Section 3: Working with Sexual Assault Victim Advocates
2 Hours, 55 Minutes

(80 minutes)

Note: The purpose of this section is to understand some of the differences between the types of advocates and advocacy groups that may be providing services in participants’ communities, the significance these differences hold for victims, and to understand the opportunities for collaboration. The exercise is not intended as an opportunity to categorize for participants specific advocates or advocacy groups in their communities. Some jurisdictions have different or multiple types of advocacy groups (e.g., child advocacy centers), and the responsibilities of these groups can vary significantly, but they are all considered advocates. Participants who express confusion about the role of specific advocates in their communities should be encouraged to discuss with the advocates in their community the advocate’s roles and responsibilities to victims and the system. Emphasize that sharing information about roles and responsibilities is an important step in creating effective collaboration among agencies or individuals with different and sometimes conflicting roles.

Use Slide Use Slide #5: Victim Advocacy and Victim Service Organizations

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Note: Participants will have varying degrees of knowledge about the types of victim advocates. Encourage participants to name as many different types of victim advocacy agencies as possible. Write their answers on a flipchart or on a blank overhead slide. Possible answers include: rape crisis centers, child advocacy centers, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs, Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs), victim witness professionals in prosecutor’s offices or probation departments, etc.

Use Slide Use Slide #6: Types of Advocates

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Trainer QuestionWhat are some of the victim advocacy or victim service agencies or organizations that you either work with or are aware of in your jurisdiction? (20 minutes)

Categories of Advocates
(10 minutes)

Most of these agencies can be put in one of two groups: “system–based” advocates and “community–based” advocates. When we talk here about “system–based” advocates, we’re talking about something different from “systemic advocacy.” System–based advocates and community-based advocates can be differentiated by where the advocate is employed, who they are responsible to, and sometimes the nature of their duties.

System–based advocates are employed by a criminal or juvenile justice agency, typically a prosecutor’s office, but sometimes by a law enforcement, probation, or corrections department, or by a paroling authority or state Attorney General’s office. System–based advocates generally serve as the primary contact for victims with that particular criminal justice agency, and their responsibilities may include facilitating the victim’s participation in justice processes, interviewing victims, referring victims to appropriate support services, and helping victims connect with criminal justice system–based victim services.

The term “community–based” victim advocate refers to people who work in an independent, usually nonprofit, organization dedicated to assisting victims of sexual assault (and sometimes also victims of domestic violence and/or stalking). Some advocacy groups are private but have a mission that links them to a criminal justice agency. For example, some private, nonprofit child advocacy centers are designed to make it easier for child victims to provide testimony about their victimization, but this function serves primarily to assist with prosecutions, dependency decisions, and other official functions.

The term “community–based” victim advocate refers to people who work in an independent, usually nonprofit, organization dedicated to assisting victims of sexual assault (and sometimes also victims of domestic violence and/or stalking). Some advocacy groups are private but have a mission that links them to the criminal justice system. For example, some private, nonprofit child advocacy centers are designed to make it easier for child victims to provide testimony about their victimization, but this function serves primarily to assist with prosecutions, dependency decisions, and other official functions. Community–based victim assistance programs provide comprehensive services to victims, regardless of whether they choose to report the crime and participate in justice system processes.

There are also victim service providers who may not fall into either of these categories, but who sometimes serve as the voice for victim issues in the community. These may include counseling agencies or private therapists who provide services to victims and have a deep understanding of victim issues, but who are not officially involved in the criminal justice system aspects of sexual assault issues. This type of provider may also include sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) or child advocacy center staff who have a role in the criminal justice system but who are independent of it; or leaders of victim support groups.

Inevitably, some communities have greater victim advocacy resources than others. Communities that have both system-based and community-based victim advocates are particularly fortunate, since each has different services they can offer to victims and the community. It is important to understand some of the differences in the services these advocates are able to offer. You may be in contact with either or both types of advocates, depending on what is available in your community, whom the victim has chosen to contact, or what is happening with the offender. When these various victim advocacy groups work together, their services can complement and enrich each other.

Comparing Community–based and System–based Victim Advocates
(10 minutes)

Use Slide Use Slide #7: System–based Advocates

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Use Slide Use Slide #8: Community–based Advocates

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Note: When reviewing the roles of each type of advocate, emphasize the fact that the roles may differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For instance, a rape crisis center may do a lot of court accompaniment, while probation–based victim advocates may perform specialized training and help with accessing compensation information.

Although both community– and system–based advocates can and do provide valuable services to victims, it is important to know the differences between these types of advocates. These include:

As you can see from this comparison, each advocacy position has its strengths and its limitations, which is why communities benefit most from having advocates and other service providers available in a variety of locations both within the system and outside of it. But many communities without this abundance of resources have adapted to the needs of sexual assault victims by expanding the capacity of the advocates who are available to serve in whatever ways they can. You will find tremendous variation from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, both in terms of what services are available and who provides them.

Use Slide Use Slide #9: Important Lessons

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Note: See the Office for Victims of Crime’s on line Directory of Crime Victim Services for information about available resources in your community. The online guide can be viewed at

Note: Participants should keep this handout for future reference. It includes comprehensive information about victim assistance programs, victims’ rights, crime victim compensation, and information and referral information for a number of state and local victim organizations.

The important things to take away from this comparison are:

Learning ActivityLearning Activity: Victim Service Inventory
(20 minutes)

Learning Activity Materials Learning Activity Materials

Victim Service Inventory Handout

Let’s take a few moments to do a quick inventory of the victim services you each have in your communities. Each of you has been given a handout to complete for your community. Take a look at the handout. It consists of a blank chart for you to fill in, with one example already provided. It asks you:

List all of the victim services you can name in your community, and indicate how much you know about them. Take a few minutes to jot down a few notes on your chart.

Note: Links to state coalitions can be found at the National Sexual Assault Coalition Resource Sharing Project, at
. We will return to this handout later in the training. Telephone and address information for each state coalition, as well as information about national sexual assault programs, can be found in the Trainer’s Resources section of this curriculum.

Processing of Exercise: Victim Service Inventory
(5 minutes)

Some of you may find that your chart is still relatively empty. This constitutes your homework—over the next couple of weeks, seek out the information to fill in your chart. One way to do this is to meet with the various victim advocacy agencies on your list to gather information about how they function. Some of these advocacy agencies will also be able to direct you to advocates not on your list so that you can make contact with them. Contact the sexual assault coalition in your state—they can also help you gather information about victim services in your area.

Confidential Communications
(20 minutes)

Use Slide Use Slide #10: Confidentiality

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Note: This aspect of community–based victim advocacy is discussed separately for two reasons:

  • Confidentiality is important for victims. Community–based programs are often the only places victims can turn where they know what they say will not be disclosed.
  • It is often this restriction on information–sharing that causes tension between community–based victim advocates and criminal justice professionals. Prosecutors and probation officers, for example, sometimes believe the advocate is ‘holding back’ information that would be useful to their work with the case and resent the advocate on that basis. It is important to address this issue with participants so they will understand the reasons why confidentiality is important; that advocates don’t “withhold” information that would be useful; rather, they protect legitimate and essential confidentiality limits.

Encourage the participants to find out what kind of communication is protected in their state. See the attached state matrix of confidential communications laws.

Let’s talk a little bit further about the issue of confidential communications. This is often an area that can be frustrating to criminal justice personnel, especially in the context of a comprehensive response to sex offenders where information sharing is particularly valued. Most states provide some kind of protection to communications between victims and their advocates/counselors, similar to the privilege afforded to doctors and lawyers and their patients or clients. Unless a victim signs a waiver consenting to the release of information shared with a counselor or advocate, it is against the law for the advocate to share information a victim has divulged to them. In states without such laws, agency policy will sometimes dictate that information provided by victims cannot be shared unless the victim signs a waiver, and the waiver is usually specific about to whom the information can be released. In this situation, the information would be vulnerable to subpoena but would not be available for general discussion.

To those within the criminal justice system charged with the management of sex offenders, it may appear in these situations that victim advocates are withholding information unnecessarily. This can be frustrating in the context of both individual cases and in trying to set policy that will facilitate collaboration among criminal justice system agencies. Sometimes victims will have shared information about the offender that would be useful to the person supervising or treating the offender, or information that could affect the victim’s or others’ safety. At times like this, the victim advocate’s insistence on maintaining confidentiality may seem not only uncooperative but potentially harmful, and it is important to consider why these laws and policies are in place. Far from being unnecessary, they are essential to protecting and empowering victims by encouraging them to share information freely with their advocates without fear that the information will be shared without their consent.

Trainer QuestionCan you think of some examples of information that advocates may possess to which you would like to have access?

Examples could include: that the offender contacted the victim, which is a violation of his/her conditions of probation; that the offender is engaging in other activity that violates conditions.

Trainer QuestionDo any of you have any ideas about why laws are in place protecting communications between victims and their advocates/counselors?

Hopefully, some participants will point out that the principle behind confidential communications is essential to protect victims. If not, continue with the next paragraph, explaining the principle.

It is important to remember that the laws and policies restricting the information that advocates can share are in place for a purpose, to protect victims in the places to which they turn for assistance. Anyone who works in the field of sexual assault knows that sexual assault is a painful experience that can be difficult to talk about. However, sharing information about the assault and the victim’s experience in the aftermath of the assault may go beyond that kind of emotional difficulty. Just as a victim may be in the best position to know how an offender operates and how dangerous the offender may be, the victim may also be in the best position to know what information can be shared without harming the victim or putting the victim at risk of harm.

For example, information about the victim’s mental state, shared with an advocate as part of an effort to secure therapy or other mental health services to deal with issues raised by the assault, may be used to discredit her in a civil or family law case that follows the sexual assault. Criminal and civil legal systems can cause victims real harm when information about their experience gets into the wrong hands, and creates danger for them or is used to discredit them.

In order for some victims of sexual assault and abuse to heal and recover, they need to know that they can talk to an advocate without fearing that what they say may be shared, even if the intentions for sharing it are well–meaning (such as a belief that the victim will be protected if the information is revealed). This is a protection that generally only community–based advocates can offer victims, and it is this assurance that what they say is confidential that enables many victims to seek support.

Note: For additional information about HIPAA, please visit:

Another important implication for victim privacy is related to HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which was passed by Congress in 1996. The Federal government developed an implementing policy that included “the Privacy Rule,” a federal regulation defining administrative steps, policies, and procedures to safeguard individuals' personal, private health information (protected health information or PHI). The Privacy Rule is designed to empower patients by guaranteeing them access to their medical records, giving them more control over how their PHI is used and disclosed, and providing a clear avenue of recourse if their medical privacy is compromised. The rule is designed to protect medical records and other personal health information maintained by certain health care providers, hospitals, health plans, health insurers, and health care clearinghouses. The new law may have implications for enhanced privacy of victim information.

One other important privacy issue to take note of is the fact that many criminal justice agencies have “duty to warn” policies. For example, if a probation or corrections officer hears an offender making a credible threat to a victim, he or she is required to report the threat. In such cases, the victim is usually informed that a credible threat has been made, in order to take needed safety precautions.

Note: Be prepared for the possible observation from participants that, in their communities, different types of advocates do not work well together. This is a valid point, but does not provide an excuse to avoid working with victim advocates. Since victims utilize all of the victim advocacy services in the community, so too should those who work with offenders establish a relationship with all victim service organizations.

As was mentioned earlier, the point of identifying differences between advocates is not to place more value on one type of advocate than another, but to help participants understand the difference in services each type of advocate provides. Each advocate’s role has some benefits and limitations in terms of what they can offer victims at different stages of the criminal justice process. For some victims, the access to the system and the reassurance that the relevant system personnel are hearing their concerns may be a strong motivation to disclose information to a system–based advocate, despite the lack of confidentiality. For others, knowing that the information they are disclosing is confidential may be essential to their willingness to seek help or to go through the process of reporting the crime.

Even those victims who especially value the confidentiality offered by community–based victim advocates will often provide consent for information to be shared if they believe it is in their best interest to do so. The important thing for us to remember as professional colleagues of victim advocates is that the decision to share information remains with the victim—not the victim advocate. Whatever the circumstances and regardless of the content, advocates bound by state law or organizational policy are not allowed to release information without a signed waiver, unless it falls under mandatory child abuse reporting laws. Collaborating with advocates requires respecting these boundaries around information shared by victims.

In your own efforts to collaborate with victim advocates within your jurisdiction, it will be important for your organization to seek out information about the current state law regarding confidentiality between advocates and victims, and the specific policies of your collaborative partners, and to discuss the application of these laws and policies as part of the collaborative process.

Working with Advocates
(5 minutes)

Note: Reluctance by some victim advocates to partner with criminal justice agencies may be an issue raised in the previous exercise about past experiences. If so, you can refer back to the examples given by participants and remind participants of the lessons learned and benefits realized by pursuing such partnerships.

Remember that advocates in your jurisdiction may be as unfamiliar with victim–centered approaches to managing sex offenders as you or others may be, and might be hesitant or skeptical about collaborating with agencies or individuals who work with offenders. Some advocates may be reluctant to collaborate with the criminal justice system because of the difficult history victims of sexual assault have experienced in seeking justice within that system. They also often have historical concerns about not being included in any partnerships that address offender management and public safety, or being invited to participate once such processes have already been established. It is important to engage victim advocates early and often in all sex offender management efforts, and recognize the value they bring to the team.

The advocacy movement began because sexual assault victims felt that the criminal justice system was not meeting their needs, and in many ways favored perpetrators of sexual assault over victims. In addition, certain kinds of sexual assault have historically been virtually ignored. Unlike victims of other crimes, sexual assault victims have been accused of making up the stories of their victimization unless they had serious bodily injuries—and even then, it has sometimes been argued that they “liked rough sex.” Victims have had their personal histories put on trial, and if they were sexually active with anyone, that sexual history has been used in some cases to excuse or explain the sexual assault. The victim advocacy community has worked hard to dispel these myths, to change laws and practices to enable victims of sexual assault to seek justice, and to provide accountability for perpetrators. Unfortunately, these types of practices still exist in some jurisdictions, and even those jurisdictions that have made strides in remedying these problems are likely still faced with a legacy of skepticism and mistrust of the system.

While many advocates may understand that they have an important role to play in sex offender management and are eager to collaborate, others may not understand that supervisory and other criminal justice agencies share the same fundamental goal of preventing future victimization. They also may believe that their resources cannot or should not be applied to anything that supports work with offenders, because it would result in fewer resources for victims. In the world of sexual assault victim advocacy—as in community corrections—limited resources have always been a significant issue. Be prepared, as you would be in any new collaborative relationship, to spend some time building trust gently, challenging each other’s assumptions, and discussing shared expectations. Remember that advocates have typically not been included in any correctional or offender management initiatives. It will be important to share with them that their contributions to these efforts will be valued, important, and worthwhile.

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