Privileged Work: A Conversation about Victim Advocacy

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Privileged Work: A Conversation about Victim Advocacy

Privileged Work: A Conversation about Victim Advocacy

Robyn Wiktorski-Reynolds, the advocate program coordinator for Crisis Services in Buffalo, New York, has worked in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault for 12 years. Here she discusses the collaborative nature of victim advocacy work. 

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The following is a transcript

SARAH SCHWEIG: Hi. I’m Sarah Schweig of the Center for Court Innovation, and today I’m speaking with Robyn Wiktorski-Reynolds. Robyn is the advocate program coordinator for Crisis Services in Buffalo, New York, and she has worked in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault for 12 years. Welcome.

ROBYN WIKTORSKI-REYNOLDS: Thank you. Great to be here.

SCHWEIG: Thanks for speaking with me today. I wanted to know what does it mean to work in victim advocacy, and what kinds of services and initiatives do you work on?

WIKTORSKI-REYNOLDS: Sure.  It’s a great question. Victim advocacy work is really very privileged work. Everyone that is able to connect with survivors of these crimes feels really honored to be able to be in that position. And what’s really unique about victim advocacy is that individuals have to be sort of jack-of-all-trades. When you’re advocating for clients, it may be in a medical setting or it may be in a criminal justice setting, law enforcement, or you know, you name it. So when folks get involved in this, they become quickly involved with many systems that victims of these crimes have to interface with. So you need someone who’s incredibly flexible and can learn a lot of things and be able to collaborate professionally with all these different disciplines.

SCHWEIG: So Erie County, where Buffalo is located, has three different types of specialized courts that relate to domestic violence: domestic violence courts, integrated domestic violence courts, and sex offense courts. Can you explain just a little bit about how these courts differ from each other?

WIKTORSKI-REYNOLDS: Sure. Sure. The domestic violence court that we have in Erie County is located in the City of Buffalo’s court, domestic violence part. So those cases that are being handled are strictly from the City of Buffalo. The integrated domestic violence court is for the entire county, and it’s when an individual’s case is in two of the three different courts, so whether that’s criminal court, family court matter, or Supreme Court matter. As long as they have two of those three options, then those will get funneled into the integrated domestic violence court. And then the sex offense court is really more felony-level, sex offense cases, that’s only about, I want to say, three years old now, and it’s been developing over time. The victim advocacy component is now more of an as-needed basis.

SCHWEIG: How does victim advocacy vary between the context of all three of those different kinds of courts?

WIKTORSKI-REYNOLDS: Sure. Let me back up a little bit and talk about the different services that the program has. The advocate program is part of a larger crisis center in Buffalo in Erie County. And we are the rape crisis center for Erie County and that’s a New York State Department of Health designation. And we’re also a New York State approved non-residential domestic violence service provider. So in that sense, what that means is that we’re approved by the state to do domestic violence services but we just don’t have a shelter. And my staff is comprised of case managers, victim advocates, therapists, I have a trainer/volunteer coordinator, and also a sexual assault nurse examiner/coordinator. The majority of my staff are what we call out-stationed. They’re based in collaborative projects. For example, the Buffalo police department sex offense section—we’ve been there for about 15 or 16 years—so we’re literally sharing an office with the detectives. The Town of Tonawanda Police Department—it’s a smaller suburban police department—we’re in their family offense unit. And we’re also in one of the Erie County sheriff’s office hubs. Then we have staff that are located at our family justice center in Erie County, and we also have staff that are literally in the domestic violence court in Buffalo. So what this means is that person—we’ve been there for probably, I’m going to say, 13 years now—she’s literally in a suite with the judge and the judge’s team, and she will stand in the courtroom and meet with victims there, do on-site assistance with orders of protection, sometimes the modifications, sometimes it’s crisis intervention depending on what’s going on, a lot of safety planning, and then determining what that victim needs beyond the courtroom experience. So generally, there’s way more levels of need as I’m sure you’re familiar with, so we will either connect him or her with internal resources, with crisis services that we have or refer to other services in the community. We work very closely with the DA’s office and their advocates, understanding the roles that we have that are similar but then different. We really have an on-site presence.

The way that we handle integrated domestic violence court is there is one of our partners, the local shelter, Haven House—they have an advocate station there. So if we’re working with a client, depending on what her level of need is, we will either encourage her to work with the on-site advocate there for the court proceedings, or if there’s a level of rapport or she really just wants her crisis services advocate, we will go to IDV court with her. And then sex offense court, like I said, now we just go there on an as-needed basis with the clients.

Now when we look at the rural parts of the county because there are swabs of rural areas, the town courts, we have a staff person, the one that is stationed at the Erie County sheriff’s department. She has dedicated time at three of the hotbed areas of domestic violence court, and so, she’ll go there—those are evening hours—so she’ll go and provide on-site crisis intervention court advocacy to the victims that are there. There’s also a DA’s victim advocate that she sort of— they tag team, you know, maybe that DA’s advocate needs to go to a different court, so my advocate is going to go and try to help her out somewhere else—there’s a really good communication around making sure the victims’ needs get met. So even though those town courts don’t have designated courts for DV, we can certainly send advocates to victims there to address those needs.

SCHWEIG: Excellent. And it’s wonderful that you can offer that sort of on a case-by-case basis.

WIKTORSKI-REYNOLDS: It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful. And the other component that’s really unique is the Native American territories that we have, and nations that we have. And again, the sheriff’s department staff person—and really any of my staff can do this, but really it’s about location and timing—will assist with any of the potentially tribal court matters that might come up or any advocacy needs are needed on the nation. There is a very strong liaison in collaboration with the sheriff’s department and the reservation. So because we’re connected with them, there has been a developing and developed trust with our advocates, so as needed, we’ll get pulled into those cases as well.

SCHWEIG: Wow. I’m sure you’re pretty busy. And in addition to all the things you just described, you also currently chair the Crisis Services Rape Crisis Advisory Committee?

WIKTORSKI-REYNOLDS: Yes.

SCHWEIG: Is that right? Who is involved in this committee and what kinds of initiatives is the committee currently working on?

WIKTORSKI-REYNOLDS: Sure. This is sort of the rape crisis hat of my program. We’re a dual program, so both sexual assault and domestic violence, and there’s a lot of overlap. But the focus of this committee is really to develop and continue to work on a coordinated community response to sexual assaults in Erie County. So the major stakeholders at the table include the district attorney’s office, the local law enforcement, local universities—we have about four universities that sit on this panel—a variety of human service agencies that deal with anything from women’s reproductive health to developmental disabilities, you name it. We also have our sexual assault nurse examiner coordinator and the various SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) representatives from the variety of like 11 hospitals in Erie County. So we have a variety of people that sit on that. We meet on a bi-monthly basis. The forensics for Erie County sit on that as well as the medical examiner’s office because they have their hands obviously in the forensic evidence kits or rape kits, as well as the drug facilitator sexual assault kits. So we get everybody together. We review current issues or trends on the table and try to address them. Really the SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) coordinator was born of this committee. You know, we applied for a grant through DCJS. I was able to fund a position and it’s just sort of morphed—same with the drug facilitator sexual assault kit testing, and that was developed through there.

And through this committee, we’ve had about four conferences since 2002 really dealing with what’s going on. You know, the most recent one was sex abuse by school personnel because there was a lot going on in our community around that. And the way that different school systems were handling it, it was really disturbing, and we weren’t quite sure what to do, so we were like, let’s have a conference. So we brought in school administrators from all over to talk about the liabilities, offender ideology, we actually had a local offender who was arrested for having sex with one of his students—we had him on video. So it was really great. We try to be creative in our approach, but then also handling the day-to-day. And at the very end of the day, just getting all those people in the same room on a bi-monthly basis just increases communication across the board. I also have a victim advocate sit at the table. So there’s just a professional collegiality. It just helps things move smoother on a day-to-day basis.

SCHWEIG: Excellent. And I think I just have one more question for you about yet another project you work on, which is overseeing the operation of the New York State domestic and sexual violence hotline. What are the goals of this hotline and what kinds of services does it provide?

WIKTORSKI-REYNOLDS: The state hotline, we were awarded this contract in September of 2010. So we have been in existence for many, many years. And the goal of this state hotline was to give folks around the state a centralized place they could call—there’s an English line and a Spanish line, but obviously people are calling with all different languages—to essentially determine safety, get them linked to their local domestic violence or sexual assault service provider. The sexual assault component of the hotline was only added in, I want to say in 2006—I could be off by a year or two. And so, that was great that they really combined these issues and brought them together. And currently, the way that we operate is under the same theory that we want to give people a general place that they can call, safety plan, you know, discuss what their current issues are and point them to their local providers who have local expertise and the services that are there because what we know and understand is that even though there are regulating offices, Office of Child and Family Services, Department of Health for rape crisis or domestic violence, there are a lot of organizations that serve the domestic violence and sexual assault victims within communities that aren’t necessarily recognized by those entities. And we are not necessarily going to know that, so we want to link people back. There is no service other than that. It really is that immediate phone work. We don’t pass them on to a case manager as if they were calling our other hotline for our local piece. So really it really is a service to the entire state that we’re really trying to enhance, and we just continue to provide quality service for.

SCHWEIG: Excellent. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

WIKTORSKI-REYNOLDS: You’re welcome. Thank you. This is great.

SCHWEIG: Wonderful. I’m Sarah Schweig and I’ve been speaking with Robyn Wiktorski-Reynolds, advocate program coordinator for Crisis Services in Buffalo. To find out more about the Center for Court Innovation, you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thank you for listening.

June 2011

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