Victim Advocacy: Where Do I Start?

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Victim advocacy is the act of supporting people who have been harmed through violence and/or abuse.

There are many ways to advocate. In fact, “advocacy” is often only as limited as the imagination of the people doing it. It can be done by providing services directly to victims. It may be answering a hotline for a crisis center. It could be raising awareness on your campus or in your hometown. It might be a blog like this one. It may be donating to a charity that helps victims. It can be volunteering with a local youth program or at a shelter. It can be as simple as going to court with a friend who has been victimized just so they know they are not alone.

Advocates start by believing.

Advocates intercede for the voiceless.

Advocates are protectors of the vulnerable.

Advocates combat rape culture and speak out against victim blaming.

Advocates stand up against inequality.

Advocates are champions for social justice.

You may be interested in pursuing a career in advocacy but do not know where to begin.

Here I will address a few of the most common questions I hear from people who want to one day hold a full-time job in the field of victim services and advocacy. Getting started may seem daunting, especially if there are not a lot of programs near you or if you are still in school. The truth is, when people are passionate to help others, opportunities will always present themselves.

Do I need a specific degree to be an advocate?

For my undergraduate work, I studied English Literature and Theology/Philosophy. I was learning Koine Greek and advanced English grammar instead of the neurobiology of trauma. In my years as a graduate student, I continued to study theology and philosophy but went on to receive my M.A. in Intercultural Studies. I took courses entitled Global Apologetics and Existentialism instead of Psychology or Working at a Non-Profit 101.

My career training began as I was finishing my graduate studies in the form of an internship at a domestic violence shelter and two years of volunteering for the program at which I now work. The training I received as a volunteer and the ongoing education opportunities I have as staff have made up for my lack of academic training in the field.

The answer to this question that I typically provide is: it depends on the type of advocacy you are interested in pursuing. I am walking evidence to the fact that you can be well-equipped and be a full-time victim advocate without a specific degree. I am not a licensed counselor but I manage a caseload of child and adult clients and provide direct victim services which include crisis intervention, emotional support, emergency room accompaniment, court accompaniment, financial and mental health referrals, community education, etc. I have been with my program for just over five years now and I consider the post-school training and experience invaluable.

The employment requirements of each agency will vary. If you have a specific advocacy position or agency in mind, contact that agency and learn what they want from their staff in terms of education and experience.

If not, you have options. You might pursue a trauma studies, psychology, or crisis counseling degree. You could study criminal justice. You could find a degree in human services. Perhaps you will want to pursue a degree in non-profit management so that you are better prepared to start your own program.

I also always recommend supplementing your formal education with your own research: find academic studies related to the field, research the effects of trauma on the brain, stay connected with current events and news from the field (I always start here). Read survivor stories, communicate with professionals in the field, reach out to local advocacy centers, attend conferences and trainings, watch webinars, join national campaigns that raise awareness. There are lots of different ways to educate yourself!

I know I want to do something but how do I get started?

My go-to answer has two parts: educate and volunteer.

As I just mentioned, there are plenty of ways to expand your understanding and knowledge of sexual and domestic violence, stalking, sex trafficking, dynamics of abuse, victimization, etc. without a specific four-year degree. As you educate yourself, educate others! Education combats rape culture and ultimately empowers victims and their communities.

Volunteer work is how I got started and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to work with victims, even if their ultimate goal is not full-time advocacy work. It’s a practical way to learn and practice how to be a safe space for victims of violence.

Volunteering with agencies that combat abuse has many benefits. Here are just a few:

  1. You will receive training and mentoring from agency staff/advocates. This provides a great chance to ask questions and receive feedback.
  2. There is no “normal day” in advocacy. But by getting a sense of what the job entails, you will be better able to make a career decision; its a good way to “get your feet wet”. You may decide after volunteering that you would prefer a different type of advocacy (e.g. writing grants rather than hospital response) or you may discover a whole new aspect of advocacy you had not yet encountered.
  3. You can make a difference in peoples’ lives while still maintaining a normal school and work schedule.
  4. Some people really want to provide in-person crisis intervention but once they begin to volunteer they have a hard time handling the realities and secondary trauma of the job. Not everyone is cut out for it and that’s okay. It changes you in good ways and in hard ways. You do not have to be providing crisis intervention in order to be an advocate.

I recommend doing your research so that you are sure the agency has a reputation for excellence in direct victim services. National agencies as well as local crisis centers are often looking for interns and volunteers.

Check out a list of global contacts here.

What does your average day as an advocate look like?

I get this question a lot and I always smile because, as I mentioned above, there is no “normal”. Each advocacy agency is different and each advocate will have a slightly different role to fill but here is an example of what my daily advocacy can look like:

Let’s say my day starts at the courthouse at 9AM where I am helping a client get a protective order or sitting with them during a preliminary hearing. Once I get to the office later that morning, I call another client to check in and confirm that they received the counseling referrals I mailed to them. I am updating their file when the phone rings and I talk to a hotline caller for the next thirty minutes. I might debrief from the call with a coworker and then go back to my desk to update a spreadsheet or write a newsletter article or answer e-mail. Another client calls in crisis so I do some suicide safety planning with them. This could all be before lunch. In the afternoon, let’s say I have an appointment with a client. It could be a police interview. It could be a child forensic interview. It could be a meeting with the commonwealth attorney. When I get back from that, I might make a few more follow-up calls. I might start reviewing a PowerPoint for a presentation I’ll be doing the next day. Or I might call our sister program to see if I can pick up a box of canned goods the next day for a client in need. Or I could just be doing paperwork. Lots of paperwork. We document everything. Add to all of that the fact that I might also be the staff member on call with the ER that day…so I could be halfway home at 5:10PM when the forensic nurse calls. I turn back around and head for the hospital where I’ll provide crisis intervention and emotional support to a victim for the next six hours.

Not every day is that jam-packed but it can be. Some days are quieter than others. At the very least, every day is unpredictable and we are always busy. In the US it is estimated that someone is sexually assaulted approximately every 2 minutes and every 8 minutes that someone is a child; even in the “safe” area I live and work in, we meet new victims all the time. I hear all the time, “That happens here?!” Yes. It happens literally everywhere.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

Most people seem to assume the answer to this question is, “Working with victims” which is a testimony to our society’s tendency to stigmatize people who have been assaulted or abused. Well-meaning people have said things like, “I’m sure you’re a real comfort to those girls.” This bothers me for several reasons but the top two are 1) the tone is demeaning to victims and the wording stems from a belief that rape in particular only happens to a certain type of woman which is false and 2) it puts me as the advocate on a pedestal which is something I neither deserve nor desire to stand upon.

I love working with victims and survivors. Some of the most beautiful and courageous souls I have ever met have been clients of our program or family members/friends who have survived abuse.

The hardest part of my job is witnessing the re-victimization of my clients and being unable to stop it. There are a lot of things outside of my control as an advocate. I cannot guarantee an offender will go to jail (most do not). I cannot make sufficient community resources magically appear. I do not have access to limitless money with which to cover the much-needed therapy that my uninsured and insured clients alike struggle to afford. But all of that pales in comparison to the pain, the frustration, and the rage I experience when I hear about or see first-hand a client – really any victim – being treated like they do not matter, like their story is not important, like the crime was their fault.

The hardest part of my job is rape culture and the societal acceptance of rape myths. The hardest part of my job is rape denialism and apologism.

The best part of my job, and the most rewarding part of my job, is meeting adults and children in their darkest hour and walking with them into the light. That is my genuine privilege.

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I have been a victim. Can I still be an advocate?

Absolutely. Some of the very best advocates are also survivors. Who better to stand up and speak up for victims than someone who has experienced abuse first-hand? While I do not tell my clients my own story, I know that being a survivor has made me a better advocate. It increases my ability to empathize. It helps me better communicate my clients’ fears and concerns with other professionals. It also makes a difference in my approach to community education.

A big part of advocacy work is taking care of yourself so especially if you are a survivor please pay attention to your own mental health. Advocacy can be very triggering. Find ways to advocate that will empower your own healing rather than hinder it.

If you are pursuing an opportunity in advocacy work, consider seeing a counselor even if just a few times each year. Advocates burn out. We are not perfect people and we certainly do not have everything together in our own lives. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of other people.

Also be sure to check out Top Ten Things Advocates Need to Know.

How do you practice advocacy in your own community?

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