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Lighting a Candle After the Storm

Lighting a Candle After the Storm
FBI Victim Specialists Provide Assistance and a Way Forward for Crime Victims

04/22/13

Asked at the right time, something as simple as, “How are you doing?” can go a long way with a crime victim, according to Victim Specialist (VS) Sara Larsen of the FBI Seattle Division.

VS Larsen is one of four victim specialists helping those affected by federal crimes in Washington state. On an average day, a victim specialist might accompany a special agent interviewing a hate crime victim, talk with a bank robbery witness who is experiencing trauma-related symptoms, or accompany a juvenile as she’s removed from sexual exploitation. Victim specialists also deploy to help with large incidents—many are currently in Boston, increasing local law enforcement’s ability to support the victims and families of the April 15, 2013 marathon bombing.

Like her counterparts in every FBI division across the United States, VS Larsen is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These highly trained victim specialists accompany investigators to make sure that victims are fully supported during an upsetting time, when options for help may be unfamiliar. Those options are well-understood by victim specialists, who explain them to victims and help them connect with the right ones.

“Although we work for the federal government, victim specialists engage resources from all levels of government and community,” said VS Shannon Meyer, based in the FBI’s Everett Resident Agency. “It is the role of the VS to know which of these services are available, which are applicable, and which ones may be of the greatest utility to a victim given the circumstances.”

In order to continually maintain a robust list of services, victim specialists like VS Meyer connect with organizations to find out specifically what resources they provide, what populations they serve, what costs are associated, and other details that help inform the victim specialists’ recommendations for victims. Organizations can be as broad as a state’s child protective services agency and as specific as a local church group that helps drug addicts on their road to recovery.

“To the best of our ability and the available resources, victim specialists develop a multi-pronged, multi-level approach to ensure the greatest likelihood of addressing the immediate, ongoing, and long-term needs of the victim,” said VS Meyer.

FBI victim specialists generally have advanced degrees in social services or psychology, as well as significant experience. The FBI’s national Office for Victim Assistance trains new personnel as they enter on duty—and routinely over their career—in areas such as crisis intervention and recognition of physical and emotional symptoms of trauma.

Educated, trained, experienced—FBI victim specialists are all that, plus they’re usually naturally compassionate and patient people to boot.

“I once worked with a victim of human trafficking, and despite being beaten severely by her pimp and his friends and left for dead, she did not want to report it or cooperate with the investigation,” said VS Dani Geissinger-Rodarte, based out of the FBI’s Tacoma Resident Agency. “She did not like law enforcement and did not believe they cared or would help her because she thought she would be arrested, not helped.”

“Eventually, through patient conversations and persistent offers of assistance, the victim was willing to trust me, and then, eventually, law enforcement,” said VS Geissinger-Rodarte. “Her pimp was convicted, and the victim recently graduated from a nursing program, determined to help others.”

Given that victim specialists support all programs of the FBI, they also must remain versed in resources across a spectrum of needs. For example:

  • Did you witness a violent crime? A victim specialist will help you cope with the possible feelings that come up afterward, and share with you strategies that have helped other victims in your situation.
  • Has your child gone missing while at the mall? A victim specialist will share the steps you can take to help law enforcement recover your child.
  • Did the FBI just break the hard news that your wife has been arrested for public corruption? A victim specialist will explain the next steps of the investigation and guide you to an appropriate local support group.

For many victim specialists, the hardest part about the job is that they can’t promise a victim that everything will go back to normal. For instance, when a fraud victim has lost a tremendous amount of personal savings, the FBI will work diligently to try to recover that money from the criminal and restore it to victims. But the FBI can’t promise how much will be recovered or when.

Victim Assistance

“I constantly update the victim on the progress of the investigation and encourage the victim to take advantage of community resources, but sometimes the pain of the crime persists,” said VS Larsen. “At those times, I try to be a sympathetic and safe listener, simply reassuring the person that there’s no right or wrong way to feel as a crime victim.” said VS Larsen.

That kind of patience, transparency, and guidance may not erase the fact that a crime ever happened or promise a certain resolution—but victim specialists do point a way forward for the victims.

The U.S. Department of Justice has designated April 21-27 as National Crime Victims’ Rights Weeks. Unfortunately, anyone can be a victim of crime. To best protect yourself and your loved ones, follow easy prevention tips described on the FBI’s Scams & Safety page. To learn more about how the FBI helps victims and to access guides and resources for coping after a crime, visit the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance site.