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A Brief History of Victim Advocacy

By February 15, 2023February 22nd, 2023No Comments

I started out as a newbie as a public policy specialist in the field of victim services back in 1987. I was thrown into the deep end working for a national victim agency in Washington, DC. I was learning from the leaders and in some cases the founders of the “Victims’ movement.” What is the “Victims’ movement”? I would argue that it’s one of the most successful grassroots movements in the history of the world. Let me tell you the story…

The seeds of the Victims’ movement were planted in the 1960’s, when a number of programs were created to support victims of crime. California established a monetary compensation program for those injured by crime in 1965. Then in the early 1970’s some of the very first rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters in the country were founded. Today, virtually every jurisdiction in the United States has a rape crisis center, domestic violence program and child abuse center.

Ronald Regan established a President’s Task force on Victims of Crime that published a report in 1984 which became the framework for what was to come. What followed was tens of thousands of laws that were established to protect crime victims, primarily in the criminal justice system. Why were these rights necessary? Because nowhere in the US Constitution will you find the word “victim.” But of course, in a number of places, you will find the word “defendant.” Thus, our criminal justice system is based on the state versus the defendant. But where is the victim? What about the human being that was assaulted, murdered, raped or abused? Often prosecutors believed the victim’s only role was as a witness. There were no programs in place to help the victim deal with the trauma of their victimization. Victims sought help from family, friends, their faith communities and others, while many others suffered in silence.

Today most of that has changed. A large part of that change is driven by federal funding. Because the victims’ movement came relatively late to the table compared to other social programs, the founders had to be creative in carving out funding for these programs. The result was the Victims of Crime Act or VOCA (1984). This act is funded by fines and penalties on federal crimes. Additionally, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA, 1994) which along with VOCA (and a few other funding streams along with way) has been the primary funding source for victim programs nationally since the 1980’s.

The movement has reached victims of every type of crime and has involved almost every profession. We now reach victims in Native American communities, rural and urban areas, victims of human trafficking, victims of drunk driving, you name it! But what is missing? The Victims’ Movement has an especially hard time working with faith communities. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. Our country was founded when persecuted individuals left their countries so they could be free to worship as they choose. The sheer number of faiths and denominations is astounding. I have seen studies that say there are well over 800 Christian denominations alone. Reaching each faith community with their unique convictions, locations, and leaders has been difficult for victim advocates.
  2. Our Constitution provides for the separation of Church and State. The federal funds provided through VOCA and VAWA are often problematic for faith communities based on this doctrine.
  3. Most interpersonal violence occurs between family members or acquaintances. Many faith communities place a high value on forgiveness. Moreover, many of them believe they should handle problems in-house. Some are hesitant to allow the secular world to get involved in what they see as essentially a faith community issue.
  4. Some in the victims’ movement don’t know how to reach out to the faith community. Also, they sometimes paint the members of faith with a broad brush of intolerance, leading to mistrust and a lack of collaboration.

I started out in the late 1980’s working with an agency called Spiritual Dimension in Victim Services. The main goal of this agency was to provide basic education to faith leaders about victimization issues, such as child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault. They offered some simple practical guidance in responding to victims.

Around this time and up to today, church abuse scandals have plagued our country as our society had to come to terms with the horror of faith leaders abusing children. But even with all of that publicity, it was hard to move the church in the right direction. Not to mention, very few people could agree on what needed to be done.

In 2002, I wrote a grant to the Office for Victims of Crime in the Department of Justice to establish collaborations in five cities across the country between victim service practitioners and faith communities. We gave each sponsoring organization a significant amount of money to establish their collaborative networks. Unfortunately, when the funding ended after three years, so did the collaborations.

I went on to work on a domestic violence initiative in my home city of Charleston, South Carolina. Under a VAWA grant, we established a network of all of the agencies that worked with victims of domestic violence. We especially targeted churches. When approaching them, we developed a program of accountability where church communities did the responsible thing and prepared themselves to serve these victims.

I tried to learn from past experience and wrote another grant to bring together faith communities and victim services in the state of South Carolina. This project is ongoing. But the difference this time was that instead of giving money to agencies to start programs, we identified existing programs and highlighted them so they could be replicated in other communities.

Once again, abuse reared its ugly head and several instances occurred in South Carolina churches. At about the same time, an article appeared in the Houston Chronicle highlighting the prevalence of abuse in churches in that state and how many of the abusers kept their jobs even after the abuse was reported.

The South Carolina Baptist Association held a meeting of its members to include pastors and child care workers to talk about protecting children in their houses of worship. Through the South Carolina grant, we were asked to speak. It was during this meeting that I met organizers of the Evangelical Council on Abuse Prevention (ECAP). Jeff Dalrymple and the team had a concept that included a strong component of accountability. This is something I had come to learn as the cornerstone to stamping out abuse in faith communities, but I never had the vehicle to do it. After getting to know them and their vision, I realized Jeff and the ECAP board were that vehicle.

Since that time, ECAP has developed the standards for protecting children in churches and they have now established the Accreditation Program. After these many years of striving to meet this need, ECAP is prepared to help ministries be aware of the problem of abuse and keep the vulnerable safe.

Scott Beard

Author Scott Beard

Scott Beard Scott Beard Consulting, LLC (843) 460-7567 [email protected]

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