Victim Impact Statements:  Giving Victims a Chance to Have Their Voice Heard

Nearly 160 women provided impact statements to the Court this past month at the Sentencing of Larry Nassar.  Nassar is the USA Gymnastics National Team Doctor who used his power to sexually assault women on the USA Gymnastics Team.  Each woman took the opportunity to stand before him and explain how the crime he committed impacted them.  These statements were incredibly powerful and it took days for the court to hear all of the women’s statements.   Their statements have shown the world that every victim has a voice and it deserves to be heard.

Victim impact statements allow victims the opportunity to explain to the court how a crime committed against them impacted them physically, emotionally and financially.  The statement from the victim usually includes information the court would not know otherwise.  This can help influence the decision-making process that goes into Sentencing.  A victim may choose to read their statement aloud to the court or have someone else read it for them.

Victim Advocates and District Attorneys often provide a voice for victims by reading their statements aloud in court, when fear, nerves or other emotions make it too difficult for them to read it themselves.  A victim may also choose to have the judge read the statement silently to themselves, if it contains information they do not wish to be shared publicly in open court.  This decision depends on what the victim is most comfortable with and sometimes is a last minute decision based on how full the courtroom is that day or how the victim feels emotionally when the time comes to provide the statement.

In addition to providing valuable information to the court, giving a Victim Impact Statement also has benefits for the victim.  Stating how the crime has impacted them can be a difficult thing to do, especially publicly.  However, it can be very a healing process for some victims. It gives a sense of empowerment and control, in a situation where often victims feel powerless.

If you are a victim of crime and need help with your impact statement you may contact NOVA via the NOVA hotline at 1-800-675-6900 or by via email at novainfo@novabucks.org.  Visit our website at novabucks.org for more information on the services we provide.

Sources:

http://time.com/5116275/gymnasts-victim-statements-lassar-nassar-sentencing/

http://victimsofcrime.org/help-for-crime-victims/get-help-bulletins-for-crime-victims/victim-impact-statements

http://www.justice.tas.gov.au/victims/vis/benefits

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Holiday Magic

Every holiday season in Bucks County, a special kind of magic happens.

I know magic is a strong word, but let me tell you why I use it.

For over a decade now, amazing individuals and families throughout Bucks County have partnered with NOVA’s counselors and advocates to adopt victims of violent crime and provide them with a joyful holiday. Donors buy and wrap gifts, provide groceries and gift cards, and even sometimes trees and ornaments. Everything from dolls to basketballs to bikes to turtles are carefully selected and lovingly given. NOVA’s staff then deliver the gifts…and then sit back and wait for the stories to pour in.

One child we see for counseling was extremely upset one day and crying uncontrollably to her mother. When her mother asked her why she was upset, the child responded that she had heard the Christmas song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, and specifically the line, “you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…Santa Claus is coming to town.” The little girl shared that, because of the sexual abuse she had experienced, she had been crying a lot and now she was afraid Santa would not come to her house. Her mother consoled her, but in her head she frantically wondered how she would find the money to make that happen. After Christmas, when this little girl was the recipient of the Holiday Gift Program, she came into her next counseling session with her new doll and told her counselor, “Santa found me!”

Another mother we see for counseling had been scrimping and saving for a Christmas gift for each of her two teenagers- and then her electricity was turned off. She had to use that saved money to pay to have it turned back on. When her counselor told her that she could be part of the Holiday Gift Program and that her children’s holiday wishes would be granted, she cried and told him how relieved she was to be able to keep one thing normal in the midst of all that had already been taken away from them.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

If you ever want to be part of the magic-making, feel free to contact Charity at 215-343-6543. Let’s partner together to keep making the magic happen.

Human Trafficking Awareness in 2018

Each year, on January 11th we acknowledge National Human Trafficking Awareness Day and this year, the Bucks Coalition Against Trafficking (BCAT), a project of NOVA, is encouraged that a broad effort is being made to create awareness and education surrounding the crime of human trafficking. We need days like this, dedicated to the importance of a particular issue, to focus this crisis in people’s minds.  We also need that awareness and action every other day of the year; we want everyone to know that the fight to eradicate human trafficking in Bucks County and in every state, in every county, and in every town happens every day, but we cannot rest our effort to broadcast this awareness.

BCAT celebrated its five-year anniversary this month. 2013 was the beginning of our coalition and so much has been accomplished these past five years. On January 9th, BCAT held its’ first professional conference, “Human Trafficking: Creating Awareness and Taking Action in Bucks County.” Over 160 people gathered at Delaware Valley University for the day-long conference.  We had a wonderful line-up of speakers, many from our own coalition. We truly have a wealth of knowledge right here in Bucks County! The theme of the conference was the importance of a collaborative effort in addressing all forms of trafficking. A highlight of the conference occurred when our Keynote speaker, a survivor of sex trafficking named Alison, shared her experience with a packed auditorium. Alison also talked about what it meant for her to finally be rescued from “the life.” In her own words,

“I spent years running from the very people who are in this room today,” said Alison, referring to the legal, criminal justice, social service, and healthcare professionals in attendance. “Today I am on the other side of it with help from people like you and I am forever grateful.”

 Alison’s words serve as a powerful reminder that what we all do as professionals and community members matters. It matters that we educate ourselves about all forms of trafficking then take that knowledge to serve as ambassadors for BCAT, speaking out about trafficking in Bucks County. It matters that we work to provide and get better at providing appropriate interventions and services to survivors and at-risk youth. It matters that we find ways to bring survivors into our coalition and let them help lead in combating trafficking. It matters that everyone, whether a member of BCAT or not, educates themselves on the signs of trafficking and speaks out.

There are several resources that provide useful information on trafficking:

BCAT information

http://www.bcatpa.org/

Survivor Stories

http://polarisproject.org/blog/search?keys=&field_categories_tid=43753&field_initiatives_tid=All&field_blog_author_target_id=All

Recognizing the Signs

http://polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/recognize-signs

Statistics

http://polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/facts

If you are interested in BCAT whether formally involved or not, come to our next BCAT Quarterly Meeting on April 18th at 5:30 PM at NOVA. Contact Deirdre at deirdre@novabucks.org for information. Join a subcommittee or reconnect with a committee.  We have the next five years to create awareness and continue to take action.

Coping with the Holidays when you are, or know, a Victim/Crime Survivor

The holiday season may seem like a time for family, joy, and happiness. Not everyone views this time of year in the same light. There are people going through some of the hardest times of their lives, whether it’s navigating the healing process as a victim of a crime, or having a loved one who is dealing with some trauma.  It’s imperative to keep this in mind as you interact with others this season.

The Office for Victims of Crime (2005) also reminds us to keep in mind that this time of year may give rise to new or returning bouts of depression, panic attacks, and other forms of anxiety for those whose lives are affected. Victims of crime, family members, friends, and work colleagues may re-experience life-changing traumas through flashbacks, nightmares, and overwhelming sadness. Some have trouble sleeping, while others don’t want to get out of bed. Other side effects could include headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and other aches and pains.

There are ways to help cope with this time of year. Having a plan as the holidays near can mitigate many of these negative reactions:

Change Traditions

Decide which traditions to keep, and which to let go. Some plans may need to be altered to accommodate the needs/requests of victims or yourself. Keep in mind the physical needs of those who may have acquired a disability as a result of victimization.

Create a Special Tribute (if coping with a holiday without a person)

There are ways to honor the memory of a loved one who has died. Candles can be lit, a space at the table can be left, flowers can be placed somewhere, or a special dish can be prepared. Special memories of that person can be shared openly or written down.

Consider Carefully Where to Spend the Holidays

Surround yourself with friends and family who support and encourage you. If you are that friend and/or family member, be sure not to tell anyone how they should feel or state that you “understand” how they feel. Just be there, for whatever they need; a listening ear, a shoulder to lean on, or just some company.

Relive Fond Memories

Attempting to go through the holidays pretending that nothing has happened can be a heavy and unrealistic burden. Think about holiday seasons you have enjoyed in the past and identify memories you want to hold in your heart forever. Celebrate them and be grateful. If feelings of sadness pop up at inappropriate times, such as at work or in a public gathering, try thinking about what you have, rather than what you have lost. Focus on the blessing of the memories in your heart.

Counter the Conspiracy of Silence

Family members may consciously or unconsciously conspire to avoid mentioning the tragedy in your family. This is usually a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to protect your feelings. If this seems to be happening, take the initiative and talk to your family about the importance of talking openly about what has happened and sharing your feelings. Also, don’t be afraid to give yourself a “time out” or break from the discussion, if needed.

Protect Your Health

Eat healthy food and avoid over-indulging in sweets. Drink plenty of water. Avoid alcohol. Take a multivitamin. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. Talk with your doctor about an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, if you think it will help.

ALWAYS remember that you can’t change the past, but you can take charge of the present and shape the future.

For more information and tips, please visit: https://ojp.gov/ovc/publications/holidaytips/welcome.html

It Doesn’t Just Happen In Hollywood

#metoo.

It’s only 6 strokes of the keyboard but it makes an impact. Social media was abuzz last month with posts and tweets about incidences of sexual harassment and sexual assault that had happened to people in our country, locally and nationally. Women and men were posting revealing messages about their experiences of sexual assault at work, at school, and in their communities. This recent movement was in response to the national headlines about high-profile cases of sexual abuse and misconduct. So what was the point of this movement? And more importantly, did it work?

The point is simple: to raise awareness about how prevalent sexual assault and harassment is in our everyday lives and how it has become the norm in our culture. The victims who bravely shared their own experiences helped to contribute to the conversation about rape culture, respect and safety, and the magnitude of sexual violence in our country. And the stats back up just how prevalent it is. Over one third of women report experiencing unwanted sexual advances or unwanted verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature at work. One in 4 women and 1 in 6 men report experiencing a sexual assault in their lifetime (NSVRC, 2015). The perpetrators of sexual misconduct aren’t just Hollywood executives and politicians either. Sexual offenders can be individuals in a victim’s everyday life. In 8 out of 10 rapes, the victim knew their perpetrator. And 34% of individuals who abuse a child are family members (NSVRC, 2015).

Whether or not this movement worked is hard to measure. But what has happened is that the conversation has begun. More and more victims are feeling comfortable to come forward and share their stories in an effort to right the wrongs that have occurred. It’s important to remember, though, that for every story of sexual assault that has been shared, there were also victims who were not ready to share publically.

So what can you do? If you know someone who has been a victim of sexual harassment or assault, your response can be simple:

  1. Listen – Sometimes that’s all people want and need.
  2. Say “I’m sorry that happened to you” and “It’s not your fault” – You don’t need to make them feel better or try to fix it. It’s ok to simply acknowledge what has happened and begin to combat the self-blame that some victims experience.
  3. Don’t ask too many questions – Victims will share what they are ready to share, when they are ready to share it. By listening and acknowledging their experience, you are providing a safe place for them to tell what’s happening or what has happened.
  4. Encourage them to seek help – Some people need additional and professional support to deal with feelings surrounding their victimization. Provide referrals, offer to help make the call, or support them as they decide when it’s the right time for them.

For victims in Bucks County, NOVA provides free and confidential counseling and advocacy services. Victims, friends, and family members can call NOVA’s 24/7 hotline at 1-800-675-6900 to ask questions, raise concerns, or to seek services.

You are not alone. And we are here to listen.

Post written by: Kendal, Victim Advocate

A Lesser Known Option for Victims of Sexual Assault

Recent news has been filled with reports of high-profile sexual assaults, and while no two stories are ever exactly alike, there is something strikingly similar about them.  The victims in these cases often did not disclose their assault for many years – not an uncommon response.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that approximately 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police, making it one of the most underreported crimes. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) explains that victims often don’t report because, “Sexual assault can cause intense feelings of humiliation. Denial, shame and self-doubt are all typical psychological byproducts of being abused by someone you trusted.  Victims often struggle with fears that other people will judge, blame and disbelieve them, and fear how gossip about what has been done to them can further inflict feelings of isolation, shame and humiliation.”

One option following a sexual assault that has not been readily discussed by the media is the medical-forensic exam. In Bucks County, this exam, often referred to as a rape exam, is conducted in emergency rooms by highly trained sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) contracted with NOVA.  Their approach is non-judgmental, compassionate and gender-sensitive. The SANEs first responsibility is to the emotional and medical needs of the patient, while also addressing the forensic requirements of the criminal justice system. The exam is usually conducted within five days after an assault and includes a discussion of risk factors for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy with prevention options offered. A victim advocate is available to all patients to provide emotional support and information on counseling and advocacy. A patient’s right to decline any part of the exam or discontinue it at any time is always fully respected.

The emotional, physical and psychological stresses a victim experiences after a sexual assault can be overwhelming. PCAR confirms that, “Victims sometimes need decades to even admit to themselves that what happened to them was abuse, let alone muster the courage to file a report about what is perhaps the most traumatic physical and psychological betrayal that one can experience.”  Participating in a medical-forensic exam can provide victims with much needed support in the aftermath of an assault while also affording a great deal of time (up to the 12-year statute of limitations) to determine their best course of action while addressing immediate healthcare needs and preserving evidence that would otherwise be lost.

In Pennsylvania, the medical-forensic exam is conducted free of charge and adults age 18 or older can choose whether or not to involve law enforcement.

Please call the 24-hour NOVA hotline at 1-800-675-6900 for additional information.

On Cultivating Resilience

Resilience is the process of adapting and rising above adversity, trauma, tragedy, significant sources of stress such as childhood abuse or neglect, relationship problems, serious health or financial stressors.  It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences by honoring the past hurts we have sustained at the same time as embracing our potential.  It is a balancing act of pain and courage.

Human beings have considerable capacity for strength and resilience.  Being resilient does not mean we escape unscathed.  Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, building resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

Research shows that resilience is both an inherited trait and one that can be cultivated.  It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.

  • Reframing and perception are at the heart of resilience. Positive construal of an event can be learned by reframing the way we think about it, which in turn shapes the way we experience and react to that event.  Positive reframing does not mean we think of the event itself as being positive, but rather we shift the spotlight onto strengths and resources we can use.  Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who pioneered the positive psychology field, proposes that training ourselves to change our explanatory style from internal to external (“Bad events are not my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one single event, rather than an indication that something is wrong in my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it will feel like this forever”) has helped to improve emotional states after a traumatic event.
  • Another characteristic that can be cultivated is insight. We do this by asking poignant questions about ourselves and our experiences and responding to them with honesty and compassion toward ourselves.
  • Taking charge of problems as they arise and stretching ourselves to find solutions and build healthy boundaries, we cultivate a sense of self-competence and confidence. The belief that we can impact and change our outcomes and goals, rather than our environment shifts the control and power to an internal “locus” or place which informs our approach.
  • Critical to creating resilience is having or finding support systems to help us grow in a healthy direction. Whether our family of origin, or a friend, teacher, or spouse, these supportive relationships will foster our resilience.

Thinking along these three lines will help us remember our capacity for strength and cultivate our resilience:

  • I have: strong relationships, role models and healthy rules in my life;
  • I am: a person of strength, compassion, and hope who can develop my inner strengths;
  • I can: solve problems, express myself clearly, and seek healthy relationships