(Part two of our series on Stettler Victim Services)
Victims’ rights are more respected today than they were two decades ago, but there’s still a ways to go, according to Heartland Victim Services Unit (VSU) director, Pat Hamilton.
Driven by the picture painted by shows like Law and Order, victims of crime think that once they provide a report to police, someone will be arrested and then they will testify at trial, and that’s it.
In reality, it’s a lot more and the average person isn’t aware that it could be years before the matter winds through court.
“People don’t understand the court process,” Hamilton said. There can be hearings and hearings, people not showing up, warrants issued, lawyers changing and more. After a conviction (or acquittal), the appeals process can add years to the ordeal, and if a conviction stands, there are parole hearings.
The word “victim” conjures up an image of a person who has been terribly traumatized and while yes, sometimes that is the case, victims are people who suffer “inconveniences” too – such as mischief, like keyed cars or slashed tires, spray paint graffiti and the like.
Through it all, VSU is there for the victim, guiding them along the legal system, helping them fill out restitution forms so they can be compensated for the damages they’ve suffered, to sitting in court all day so they can bring back information about case status – did the accused enter a plea, did he receive the documents from the Crown attorney, did he show up, did he ask for more time? The possibilities are endless.
And while the volunteer advocates of VSU are helping the victims of crime to remain informed about the process and the status of cases, police officers like RCMP Const. Carla Stiller are on patrol, helping keep the streets of the Town of Stettler, and the surrounding communities, safe.
“If it wasn’t for them, I’d be chained to my desk,” she said. Stiller is the VSU liaison for the RCMP, a job she took over from Const. Sarah MacQuarrie, who transferred to the Musical Ride.
According to Stiller, without the volunteer efforts of the advocates in Heartland VSU, the effectiveness of the Stettler RCMP detachment would be seriously cut.
The RCMP detachment in Stettler has part of its force dedicated to patrolling rural communities and one officer dedicated to work within the local schools. If every officer was burdened down by what the advocates take off their shoulders, extra programs like this wouldn’t be possible.
Stiller, who has only served in Stettler for a short time but is backed by more than six years in the police service, knows that the Heartland VSU is special.
It’s proactive and very involved and interactive with the local police, she said.
“It’s not the norm,” she said, referring specifically to the immediate presence of advocates during traumatic circumstances, such as death notifications. Having an advocate with police when they deliver the news to loved ones that their world has just irrevocably changed is not the normal operating procedure.
But it’s appreciated.
“Each person reacts to loss differently,” VSU advocate Gord Lawlor said.
Some people, he explained, collapse in tears. Others throw up. Some become silent and withdrawn. Others express the violence of their feelings with violent words or actions.
“I’ve never been hit, but one man hit a wall,” Lawlor said.
While the police appreciate the assistance of the advocates, keeping advocates safe is their first priority.
When advocates go to assist a victim of assault, they can only do so once the accused is gone, and unable to return. If they are at scene of a motor vehicle accident, they are well away from moving traffic.
“We put their well-being first,” Stiller said.
Despite the efforts put in by police to ensure safety, the VSU takes the wellbeing of their advocates seriously. Each advocate has access to training in self-defence, “just in case,” explained Hamilton.
“We’re there to help the victims,” she said. “Not become one.”