance, the acknowledgement-- because if it isn't there, then it's a hit or miss, you know, in the ranks. It just... it has to be a policy. It's has to be part and parcel of an approach in a prosecutor's office, particularly, and I... and I also think it has be-- the strategies also have to be that you have to work collaboratively with all of the other agencies that provide services.
There's certainly enough to go around... work to go around. There's so much to be done, and we need to be cooperative. We need to be collaborative. We need... unfortunately, funds often put us in competitive positions, and I, you know, I'm... I think that people need to work really hard at and do it on an ongoing basis at working together, at... at utilizing and pulling all their resources together so that the victim benefits. You know, that... that's the ultimate goal, that we serve victims more appropriately and more effectively, so...
Beatty: What would you say is the greatest accomplishment of the field to date?
McCann: Oh, the Victim Bill of Rights, and I truly in my experience it's been the... the most significant piece of legislation that's been passed and in... in states throughout the country, but that we have something to fall back on, and in some states it's--they're better than others. Um, but I really like being able to say Chapter 258 B in, you know, the Mass general laws requires that you or that we provide such and such to victims. It's a very effective tool and prosecutor's offices have primarily two main tools... where... I mean in... in terms of legislation. I mean, they... they're mandated to provide prosecution of crimes against the Commonwealth in... in Massachusetts, for instance, and they're mandated to provide services to victims, witnesses, and family members.
And so there's not perhaps as much tooth to the Bill as I, you know, as many of us would like, but it's a really effective tool. It really does its job, I think. Um, and the victim impact statement is probably such a significant part of that-- that if victims and survivors are not part of the process in terms of testifying, they can have input. They can let the court know or they can let the defendant know what their feelings are, and they can have input into the sentencing process. And I think that there's nothing that's had a greater significance than that.
Beatty: You mentioned earlier in one of your comments that one of the challenges with victims' rights is... is the actual implementation. What have you found is effective in ... or what are the challenges in the terms of... of implementing those rights and what strategies have been effective in... in making them a reality for crime victims?
McCann: I think education and training that prosecutors, new prosecutors, certainly victim witness advocates, certainly advocates that are in community-based agencies, police, hospitals, the you know, the community at large that the awareness of those rights is very important to the provision of them. That... that people need to know that those rights are there, that they... and we inform... we're required by law to inform them of those rights and inform them of other services that they have the right to um, and inform them about the process, so that they're not just going in without any kind of preparation.
So, that that's part of what our Bill of Rights is in Massachusetts, and I mean, it's... it's pretty comprehensive, and it's, it includes the best practices that were, you know, present in most district attorney's offices, that... that those were then incorporated into the Bill. It's taken what I think of... of how many years I believe District Attorney Kevin Burke and Karen McLaughlin were the most effective people in passing it originally in 1983, and it was revised again in 1995, and it's you know, it's... it's really grown, I think, with the... the practice and I think that's a key, the practice.
That victim services are a practice, are a field and they are... are part of the... the prosecution team.
Beatty: We've talked about some of the successes of the field, what in your mind are some of the failures or... or the challenges that remain out there for us?
McCann: I think judges need to be educated. I think that and I don't mean --I think that most of them do a very good job and care very deeply and I think that the education needs to be ongoing, and it... and just as it does for prosecutors, for victim advocates. You know, what is it, that education is a lifelong process and you never stop learning and I think that learning opportunities have to be present all the time. And I think that sometimes in our state for example, judges aren't allowed to attend roundtables on domestic violence for fear of being seen as bias to one side or the other, and I understand that concept, but that and the requirement that that is.
I mean the... they do have to be impartial, but it also it keeps them from being, oh, as much aware as they could be about other services in the community. So I think that sometimes that inhibits their knowledge. I think we need to do a lot more prevention education. I think, that is, budgets are affected. The first thing to go is generally prevention programs and you know, that we cannot continue to band-aid, that there needs to be a really comprehensive program. And prevention, it is victim services you know, so I... the intervention has to be early and I... you know, I think services have to be much more readily available than they are.
There are huge waiting areas or... or waiting lists rather, for services for children and for evaluations for children that are traumatized by major catastrophes such as 9/11. There is... there needs to be more in schools available for... for kids. Teachers and counselors and guidance counselors in our area are... are seeing still some effects of 9/11 and they don't have the resources to, you know, to provide the services and though at the... on the cases that we're prosecuting for example in our county, there's just waiting lists for kids to get services and what happens that interim and services for parents. I think that parents of abused children, for example, often get left out of the loop, so they aren't as many services for them, even as there are for children.
So, I think those have been some of the failures that... that most programs have had level funding for the last several years or more, and so there's no room for expansion. There's no room to meet growing needs and you know, I think we're in maintenance mode, and I think we need to be looking towards the future because we're losing ground. We've spent all these years... it's sort of one step forward and two back, and I think budgeting is a huge problem across the board. I mean, it is with everyone. It isn't um... but... but we're losing staff before we're losing services and we're losing people because the field is very poorly paid field, and you cannot continue to attract people when they have to make a living.
You know, so I think .. or... and retain people, I guess, and I'd say as well.
Beatty: Thank you. What would say today is needed to continue the growth and professionalism of the field? What's still missing?
McCann: Well, I think recognition that it's a profession. And I think the move for certification, credentialing is going to make a big difference in that area. I, you know, as a registered nurse and as an attorney I'm expected to fulfill certain criteria and I think that... that crisis counselors, I think that victim witness advocates and community-based advocates should also be required to meet certain qualifications and be tested. And I also think that as a field in general we have a responsibility and I include the from the top people at states and local governments and prosecutors, that there needs to be a structure in place to provide supervision and support for doing this work. That this is heavy work and that... that people need to have a supervision structure in place.
And it needs to be supported. It needs to be an okay thing, that it's built into the program. And I think those of us who've been in the field a while have a really strong responsibility to really promote and to do it ourselves wherever we can to affect that kind of change to make sure that there's some continuance that we keep that up, that we mentor, that we that we supervise, that we put structures in place that create that possibility and that we do what we can to create a ladder for people.
There are different um... there are... there are supervision positions. There are training positions. There are administrative positions that experienced people should be able to achieve, to teach others to... to help others to... to learn as well, that... and I think all of that will create a stronger field and a stronger profession. That we also need to integrate with all of those that we work with, the whole... we need to be the major... a major piece in a multi-disciplinary approach to crime victim services.
Beatty: Now let me ask you a follow-up question to that. You mentioned that support from the top was key in terms of assisting professionals in the field. Could you give us some specific examples of what you have in mind?
McCann: Well, I think if you have a program that, and I can speak primarily to one located within a prosecutor's office that there's a structure, that there are supervisors. There isn't just me and the staff in a program structure ... that you have supervisors, senior supervisors and you have a middle level that you're grooming for positions and that you can give more responsibility to. That there is time within everyone's work schedule for an hour to an hour and a half of supervision time worked out either once a week or every other week. Particularly once a week when somebody is new that you know, for a certain amount of time.
Our program is, for example, for three to six months, a brand new advocate works with one of the senior supervisors and they... there's a one on one learning process going on. There's a review of the cases. There's some play-acting, role-play about how to handle somebody who's upset or angry or somebody who seems to be not happy with the way a case is going. Are there things that you could be providing for this person? Um, and also to... to look at doing that in a... a structure, so there's a peer supervision structure set up.
That there are frequent meetings for support. That the supervisors themselves meet... that they are supervised by, for example, me, and that there's a peer supervision structure for them, that they have a say in how the program operates, that they have a say in how letters that are sent out to victims are worded, that they are able... those who are interested in training, they get an opportunity to train, to learn new skills. They get an opportunity to identify what their own training needs are. In our program, for example, we have a training committee and surveys are sent out to the staff about what they see as their present training needs, what they would like personally to explore.
That gets discussed both with their... their individual supervisors, they have on-site supervisors as well, somebody who's available to them. So and those on-site supervisors are generally the people that we're grooming for more um, advanced positions, that there be that career ladder has to be developed and that as people grow in expertise and they grow in... in practical experience that they um, they lend that to others. If we do a training, which we just did recently in our office on adult sexual assault cases, then we had a panel towards the end. We had um, a... a victim and a witness come in certainly, which is a critical part to any training um, a victim survivor, and um, also important that a witness come in who... who um, who also was a victim in this case.
And that a panel of experienced advocates came in for the fourteen advocates who were being trained, this was a review for some who had been in the office for several years and it was a new training for some who hadn't yet had a sexual assault case. So it was tips and strategies and things that... that as experienced advocates they were able to share with their new people, so that's the process that I think is really important. It's an ongoing thing. It isn't just a two-week training when you come in, a 40-hour when you come in. It's an ongoing process and has to be evaluated, has to be updated all the time.
Beatty: You mentioned mentoring and how important it is to sort of educate the new up and coming. If a new advocate came into your office and plopped themselves down and were brand new, what advice would you give them as a veteran advocate of this field?
McCann: Well I think I'd... first even before she got there in... in the hiring process, and I think that's a piece too I get to have a huge say in the hiring process, as do other senior supervisors to make recommendations to the District Attorney. And so the things that you're looking are energy and passion, because you can't do this work without some of that, and the eagerness to learn as well as to work, that... that the biggest things would be to never be afraid to ask questions, to watch, to observe the more senior advocates and that you know, that you're going to be placed with in your training schedule and really to listen. And I often use the phrase that, sometimes when I'm training that... or in orientation that my husband used to use with our sons when they were younger.
"God gave you two ears and one month... one mouth. There's a reason for that." And so that you just um, you look at that and really try to absorb, and I think to ask questions, to be um... to also have somebody observe them when they're doing things and ask for feedback, and really to make use... supervision is a two-way street. It is that the supervisee should come prepared for the session as well as the supervisor. That that's an opportunity to learn and to grow both, particularly, you know, professionally. So that they are... that they need to be part of the staff and so that would be primarily my advice.
And that my door is open, that I would be available, and um, that they should never hesitate to call anyone including myself.
Beatty: Um, okay. Thank you. What would say is your greatest fear for the victims' field?
McCann: That... that we stay in this um, maintenance mode too long. The complacency that people think that victim rights are okay, that they're... they're um, and that we really don't anywhere to go because we have lots of places to go. Um, and there are um, there are new fields that are opening up that we need to be prepared to deal with, particularly around, you know, cyberstalking, any of the Internet crimes. That those are just... I'm not sure we're keeping up with that at all, and so it means that we... there's a huge learning curve here that we have to educate ourselves so that we can um, help in... in those areas.
So I'm fearful of complacency and I'm fearful that um, that we won't develop the field into that ladder of professionalism that I mentioned. That what I see happening is a leveling off of salaries, when budgets become a concern, and they are and they're going to continue to be, and that's a reality. And I also... I think balancing that passion. I'm concerned that the passion be stirred up and that those younger people coming in have as much of it as we've had over the years, and I do think it... it's... sometimes I look and say, "How have we all sustained that level of passion for all of these years?" And I think we've sustained it through NOVA certainly, through connections with each other, because every time we come to a NOVA conference or uh... or connected something, then it gets restored again.
Every time we hear a victim survivor speak and then you realize why you're in this field. That you really do make a difference and that it counts and that you also as I've learned over the years as I'm sure many have-- you have to balance that passion with a sense of reality. We can't do it all. And someone once said, "You're... are you trying to save the world", and I said, "No, just a little piece of it, a little piece at a time." And I think that's what we all do. So I think we have to um... I'm not sure I see that level of passion in the newer staff. That I see sometimes that it's used as a stepping stone to another field that... and there's a part of me that says that's okay.
That I am... and I'm an... I'm a victim witness advocate who went on to law school um, and while I've kept my feet in the field I certainly think... (pause -- background noise)... I certainly think that that background makes for a better attorney, a better prosecutor hopefully, even a better defense attorney, and I mean, people have concerns throughout life, and so being sensitive to people's needs is part of this job and anticipating them, as well as working with them to... to figure out ways of dealing with things. But I do see that we need to create that balance, and I think we need to do more.
I think the credentialing, the certification process will help, but I think it in our society we value positions economically. And I don't think that if you look at what the pay scale is, and it doesn't mean that we have to be paying exorbitant salaries at all because I think there are a lot of things that have to do with job satisfaction -- most people that are in this field aren't in it for the money, but there's a lot of job satisfaction that they get -- but I do think it needs to have some value on an economic level, for all us to be viewed as a... a viable and an important profession with a future that would be sustained.
Beatty: Okay. Thank you. Well, this may be the other half of the coin but what do you see as your own vision of the field? Where do we want to go as a field in your mind?
McCann: All of what I just said. Oh, certainly but I think that, what I like is happening is that we are becoming institutionalized as a service... as victim services. I do think that piece is happening, to some degree, to a very large degree in many places. I think in my state, it has. What I would like to see is that while the community-based programs have also grown tremendously and have become more I think more organized, more ...they have expanded more, I would like to see us working more together. That there's so much we can share with one another and so much more work to be done that I think there's a danger of us being, it... you know, getting so called up in turf issues that... that we lose sight of what we're really there for, and I think to some extent, funding really contributes to that.
That it... we get put into competitive positions when those of us that are working in the field really don't want to be, and I think we need to work better at working better, I guess, is... is the way I'd might... I might put it.
Beatty: Okay. That's quite fair enough. Is there anything else you'd like to add for the... in terms of posterity, anything we haven't talked about historical perspectives that you think are important that haven't been highlighted by my questions?
McCann: I don't know, I guess I think I feel very lucky to have been part of this, and I think I feel in some instances, that I was in the right place at the right time and I'm so glad um, and I'm gonna get emotional. I think that it has made a difference, and I am so glad to be part of that. And I think that's what I'd like to say at the end.
Beatty: Thank you. I appreciate your views.
McCann: Thank you.
|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.|