Staying strong for crime victims

Jalayne Robinson, LMSW

TDCAA Victim Services Director

There are about 380 victim assistance coordinators (VACs) working in prosecutor offices across Texas, but offices are structured differently, depending on the size of the county and workload of the office. Small county offices may have only one VAC (or may have designated the elected prosecutor as the VAC) while larger offices may have up to 35 VACs.
    No matter the size of the office or an individual’s workload, VACs all have some things in common. We strive to remain strong and resilient so we can help the next crime victim who walks through our doors. However, sometimes we get so emotionally wrapped up in the cases that we become mentally and emotionally exhausted.
    VACs all know from the minute we arrive at our office to begin a workday, we are exposed to horrendous and disturbing details about criminal cases. We hear stories from our prosecutors and crime victims, read about crimes in offense reports, and see photos of crime scenes. Most of us have never experienced anything like it in our personal lives, so naturally it can emotionally wear on us. VACs should continually look for ways to personally stay strong so we can be strong for others.
    As a VAC for 23 years in the Wood County Criminal DA’s Office, sometimes other criminal justice professionals would ask me, “How in the world do you sit in that windowless office day in and day out listening to victims’ problems?” Truly, not until the first time someone asked me that question had I ever really given it much thought. The clear answer was I loved my very difficult job. I felt like it was my calling to help crime victims and their families. I guess I could have worked under most any condition because of my passion to help those in my community and because of my devotion to the many prosecutors I worked for through the years. I completely understand those of you who may work in a small office or who may have to share an office with another person: I have been right in your shoes. The office set-up may not be ideal, but we continue to be there every day mentally and physically for our victims for “the good of the cause.”
    One thing that helped me face another workday in a very emotionally involved job was the roadside park between Quitman and Winnsboro near Cartwright. It became a dividing line between work and home for me. Passing the park each evening, I left my work worries behind and began to focus on my precious little girl and my loving husband who needed me to be strong and bubbly for them back at home. I stayed very active in our church and with my daughter’s activities, our friends and extended families, and my husband and his many fun endeavors during those years. I left work at work.
    Another thing that helped me continue to do the job I loved was that I rarely mentioned anything about my work when I was at home—I was careful not to expose my family to my job hazards, not theirs. Lastly, life management was the real key for me. I kept track of my schedule for a week for at work and at home to see where I spent my time; that way I could determine and my priorities and focus on them. Cut out things that drain your energy and are not priorities. We can’t be everything to everybody if we don’t take care of ourselves first.
    Following are how a few other VACs across the state draw strength and remain motivated to help others on a daily basis. We hope these tips and advice will help you stay strong for the crime victims you serve.

Cynthia L. Jahn, CLA, PVAC
Director of Victim Services
Bexar County District Attorney’s Office
Generally, I don’t enjoy doing things, even things I really like, for more than three or four hours at a time. So how is it that I’ve been able to work 40-plus hours a week for nearly 27 years for the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office? Good question. I don’t think the answer is simple or easy. Part of the reason is that in comparison to my past jobs, this one is much more exciting and interesting than anything else I’ve ever done. The fact is, even though it may move more slowly and be a bit more tedious, the reality of the criminal justice system and going to trial is almost as exciting as watching your favorite criminal law show on TV. I’m kind of hooked on it.
    With this said, the sobering reality is that serving victims day in and day out can sometimes be troubling and stressful—but it can also be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of. It always seems that on a day where I really just want to either scream or roll myself into a little ball under my desk, someone will say those two simple words that can make such a difference: “Thank you.” When someone tells you that you are the only person who has taken the time to help and explain things to them, it really can erase most of the stress. It’s for these folks that we get out of bed every day and make our way into our messy, cluttered offices, dealing with sometimes-persnickety prosecutors and often unsympathetic judges. It is for these folks who so desperately need our assistance and empathy that we do our jobs each day!
    I don’t think I have any special words of wisdom that have gotten me through all these years. I will say that, as much as I dearly love my job and I wouldn’t want to have any other career, I truly believe in the motto, “Work to live; don’t live to work.” If you can, I would suggest finding some way to leave work behind when you walk out of the courthouse doors each evening. Find a hobby you enjoy. Do whatever it takes to spend time with and enjoy your family and friends. They should be your center, your focus in life, and your inner spring of refreshment. For all the rest, I’ve found I really enjoy a little moscato wine from time to time!

­­­­­­­­Jennifer B. Varela, LCSW
Director of Social Services, Sex Crimes Unit, Harris County District Attorney’s Office
I’ve been with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office working with violent crime victims for 22 years. My core belief is that while I can’t change what happened to my social work clients, I can help change how it impacts them, whether that be through providing direct service, linking them with services, advocating for them in some way, making changes in the system, or simply being present with them. My goal is to help them get better, but sometimes I can help them only to get through this part. Either way, I love my job and consider it a great responsibility, honor, and privilege to do this work.

Adina Morris
Victim Assistance Coordinator
Palo Pinto County DA’s Office
Two words: patience and compassion. When I am helping a victim or a victim’s family, I always try to remember that the court system is overwhelming for someone who is not familiar with it. I have to remember that I am meeting this person after the worst day of his or her life. This is when we as VACs have the opportunity to make an impact by holding their hand (figuratively and many times literally) and guiding them. They have no idea what an indictment is or the difference between arraignment and pre-trial. All those victims know is they want justice, and they do not understand what is taking so long. We are the beacon that guides them through the rocky shores of the court system so that they may reach the other side intact and, let’s hope, a little stronger. Through our patience and compassion, we can help make the difference between someone healing through the process or getting re-victimized over and over.

Colleen Jordan
Assistant Director, Victim/Witness ­Division, Harris County District ­Attorney’s Office
One thing I do to stay strong is to tell myself to slow down, mentally and physically. When I am busy doing several different tasks at once (which seems to be every minute of every day) and I take a phone call from a victim, I remind myself to slow down my speech so that I don’t sound rushed or hurried, because that can easily come across as insensitive to a victim’s needs without my even realizing it. The same applies when I meet with a victim in person. I try to slow down my actions and movements. I find this has a calming effect on me and makes me realize that all my other tasks can wait. What really counts is making the victim feel like the most important person in the world.
    Oh, and I also work out during my lunch break.

Claudia Arnick
Victim Assistance Coordinator
Dallas County Criminal District ­Attorney’s Office
I stay strong for self and victims by first being a good listener to my victims. Sometimes it makes a world of difference to hear their story from their point of view. This helps transition them into writing or filing out that Victim Impact Statement. Other things I do:
•    exercising helps with stress—walking, mostly.
•    taking time off for myself. Sometimes a full eight-hour workday (with supervisory approval) or just a half-day of leave. If time off is not a plan, I take a break to just go outside the building.
•    doing something fun, like bowling or seeing a movie.
•    lastly, I pray. I pray randomly as needed throughout my day. I am a Christian, and when I begin to count blessings, it gives me hope. I pray for guidance and insight. I pray for others on how best to help them. I pray for myself that God will help me help others, and sometimes when things do not turn out the way I expect them to or something I said is misinterpreted, then I pray for forgiveness.

Wanda Ivicic
Chief Victim Assistance Coordinator
Williamson County Attorney’s Office
I like to spend time at the gym. I learned a long time ago that self-care is paramount when working in victim services. It took some time, but I finally found a way to de-stress in a healthy manner (emphasis on healthy). My fix is the gym. I love to put my headphones on, shut the world out, and lift heavy things. My advice for other VACs would be to find what works for you and make it a priority. It’s not selfish, it’s not a waste of time, and it’s not a luxury. It’s as necessary as the signature on the last page of the CVC application (a little VAC humor).

Tracy Viladevall
Victim Assistance Coordinator
McLennan County Criminal District ­Attorney’s Office
I have been a VAC for 17 years, and trust me: It’s been a wild ride. Every day is different, and some days are really great while others are really bad. But we do this job because we are compassionate and we want to help people. What I have learned over the years is that people need more than a Crime Victims Compensation application or a referral to VINE. What they really want is for someone to listen to their story. While is it important to make sure they receive all the information victims are entitled to, what’s most important is that we offer our victims a sympathetic ear and an open mind. I know that doesn’t always seem possible with the abundance of phone calls, new cases, and people just showing up in your office, but I have learned that making myself available and returning my never-ending phone calls can make all the difference in the world. Giving victims the opportunity to vent provides them with some sense of stability, trust, and confidence in my office. It makes working with them in the future much easier too. So that’s my secret weapon, simply listening, and it has served me well through the years. And putting someone on speaker phone while you work on other things is technically listening—isn’t it?

Yecenia Vargas
Crime Victim Coordinator
Upshur County District Attorney’s Office
It is really hard for me to explain on paper what keeps me strong for victims. It is just something that I do. I personally believe that it truly has to do with the personality of the victim assistance coordinator; we are not in this career to make a fortune. We are here because we care, we want to help those in need, and we want to make a difference in our communities. If you need help from other VACs in your area, do not be afraid to give them a call and talk with them about questions or concerns you might have. At the end of each day, we have to understand that we did the best we could do for the people that walked through the door. Leave work at work. You have a family to attend to. You do not want to miss out on them.
    Some other things I do:
•    Network with other people. We learn from each other how to improve our interaction with crime victims. Have mutual respect toward these others who play a part in assisting victims; each one has a responsibility and meaningful role.
•    Your office space should be comforting and inspiring not only to victims but to you as well.
•    Treat victims as you would want your family and friends to be treated. Tell them that you are here from point A to Z.
•    Understand you might not be able to help everyone, but you can refer them to another agency or organization that might.

Upcoming training
TDCAA’s Key Personnel and Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar will be held November 8–10 at the Westin Oaks-Galleria Hotel in Houston. Don’t miss this opportunity to network with other key personnel and VACs from prosecutor offices across the state and learn from the awesome workshops offered. Visit www.tdcaa.com/training for registration and hotel information.
Board merge and elections
On Wednesday November 8 at 1:00 p.m. (at the Key Personnel and Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar), a meeting will be held to approve new KP-VAC board bylaws. Upon approval, elections for the East Area (Regions 5 and 6) and South Central Area (Regions 4 and 8) for the newly merged Key Personnel & Victim Services Board will be held the next day.
    The Key Personnel-Victim Services Board assists in preparing and developing operational procedures, training, and educational programs. Regional representatives serve as a point of contact for their region. To be eligible, each candidate must have the permission of the elected prosecutor, attend the elections at the KP-VAC seminar, and have paid membership dues prior to the meeting. If you are interested in training and want to give input on speakers and topics at TDCAA conferences for KP and VACs, please consider running for the board. If you have any questions, please email me at [email protected] tdcaa.com.

In-office VAC visits
TDCAA’s Victim Services Project is available to offer in-office support to your victim services program. We at TDCAA realize the majority of VACs in prosecutor offices across Texas are the only people in their office responsible for developing victim services programs and compiling information to send to crime victims as required by Chapter 56 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. We realize VACs may not have anyone locally to turn to for advice and at times could use assistance or moral support.
    My TDCAA travels have recently taken me to Ellis, Burleson, and Pecos Counties to assist VACs with in-office consultations. In Pecos County, County Attorney Frank Lacy hosted a multi-agency training at the Fort Stockton Adult Community Supervision building. As guest speaker, I offered victim services-related training to more than 25 representatives from the Fort Stockton Police Department, Pecos County Sheriff’s Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, local district and county attorney’s offices, community supervision departments, judges, and other victim advocates. During the training, I gave an overview of Chapter 56 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which covers victim rights during each stage of the criminal justice process. Texas law provides for many services and notifications to crime victims, and the training covered the requirements for law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and VACs from the prosecutor offices. Detailed information regarding emergency protective orders, protective orders, Victim Impact Statements, and the Crime Victims Compensation program was also presented.
    Thanks to each of those offices for allowing TDCAA to support your victim services programs! I thoroughly enjoy my job and having the chance to give VACs someone to turn to when victim services-related questions arise. Please email me at [email protected] for inquiries or support or to schedule an in-office consultation or group presentation.