Victims of crime are unexpectedly plunged into the criminal justice system by an act that has caused significant harm to their lives or to the lives of their loved ones. Already forced to deal with sudden victimization and loss, they often feel frustration and anxiety by the processes of the criminal justice system as it is complex and sometimes feels unsympathetic to them and their needs. To the victim of crime any court proceedings can be bewildering, as they often have limited knowledge, experience and understanding of the law, the court system and its procedures.
Approximately thirty years ago after recognizing a gap in services provided to victims, the Medicine Hat Police Service created the Victim Assistance Unit. Since that time, the MHPS has made significant advances in developing services for victims of crime. As part of Alberta police based victim service programs, the Service now utilize the services of highly trained community volunteers to provide a 24/7 response to victims of crime. Presently the MHPS Victim Services Unit consists of 2.5 fulltime staff who provide expertise and coordinate 47 volunteer Victims’ Advocates from the community.
The Victims’ Advocates provide a continuum of services, beginning at the time of first response with police officers, and continuing along with victims all the way through their journey to the final disposition of the case by the courts. A referral to the Victim Assistance Unit is typically made by the police officer on the scene, however individuals can also self-refer to the program by contacting the Unit directly. The dedicated and highly trained Victim Advocates are able to assist by providing emotional support, information, referrals to other agencies as well as assistance in completing Victim Impact Statements.
After several years of learning and growth, the Victim Assistance Unit expanded its roles to provide much needed Court based victim services for people who have become involved in the criminal justice process as either victims or witnesses. In this context, our victim services provides information, assistance, and referrals for victims and witnesses with the goal of trying to make the court process less intimidating. Services provided may include court orientation, preparation and accompaniment to court, updates on the progress of the case, coordinating meetings with the Crown Prosecutors and assessing the ability of a child victim/witness to testify.
Two other recent enhancements to our victim services is the adoption of “Mulder” our Service Trauma dog and the partnership we have formed with Southern Alberta Sexual Assault Response Committee (SARC). Dealing with trauma caused by sexual violence can be a complex matter and the MHPS recognizes that people who need complex trauma responses require a level of support that is usually beyond the expertise and the time commitment our volunteer Victim Advocates are able to provide. The partnership with SARC allows us to imbed two full time social worker clinicians in the Victim Assistance Unit so they can immediately engage the victim and provide the victims with informed participation in the justice system, reduce the possibility of secondary victimization and access coordinated wrap around services that can provide sexual violence trauma treatment.
Mulder our second program enhancement is our four-year-old black lab who works diligently in the unit as our facility trauma dog. Mulder is trained to support adult and child victims who need emotional support and stabilization after a traumatic event. Mulder can diffuse feelings of extreme emotion and anxiety that often experienced because of victimization.
The MHPS is very proud of our progressive, caring and collaborative Victim Services Unit and the service supports they provide to the citizens of Medicine Hat. The volunteer victims’ advocates spend thousands of volunteer hours each year answering the call of duty to get up out of their warm bed in the middle of the night so that they can respond to a citizen in need in our community. Their approach to providing selfless care and empathy to local victims in need is second- to- none and is something MHPS is very proud of. If anyone is interested in joining our volunteer team of Victim Services Advocates, they can contact the Victim Assistance Unit Manager Nathalie Castets at (403) 581-1054.
Inspector Tim McGough served six years in the British Army and started his career with the Medicine Hat Police Service in 1991. He has served in numerous units, including patrols, Tactical Team and the Special Operations Unit.