Department of Justice     


5. Victims' Support Services

The term "victim support" encompasses a range of services, and does not, of itself, differentiate as to whether those services are provided by the Department of Justice, another government department, police forces, transition houses, community agencies, volunteer organizations, or a combination of all or some of these.

(a) The Framework Requirements for Victim Support

The Framework for Action states that "Safety of the victim must be the primary concern of the justice system,"(1) and outlines the services to be provided to victims of intimate partner violence:

  • attend the scene of domestic violence, upon referral by the police, to provide immediate crises intervention once the alleged perpetrator has been removed, and referral to appropriate services in the community;
  • communicate with victims as cases proceed through the justice system to convey details regarding the progress of the case and the status of the alleged perpetrator.

(b) The 1999 Evaluation Report

The importance of providing support for victims of intimate partner violence is recognized in the 1999 Evaluation Report, which concluded:

The emotional and physical impact of spousal/partner violence is profound and victims have reported feeling doubly victimized through their involvement in what many perceive to be a hostile and confusing criminal justice process.

Despite the development of protocols to lessen the reliance on victim testimony, the criminal justice system still needs the cooperation and participation of victims to successfully prosecute spousal/partner violence. The early intervention and advocacy services provided through the victim support service program were assessed as an essential component of the successful implementation of the Framework for Action.(2)

The 1999 Evaluation Report found that victims' services officers reported "a dramatic increase in their caseload due to family violence matters."(3) Although the policy developed to implement the Framework requires that victims be contacted within 2 days, the Monitoring Committee found that this did not always happen. Reasons given for this included the heavy caseload and, in some cases, difficulty in contacting the victim.

(c) Victims' Support in other Jurisdictions

According to the interjurisdictional survey conducted as part of this review, all provinces and territories offer some services for victims of intimate partner violence; what varies is the scope of the services available, and who provides the services. In most jurisdictions, a mix of government, police-based, community, and volunteer services offer some or all of the following to victims of intimate partner violence:

  • advocacy and support;
  • court accompaniment;
  • criminal injuries compensation;
  • assistance with Victim Impact Statements;
  • information about case status;
  • victim notification;
  • information and referral to other services;
  • counselling, both short and long term;
  • shelters/transition houses or other safe places to go in times of crisis; and
  • .second stage housing.

All jurisdictions have a range of women's shelters/transition houses, second stage housing, satellites, safe homes, family resource centres, and other safe places to go in times of crisis. The number of services and the funding available to support them varies widely among provinces and territories, with the least being available in the north.

(d) Existing Services in Nova Scotia

Victim support services in Nova Scotia can be divided into those provided directly by the Victims' Services Division of the Department of Justice, police-based victims' services, and services offered by community organizations (often through a combination of government funding and volunteer support).

(i) Department of Justice

Although the Framework for Action speaks of providing victims with information and referrals, the Victims' Services Branch of the Department of Justice was not identified as a separate component within the Framework. Since implementation began, however, the Victims' Services Branch has been involved both through policy and planning at the departmental level and through the direct provision of services by victims' services workers in the regions.

Victims' Services officers attempt to make initial contact (whether by telephone or letter) with all those victims who are referred to them by police officers, Crowns, the Halifax Regional Police Victims' Service Unit, or others. During this initial contact, the victim is offered support services, such as case-specific information; an explanation of the criminal justice process; court-orientation; liaison with the police, Crown, and corrections; assistance with the Criminal Injuries Counseling program; an explanation of the Victim Impact Statement program; information about court orders (i.e. undertakings, peace bonds, probation orders); referrals to other services; information about the Child Victim/Witness program if there is a child witness involved; and to a limited extent, court accompaniment. If a victim declines support, she is invited to contact Victims' Services should she change her mind. Unless the victim is agreeable to follow-up contact, workers do not reinitiate contact with victims at various stages of the justice process in order to make renewed offers of assistance.

The Victims' Services Division of the Department of Justice also administers a provincial criminal injuries compensation program. However, because of funding reductions in the 2000 budget, the program now only pays for counselling awards. It no longer compensates for other costs associated with being a victim of crime, such as wage loss or medical and dental expenses.

When the Framework for Action was introduced, the Department of Justice also provided funding for eight victim support projects across the province, in an attempt to determine what model might work best for enhanced community-based victim support. Following evaluation, there seemed to be no consensus on this, and the Department determined that the projects overlapped with existing services. In the 2000 budget, funding for the projects was not continued.

(ii) Police-based

The Halifax Regional Police Force provides support to victims of intimate partner violence through a mobile domestic violence response team, and a victims' services unit. The mobile response team provides emergency counselling and crisis intervention at the scene of a domestic violence incident. When a police officer responds to a call which involves intimate partner violence, the officer determines whether the mobile response team should be brought in.(4)

The team is called in about 50% of the time.

The Victims' Services Unit within the Halifax Regional Police Force works primarily with victims of intimate partner violence, and monitors compliance with the Framework for Action. This Unit, which consists of a Co-ordinator and two other staff, identifies all domestic violence calls received by the police on the previous day, and then attempts to contact the victim.

In 2000, the Unit opened and closed 1719 files, 1459 of which involved intimate partner violence.(5)

The victim was contacted in 74% of the cases, usually by telephone. Reasons for no-contact included: the victim did not have a telephone, the telephone number was disconnected, or three calls were made with no answer.

Where the victim is reached, the Victims' Services Unit

  • provides information on the police file (what charges have been laid, the date of the first court appearance, what will happen in court, and the meaning of any undertakings attached to the perpetrator's release from police custody);
  • makes an automatic referral to the Victims' Services Branch (Department of Justice); and(6)
  • makes referrals, as appropriate, to various other support services, including Bryony House, Social Services, community agencies, Legal Aid etc..

The Unit has found that most victims are very pleased to receive the information offered to them. About 5% decline any information; however, their names are still forwarded to the Department of Justice. In January 2000, the Unit attempted to initiate further follow-up, but found that it did not have the resources to handle this.

(iv) Community-based

Community-based supports for victims of intimate partner violence include nine transition houses across the province, second stage housing, a Mi'kmaq Family Treatment Centre (with two sites), six Women's Centres, and two counselling programs for abused women. Some victim advocacy, court accompaniment, and other forms of support are also provided through transition house outreach programs and community or interagency organizations.

(e) 2001 Review

Support services for victims were discussed at each of the focus groups. Victims' Services workers were seen (by others and by themselves) as having excessive workloads and insufficient resources to meet the needs of victims. However, the workers were described as doing an excellent job within the limits of their resources, and as having an excellent relationship with Crowns (although Crown referrals to Victims' Services are still inconsistent in some regions), transition houses, and others who are involved with victims of intimate partner violence.

Two themes emerged almost universally from focus group discussions:

  • adequate support services are required both for the well-being of victims of intimate partner violence and for the effective implementation of the Framework for Action;
  • if the government is serious in its commitment to the Framework for Action, more resources will have to be allocated for victim support.

Victim advocacy, education, and support were characterized by focus group participants as critical at all stages of a victim's contact with the criminal justice system. The need of this support was reflected in the experiences of victims themselves. Victims frequently spoke of the criminal justice system as being intimidating, bewildering, hostile, and ill-suited to meet their needs; however, those victims who had contact with some form of victims' support services were, with one exception, very positive in their assessment of the support services offered to them. Several focus group participants noted that victims are more likely to understand the criminal justice system and the role of the Crown if they have been in close contact with Victims' Services.

This importance of providing victim support, both in terms of a victim's general well-being, and in terms of enhancing the success of pro-charge, pro-prosecution polices, is reflected in two American studies reported by Epstein, who suggests that at least a partial answer to the question, "How can prosecutors find a satisfactory way to enhance deterrence of intimate abuse and, simultaneously, adequately protect the safety and autonomy of individual victims?"(7) may be to expand the support offered to victims throughout their contact with the criminal justice system.

One of the studies she refers to explored the impact of providing lay advocates for women leaving a transition house, and the second examined "the role of social support from family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers in determining victim follow through in domestic violence criminal prosecutions."(8)

In the first study, it was found that in comparison with a control group, women provided with a lay advocate reported less physical violence and less depression and "perceived themselves as significantly more effective in obtaining community resources and assistance."(9)

In the second study, those with higher levels of support were more able to co-operate with the prosecution. Epstein concludes, "Recent prosecutorial responsiveness to domestic violence cases must be accompanied by an equivalent increase in the provision of easily accessible victim advocacy services."(10)

In the focus groups, widespread concern and frustration was expressed over the lack of resources for victims' support. Many participants cited the withdrawal of funding for the Victims' Support/Advocacy Projects and the Family Violence Prevention Initiative as evidence of a lack of government commitment to reducing intimate partner violence. Concern was also expressed about the trend of "'downloading' victim services to the community" without providing community services with sufficient resources to respond.

(f) Conclusions and RecommendationsRegarding Victim Support Services

The literature on intimate partner violence, the results of the interjurisdictional survey, and the insights provided by focus group participants all indicate that there are a range of services needed in order to provide support for victims. These would include: immediate crisis intervention at the time violence occurs; crisis housing for those victims who do not feel safe remaining in their own homes; where charges are laid, information regarding the progress of the file through the justice system, as well as court orientation and accompaniment, counselling and advocacy; and assistance for women wishing to access other community services.

The available evidence suggests that adequate victim support is essential not only for helping victims and their families deal with the experience of intimate partner violence, but also to ensure effective implementation of a pro-charge, pro-prosecution policy. In fact, it would seem that a lack of victim support can almost guarantee higher rates of reluctant witnesses and mutual Crown/victim disenchantment, which in turn undermine the possibility of an effective criminal justice response to intimate partner violence. Even if a pilot project on diversion were to be introduced, as is discussed in the section on Crowns,(11) victims' services would be equally essential for that model; along with objective criteria regarding the extent of the violence, past offences, etc., a case would be considered appropriate for diversion only if the victim were in full agreement. Victims would require counselling and support to ensure that such agreement was voluntary and informed.

It also appears evident that effective victim support requires collaboration within government, among various community organizations, and between government and communities.

Therefore, it is recommended that the Department of Justice enter into discussions with those within the Department charged with implementation of the Framework, other government departments, and the community, in order to determine the most appropriate and efficient ways of delivering the services needed for full victim support, and it is recommended that the government commit sufficient funding to allow for such delivery.

It would appear that an entity such as the Family Violence Prevention Initiative would be instrumental in facilitating the necessary discussions, and then ensuring that the services provided did in fact work together to provide comprehensive victim support.

It is therefore recommended that the Family Violence Prevention Initiative be reinstated.

1. Supra note 10 at 7.

2. Supra note 14 at vi.

3. Supra note 14 at 35.

4. The team is not available after 5 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday, although it is available on Friday and Saturday nights.

5. Supra note 71.

6. All the Unit's intake forms are sent to the Department monthly. Initially there were some concerns as to whether information could be shared in this way; however, it was reasoned that the information would become public once the matter reached court.

7. Supra note 24 at 19.

8. Supra note 24 at 20.

9. Supra note 24 at 20.

10. Supra note 24 at 21. Epstein should not, however, be understood to suggest that the only reason for providing victim support is to ensure co-operation with the Crown, or that with the provision of such support, complete and rigid adherence to a pro-charge, pro-prosecution policy would be possible, or even desirable:

These results [of the studies] are quite exciting. They indicate that in many cases, an increase in victim support from family, friends and trained personnel can be enough to empower victims to exit the cycle of violence. Advocacy services apparently reduce some victims' dependency on the criminal justice system by helping them find the strength to escape on their own. And for those who need prosecutorial intervention, the presence of an advocate or supporter enables them to better assert themselves in gaining the help they need. By amplifying victims' voices, advocates can help the government better respond to individual concerns. Advocates also help the government to better discern those cases in which the survivor seeks to drop charges because of a considered decision that the course of action is best for herself, her family, and the larger community to which she belongs. Certainly, domestic violence is a crime against the state and generally should be treated as such; but victim advocates could be a key to transforming one-size-fits-all prosecution policies into responses that are also tailored to the concerns of individual women. (at 20)

Similarly, although Manitoba is noted for its Women's Advocacy Program, this program does not appear to have significantly reduced the number of victims who are reluctant to proceed with criminal charges. In Manitoba, when a victim expresses reluctance to proceed or asks the Crown to drop the charge, a referral is made to the Women's Advocacy program to ensure that the victim is provided with support and information before a decision is made by the Crown. Given that the stay rate in Manitoba is approximately 45%, it appears that the effectiveness of the Advocacy Program lies in assisting women to understand the consequences of their request for a stay, and assisting the Crown to determine where it is appropriate to agree to such a request, rather than in persuading all women that their best choice is to proceed through the criminal justice system.

11. Supra at 56.


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