An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Aurelia Sands Belle
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Interview Transcript

timecode Gregorie: It's April 13, 2003 and I'm Trudy Gregorie as interviewer and we are interviewing Aurelia Sands Belle. Aurelia, why and how did you get involved in the crime victims' movement?

timecode Aurelia: Well, I started with working with children in 1997 in a children's home. And there were a number of children there who were abused physically and sexually and there were others who were neglected. There were children who were acting out, parents who had no control of their child. And as we began to talk to them, these kinds of crime issues surfaced that that time we really weren't addressing the crime, we were dealing more with the behavior. And I attained my Master's in counseling and my professor suggested that I take a position at the local rape crisis center. I did and really got hooked on victim services. I attended a number of community meetings and started looking at victim services in a broader context, even at that time rape crisis services. And I was asked by the local Crime Commission if I would be interested in working in a program that would be comprehensive and that would provide services to all victims of crime. And our challenge at that time was to demonstrate to the city a need to provide services to all victims. And if we could demonstrate that clearly, the city would then consider picking us up as far as funding our efforts.

timecode Gregorie: And did that eventually occur?

timecode Aurelia: Yes, it did. It eventually happened, 1984.

timecode Gregorie: And that was in, where was that located?

timecode Aurelia: That was for the City of Atlanta, in Atlanta, Georgia.

timecode Gregorie: And were there any other kind of victim services in that area or in that part of Georgia at that time?

timecode Aurelia: Yes, we had some child abuse services and we had domestic violence services. And that was, and sexual assault services, and that was just about it. But for robbery victims , for homicide, there wasn't anything.

timecode Gregorie: And where were your services actually located, funded by the city, but where were they located?

timecode Aurelia: 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. So it was a really nice initial setup.

timecode Gregorie: And did the funding by the city increase as the needs increased in your program?

timecode Aurelia: Well, that was interesting. Part of what we had to do was think of creative ways to meet the needs of our crime victims without being a tax burden. And while we did get some committed funding from the city, we still had to go outside of that base and find other resources to sustain the program and resources that would allow us to expand.

timecode Gregorie: Besides the work that you were doing in Atlanta, were there other organizations outside of Georgia that you became a part of and worked with?

timecode Aurelia: Oh, yes, the National Organization for Victim Assistance was certainly one that a lot of basic training and interestingly enough, the Texas State Clearinghouse, while I didn't go to Texas, I had access to Texas and Suzanne McDaniel was just wonderful, talking to me on the phone and giving me information and talking me through different things. It was just marvelous and a lot of hands-on class work experience through NOVA.

timecode Gregorie: There are a lot of programs who don't do as comprehensive Type of service as you described. Do you think it's important to meet the needs of burglary victims this, as well as homicide victims and sexual assault victims?

timecode Aurelia: I think so. I, you have to understand, I'm a social worker as well, you know, I came out of that discipline, so I look at services in a holistic vein. I think that you can't, you know, cordon off people and try to just do one thing. And so in trying to meet what those needs were as I identified 'em and seeing what people were actually asking for, I felt that there were ways that we could accomplish it and not that our agency had to do everything, was certainly recognized a need for that and have a means for addressing it. For instance, we were -- we came out of a crime prevention program primarily. The Crime Commission was, we had a very strong crime prevention focus and so we were providing however direct services, but I still felt crime prevention was at the base of what we needed to be doing as well. And it was wonderful being in that kind of arena because I could still get my crime prevention piece in as well as my direct services. And I didn't have to do the crime prevention, I could rely on you know, court program to do that. So it was just a matter of -- addressing a victim's needs and trying to get it, but yet we didn't have to do it all.

timecode We were not trying to be the one-all, 'cause we didn't have the capability to be the one-all, but that we were clear that we saw that were a lot of needs and how could we help our community by addressing those needs?

timecode Gregorie: And did that mean that you had to have collaboration with some of the other organizations in your area?

timecode Aurelia: Oh, absolutely. You know, like any other new-fangled whatever on the block, you had to prove yourself and uh... -- make certain that you were not stepping on someone else's territory. There were some tender moments with other social service agencies, but the challenge that I saw and the way I saw it was that it simply was a challenge and that it could be addressed. And that if I was clear about what I was doing in relationship to what they were doing. We really didn't have many battles. 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, there were thousands unfortunately of victims who needed assistance; that it wasn't a turf issue that needed, we didn't need to fight that war.

timecode We had other wars that needed to be fought and so when putting things in perspective it worked out well. We had a lot of great alliances that were developed.

timecode Gregorie: Did the -- local programs and the state of Georgia play a role in helping to get actual victim legislation on the books in that state?

timecode Aurelia: We did. We had a wonderful leader through the Metro Atlanta Crime Commission, Rachael Champagne, who actually sat down and drafted a lot of the initial victims' rights legislation for the state of Georgia and a wonderful, at that time, coalition of programs that came together to lobby our legislators for legislative change and it was very, very effective, very effective.

timecode Gregorie: When you look back at the time that you came into the victims' movement initially from working with, in the children's home to going into rape crisis services, how would describe the field of victims' rights and services at that time?

timecode Aurelia: From the time that I initially started, to -- initially started it was probably almost non-existent. I mean I certainly hadn't heard of it and I remember thinking in a clear and defined way I was not aware of it. And I don't think that there was a clear focus at that time from our community or even from our state. And I think that was developed -- over the years, I would say in the early '80s that we really began coming together as organizations to put a voice and a face to the experience of crime victims. And prior to that there was some and, but it was rape victims and it was domestic violence and a little bit about child abuse, but it wasn't that they were kind of coming together in a strong, collective way that I think began to happen in the -- '80s.

timecode Gregorie: In the area of comprehensive victim services that you were pioneering in, what was the greatest challenge that you and your colleagues faced in affecting change?

timecode Aurelia: Well, I guess part of it, as I said earlier, was getting -- programs, other programs in the community to not -- see us a threat, but to see us as another instrument to achieve what was expressed as their interest of, you know, no tolerance for violence or crime and that kind of thing to, for them to understand that we were certainly there to partner with them in achieving that as well. And I think one of the other large challenges that we had was changing the mindset 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. They were paper people who saw crime and saw bad guys and saw, you know, checking off this is accomplished and done, but we're not people-directed. And victim services is certainly about people. You cannot get around that. It is a, it's human and I like to keep the face of humans on that because I think that's what makes us unique and different.

timecode Gregorie: Were there any other challenges -- outside of those turf and turf issues and changing the mindset of the system? Were there some other challenges that you faced as well?

timecode Aurelia: Yes, I always think challenge is money and money has to do with getting an issue out, which translates to helping people so that if you put out information about the services you provide--we had this discussion a number of times--if we go out and say, "We're here to serve you." Will that be a Catch 22 for us because we were limited in terms of staff? So if you open up the doors and say, "We're here," and this rush of people come in, can we handle it? You know, you have those kinds of challenges. Can we in fact provide everything that people need without the resources that are needed? And it's convincing -- politicians that this was a good thing to get behind. And that convincing people who were, and the, at the powers to be that it wasn't just about money per se, but again, that it was about people and it was about getting behind lives and helping shore up people where they were at the most vulnerable time in their life. And how humane it is to be there at that point in time. That was a challenge.

timecode Gregorie: What were some of the tactics and strategies that you and your colleagues -- successfully used to kind of address those kinds of challenges?

timecode Aurelia: Well, one of the things that was important to me was that we recognized where people were coming from. And if we could even help them do what they did, we saw that it could still benefit our victims. So in other words, if we could go into the criminal justice system -- by aiding -- the other players, by aiding a, say homicide detectives who didn't want to sit for hours and talk to victims by phone. If we could say to them, "If you give us the information, we'll pass it on to victims. They won't have to bother you, but we can get them that service and the information they want." They liked that. So what would they do? They would bring us the information real quick, call us on the phone, tell us what we needed, so that they could do their work as investigators, but not feel that they had to be, you know, counseling people by phone. They didn't like that. Or if we could get witnesses ready to testify and get them to a place that they could comfortably, as best they could, be involved with the court system, it moved the... the docket along. And judges liked that. They don't want the docket held up. And prosecutors wanted the crying and all of this snottin' done before they were, you know, to come to court.

timecode They wanted to have a, they had victims who were ready. They wanted to have victims ready to testify and if we could offer that service, we met their need and yet we met the need of the victim. So it was a great tradeoff if we could figure out how we could meet those other needs. I knew that we had to make ourselves indispensable to the system. If we could make ourselves indispensable to the system, such that it benefited victims, we would be in and that's what I was looking for.

timecode Gregorie: What about some of the money issues that you mentioned? What were some of the tactics and strategies for funding?

timecode Aurelia: Well, we again looked at the model, the national model, of how can we do it without being a tax burden and it, we did it by fines and forfeitures in our traffic court. We had some initial resistance because a lot of the legislators didn't want to be seen as "criminals" even of traffic crimes. So that, we had to work a little bit on our verbiage, but by placing a fine on traffic violations, we were able to generate a nice little pool of money. Wasn't a lot, but it was a nice pool of resources that could be our base. And then that was done on a state level because at that time our -- traffic court was considered a state court by its original drafting. It was a state court, but there was also some legislation that was drafted later on that did the same thing, but it allowed for fines on other types of crimes and that was what -- sustained our program.

timecode Gregorie: I know that you've moved from Atlanta to some other parts of the country to do victim services. Have you found correlations between the experiences of collaboration and some of the, some of the challenges exist in other jurisdictions as well?

timecode Aurelia: Yes. I think it's been interesting to me to see some of the things that are not new. They just have new names, new players, but the issues are pretty much the same. It saddens me. It grieves me that advocates -- people who are supposed to be helpers -- it grieves me when 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. And it's so much about the very same things that we "preach and teach" about which are power issues and which are domination issues, which are greed issues, that we need to stop and examine because in the end, it does not serve our purpose. And I think our purpose and our motives ought to be pure. And when it's not, then the water is muddy and we don't accomplish what we could and should accomplish and that's sad. (Change of tape)

timecode Gregorie: Aurelia, what do you perceive to be the one greatest accomplishment that's promoted victims' rights and services, looking back through the years of your involvement?

timecode Aurelia: Well, I don't know that I can see one thing. I think maybe a merger of many different things. I don't think that it's just one thing, you know, Bill of Rights Victim -- Rights Constitutional Amendment. I see a lot of individual legislation really making an impact. I, it's hard for me and I don't want to be one to say that any one thing did it. I think it's all of the efforts in every place and having people working on different things that made a difference to where we are in victim services. I would hate to rake the field up and say that one thing did it 'cause I don't think one thing did it. Everything was important.

timecode Gregorie: What do you think is needed today to continue the growth of the number of victim service providers and the professionalism of our field?

timecode Aurelia: Validation of what we do. And that continues to be an issue that hasn't been totally addressed. I think people, once they have gone through the situation of victimization and have had contact with a crime victim advocate, value that service. But it's getting outside of that arena now such that the entire system sees us as a value and not a political stepping stone. And I think sometimes that happens in systems-based organizations where we have programs that are politically established, but not behind, don't have behind it the real intent of valuing victim services. And that means that what we do isn't so much validated by those programs and I think that's very sad. I think we do need to get to a different plane, but what we do, and I hate to even talk about professionalism 'cause I struggle with what that means. If you want to say professionalism in the strictest sense, then does that exclude people who come to the profession by virtue of what they've experienced or by educational training? And I just, I've seen too much of value in both sides of it.

timecode So I don't want to do the professionalism thing, but I do want to say validation for what people do and the need to help people, again at that time when they really, really need help.

timecode Gregorie: What advice would you want to give to professionals and to volunteers who've come into our field over the last few years? What are the wisdom that you would want to share with them?

timecode Aurelia: Integrity. Mean what you say and say what you mean. And kindness. And it always has to be sprinkled with kindness. I just, I'm just, I can't tell you how much that means to be kind to someone. And we don't always understand, we don't always have all the answers, but we can be a person of integrity and we can be a person of kindness. I think the other little elements like diplomacy; we have to be able to learn how to be diplomatic in situations where it's tough. And then I think as victim advocates, we have to figure out our renewal and I am now at a place in my life where I've done a lot of interesting things. And now having pulled away from it in terms of being a program manager, I can look at things differently as a consultant and see where we need to renew ourselves, perhaps, and we invent ourselves and do new and different things and it doesn't mean getting out of the field. It does mean that we need renewal and we're now trying to figure out what does renewal look like? And we can see that it in other professions and disciplines.

timecode Victim advocates are now exploring that for themselves and so renewal is key to what I would also say to anyone coming into the field one to ten years renewal. Let's figure out what that means.

timecode Gregorie: So in looking back over the experiences you've had in the victims' movement and what you have seen occur over the last dec, several decades, how would you describe your vision for the future for our field?

timecode Aurelia: Inclusivity is a word, I think, for me, that we look at our world and our cultures and that we understand that we're now global. We're pluralistic and that we don't, and should not, operate in a vacuum and that we have to bring everybody to the table for decision-making and be inclusive in our service provision as well as those persons who are sitting at the table to do the work. Vision continues to be a vision of humanity and compassion that we not forget those pieces, that victim services on some level is not a science. So A plus B doesn't always come up to C, that if we keep the human aspect on it, you know, we might get A plus B equals H, but it makes sense for that person. It makes sense for that person and allow that humanness to come through -- but also keeping integrity and kindness and honesty forefront , because victims have suffered the opposite of those things. They've suffered at the hands of a person who wasn't a person of integrity, who wasn't honest, who wasn't kind. And so we need to be able to place that element back as best we can. I think are obliged to do that.

timecode Gregorie: And what do you see the vision for comprehensive service programs?

timecode Aurelia: The vision.

timecode Gregorie: Do you think that's the way to go?

timecode Aurelia: I think it has its pros and its cons, definitely. I think as I said earlier I don't think even in the comprehensive program, you cannot do everything. You cannot. You, if, you may have limits of space. You may have limits of time. You know, the, and as we emerge we're still, you know, unfortunately new crimes are coming on and we can't take on everything. But you have someone else who does one thing very well in the community, support it. The biggest thing I think is, one of the biggest things is I think we have to really learn how to work together and not see it as a threat, but again see it as a way to enhance what's out there. And 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, you know, having a zero tolerance for crime. Then that means that we've got to work together, all of the systems. And so that's my visions, that we learn how to do that and learn that our approach can be broad, but we don't have to do every aspect of it. We can ask for help.

timecode Gregorie: When you're thinking about the years that you've spent in victim services from working with children to working in sexual assault programs to comprehensive serdi, services in a large metropolitan area back to victim services, into counseling and looking through all of those, are there lessons that you've learned that we haven't already mentioned or stories that come to your mind that you might want to put on to ... into the context of our discussion?

timecode Aurelia: That's a... that's a, that would be a fun question if I had a good answer. Let me think ... any particular stories. -- I can't really think of any particular story except that I think it's important to remember that at the core of it, at the heart of it, folks are pretty much the same, whether or not they're at one spectrum of our social economics ladder or where they fall on the color of the rainbow. There are core things about people that are essentially the same and that's what you go for. You're looking for those similarities because pain is pain, regardless of how it's dressed. It is much the same and if we can begin to treat people on that level and move to that level of treating people in the old adage of, you know, to, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, sounds extremely simple, sounds, you know, very elementary, but it's really true. That we have to be mindful of that. I don't know that I have any one story. I've met a lot of people. I've done a lot of things. I've had my life changed by dealing with people whose life has been changed.

timecode I'm not the same person I was who started this movement, in this movement, years ago and I don't want to be the same because my life has been enhanced. And I value having experience, meeting people on a national level, having met people who outgrew their pain on some level, not that they ever forgot, but they were able to move on. And so I have been able to change my view of thinking about what's important and will this make a difference in the long run? And then move on because we can be burdened with things that won't make a difference. And when I see people who rise above some of the things that they rise above, it's worth the struggle. That's all I know.

timecode Gregorie: Thank you, Aurelia, and for your work. Thank you for your work.

timecode Aurelia: Thank you.