Victim Services a friend to the abused
(Editor’s note: Thirty-five years ago, if you were sexual assaulted, raped or beaten in the area, you were basically on your own. It was on you to find someone to help. You had to go to the hospital by yourself. There was no one who could guide you through what could be a hostile criminal justice system. No one to take away the scariness of what had happened to you or what would happen to you next. No one to tell you about your rights. That is until a newly formed nonprofit group calling itself Victim Services hit the ground running in Somerset and Cambria counties.)
Jess was struggling emotionally because she had been sexually abused by her brother-in-law from the age of 8 until she was 16. As if that wasn’t traumatic enough, Jess was raped by another man when she turned 17. Scared, she reached out to Victim Services for counseling.
Jess, a survivor of both incest and rape, used different techniques she learned through her time with the organization to heal from the trauma — among them yoga and public speaking. It was a strange combination but one that gave Jess the tools she needed to go on to lead her life. Yoga helped her reconnect and feel safe in her body again.
“My body was always a dangerous place for me to be in,” she said. “I distanced myself from it and for so long it felt like I was standing on the outside looking in.”
But it was public speaking that enabled Jess to take her voice back. “I was able to own my story instead of my story owning me.”
Face-to-face in the courtroom
Over the past 50 years, the criminal justice system has evolved into a tool for remedying social harm that has changed the role of the victim in criminal proceedings.
“It is a very big job to raise consciousness and work your way through the court system when nobody knows what you are talking about,” said Lucie Whittle, founder of Victim Services.
Historically, victims of sexual crimes did not have rights they have now.
“Society’s perception of sexual assault is still not what it needs to be,” said Tracey Cook, senior counselor at Victim Services. “It is not about what you wore or where you went. It is about power and control.”
Call us survivors
Most victims and those who assist them prefer the word “survivor” to “victim.”
“I don’t like the word victim, and I try to not use it,” said Heather Snyder, who has worked as an advocate at Victim Services for three years and is a survivor of sexual assault herself.
Five years ago, she was assaulted by a longtime friend, Snyder said. She never reported the abuse to the police. The abuser used “a lot of manipulation” to keep it quiet, she said.
He used his position as a mentor of the man she would soon call her husband to silence her. He told her that if she told someone, no one would believe her. It would hurt her standing in the community, he said, and it would drive a wedge between her and others she cared about. He would be hurt if she told, he said.
So she continued to say nothing. The strain of not telling began to affect her relationships.
She had been married a year, and the two of them were fighting a lot, she said. She finally told him about the abuse. Her abuser was wrong. Her husband believed her and suggested counseling. She followed his advice.
Later, she became part of the healing for others who had lived through a similar nightmare.
“I kinda found Victim Services by a happy accident,” she said. “I was in college and my now co-worker came to present. I was just drawn to the work they do here, maybe because I am a survivor. It kinda just touched a part of my heart. I always wanted to help people, and I just didn’t know in what capacity.”
She applied for an internship and got it. Then she applied for a position.
“I’m a believer that your experiences can sometimes help other people,” Snyder said.
Among her jobs for the nonprofit is running a program in the prisons to give inmates who have been sexually abused or traumatized a platform to discuss what happened and to move forward in the healing process.
Accompanying the harmed
From the very first day when Victim Services was started 35 years ago, staff has been accompanying victims of sexual abuse and violent crimes to criminal justice proceedings. The group informs victims of their rights and what to expect in the courtroom and provides support through counseling and therapeutic opportunities.
Jess said her trauma seemed to intensify when she testified in court about the details of the abuse by her brother-in-law, who was found guilty and sent to prison. and in a way, so was she, Jess said.
“Every day becomes a struggle if you do not receive the help that you need,” Jess said. “You constantly feel like everyone is staring at you, and they know what happened, and you’re the bad guy for what happened to you.
“You always feel deep down there is something wrong with you.”
It wasn’t until several years later, when she went to Victim Services after a family member concerned about her struggle with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic disorder and panic attacks told her about the nonprofit, that the bars around Jess began to bend and break.
Her experience with Victim Services was so “empowering” that Jess went back to school and now is a victim advocate for the organization. Her sessions with a counselor helped her deal with her problems.
“We were able to put into place ways to help my healing based on my individual needs. Everyone has their own story; not every survivor heals at the same rate or the same way,” she said.
From the beginning, Victim Services geared its services to each individual and by doing so helped the wheels of justice move forward.
On any given day it is not unusual to see a victim advocate in the district attorney’s office.
“Victim Services is extremely vital in preparing a victim for testimony. It may be the first encounter the victim has with the accuser since reporting,” said Somerset County District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser. “With that comes another level of anxiety based possibly on embarrassment, sometimes humiliation to be in a public forum and certainly fear, not only physical fear from the accused but the emotionally damaging fear of not being believed.”
No longer oil and water
When Cook first started with Victim Services, she remembers that dealing with law enforcement and the prosecution was not always easy. She said that at times it seemed like trying to blend oil and water. Not so now, Cook said.
Somerset Borough police Chief Randy Cox said that if law enforcement is truly serving the victim of a crime, it can’t limit itself to going out and doing an investigation and making a report.
“We have to take those extra steps to make sure that victim’s needs are being met,” he said.
“One of the nice things about an active victim services community is that it really reduces the burden on law enforcement because we are no longer in that impossible position of trying to tend to a victim’s needs when the officer may not have the training or the skills to do that,” he added.
Law enforcement’s role involves linking the victim to Victim Services and letting the services go from there, Cox said.
Still more to do
So many sexual abuse cases come down to “she said, he said.”
“In some cases here in the county a jury just doesn’t believe someone (asserting sexual abuse),” Cook said. “If you put a child on the stand and you ask the child what do you think about your daddy, who is the molester, the child often answers, ‘I love my daddy.’
“The jurors don’t understand that. How can you love somebody who hurts you?”
But the child does.
“They do,” Cook said. “That child always looks for that parent to be a better person, and someday they will be the parent they want them to be, so of course they love them regardless of what has been done to them.”