Victim Support – An interview with Anne Mead

August 1994

The Basic Instinct of Life-Saving

Recently I made a presentation to staff who had been subjected to attack in their place of work, what we call “Crime in the Workplace”. Generally, there aren’t any facilities to look after people in the aftermath of something like this going wrong. It’s an area we at Victim Support understand very well. Two points can be made straight away: one, that very often there are issues at play which prevent an understanding of the victim’s position; and two, that the type of help which is needed is not necessarily of a “professional” nature. Studies in other countries show that the best person to help somebody in the aftermath of something traumatic is somebody who has been sensitized to the problem and who has a simple approach.

When I am training volunteers and it comes to explaining this, I say, “Imagine going along the street and there’s been an accident, say somebody-lying in the street. Now what is the average person’s instinct when they come on this scenario?” It takes a moment to absorb what’s happening. I believe that most people’s instinct is to go up to the person and at least speak – “Are you all right?” – and perhaps reach out and say, “It’s OK. Don’t move, we’re getting help.” Now what does not happen is that people arriving on the scene will stand around and say, “Somebody get the doctor, somebody get an ambulance.” By the time the “professional” services have arrived, the person may well have died of shock. So I think people underestimate the importance of communication and inter-relations and the power that we have to affect one another and that we don’t have to wait around to be told what we should be doing. There’s a basic instinct which is life-saving. The simple, straightforward, first aid type help, given on a friendly, neighbourly basis, can be crucial to a person at a particular time. So we in Victim Support talk about giving appropriate simple help at the appropriate early stage which can prevent much more deep-seated problems at a later stage.

If we take crime figures in the Garcia Annual Report, we can immediately double it to begin to calculate the number of victims. We know that many of those people, with their own coping skills can cope quite well. Many more will cope certainly if they get basic help and basic support and basic reassurance. At the other end of the spectrum, you’re looking at a much smaller proportion who are going to need professional services. Unfortun­ately, the general public does not get that impression in listening to professional therapists and counsellors talking. So Victim Support has a role, I think, in pointing that out, in trying to make it simple for the ordinary person. We are at pains to point out that we are not trying to make victims out of people who are not victims, who are able to cope, but at the other end of the spectrum, we would say that it is dangerous to underestimate the effect of crime on the individual. So it’s in that sort of a parameter that Victim Support works.

The Work of the Organization

Victim Support is a voluntary, community based organization offering emotional support and practical help to victims of crime, that is ALL victims of crime. At the same time, we recognise that there are agencies who do particular jobs better. The Rape Crisis Centre at this stage is very well known, so that often rape victims don’t, in the first instance, come to us. Likewise, domestic violence – Women’s Aid are the specialists in that area, but that in itself can pose a dilemma for some people. We can get what we call the “Monday Call” – a woman in a violent relationship will have come to a decision over the weekend, a painful decision about her situation, where she has had to admit to herself that it isn’t going to work out no matter how much she wants it to. She is not going to go straight down the road to the Gardai. For many women it will not occur to them to go to Women’s Aid either, that would be putting themselves in a certain category. What is needed is a middle ground, somewhere where they can get impartial advice and help and be informed and go away with that information and perhaps not act on it for a long time yet – but they have taken some power and taken some coping skills for themselves. So there is the need for Victim Support here.

The Victim’s Point of View

Our volunteers would also be aware that the incident which brings a victim to Victim Support may be, on the surface, not major – an attempted handbag snatch, an attempted break-in – but for that person it may be the last straw. When they sit down in a sympathetic situation where everything is in confidence, it may turn out to be the tip of the iceberg and the volunteer may have to unscramble a jumble to try and help the person and separate out what can be addressed at the time, what has to be left out for now. I have had people come in here who have had a range of professional services – medical, psychiatric and so on – but there is nobody in there beside the person, trying to pull the lot together, trying to make sense of it all. The professionals will have seen the person specifically for a certain aspect or a certain problem, but nobody’s looking at the overall problem from the victim’s point of view.

We are aware in Victim Support that there is, in a sense, a standing off by the professionals, because they don’t appreciate that we are not pretending to be professional. We are always at pains to point out that we are not professional counsellors and therapists, but we do know our job and we can stand over the very professional style of service which we give people when they need it. It would be nice to feel that the professions see us in this light, as non-threatening. We’re not trying to do anybody’s job, we’re filling an immediate need, and we’re trying to establish a network of branches throughout the country. At the moment we are only in nine counties and we have a long way to go, but in the meantime, people are coming to us.

Victim Witnesses

The victim in the case of a handbag snatching or a mugging, for example, receives a summons to appear in court, not because they ended up in hospital or with an arm in a sling but because they were a witness to an illegal act. It’s quite beside the point that they may have suffered. Now we know from working with victims that when a court case is mentioned, they hope that the case will “sort everything out” and “put it right”, but the law does not equate with justice and the reality is that it is not a pleasant experience for somebody going into court on their own. Typically the courtrooms are small, they’re crowded, and the first person they may clap eyes on is the person who hit them over the head. We have set up a special unit of trained volunteers now who have an office close by the Four Courts, to accompany victim witnesses into court and to sit through the court proceedings and that is proving to be a most worthwhile service especially for rape and sexual assault victims.

Tourist Victim Support

Earlier this year we set up a Dublin Tourist Victim Support service, on foot of incidents which were reported in the media last year, of tourists being attacked and robbed. There was a lot of goodwill on behalf of individual people here in Dublin and an official will to do something about it. Victim Support, with our particular awareness of the problems created in people’s lives by crime, were the appropriate people. So we initiated that service and it’s very successfully operating out of rooms in Garda Headquarters in Harcourt Street with the backing of the Department of Justice, the Gardai, Dublin Corporation and the Department of Tourism, Dublin Chamber of Commerce and so on.

Outreach Programme

Outreach is particularly pertinent to burglary. It is now recognised that burglary causes more fear and insecurity than almost any other crime apart from crimes of sexual assault or personal violence, and that’s not difficult to understand when you look at the situation. Our homes are special to us. It is our space and nobody comes in uninvited. To find that somebody has forced their way, or even attempted to force their way in uninvited can damage a person. Because it is now accepted that burglary can be most traumatic, we have an outreach programme where Victim Support branches exist. When a burglary occurs, the name and address of the household affected is now automatically passed by the Gardai to the local Victim Support coordinator who arranges for the family to be visited by volunteers. We are unexpected like the intruder, we are presenting ourselves at the door with our identifica­tion, we are able to talk through that situation with people. We know that the man of the house will be typically angry and the woman will be washing and cleaning. Perhaps individual keepsakes that have been handled will lose value for them – they’ve been soiled. It’s a most upsetting experience. And this is why Victim Support, with its particular awareness, offers an outreach service because that category of victim is known to be particularly vulnerable.

A Balanced Approach

So the Victim Support brief is very broad, much broader than would be implied, for example, by the term “counselling”. We are often asked, who are these people who volunteer? Really they are marvellous people in themselves who come forward and give their time and their skills. In the main our volunteers need common sense. If they come to us with common sense, we’re able to train them for the rest. We are a very gentle, balanced organization – we are not militants. We have a balanced approach, we are pro-victim; we are not anti-offender. We are always at pains to point that out. We are looking for a balance in the approach to crime problems. It has always amazed me as a lay person that any debate about crime, whether on figures, prisons or whatever, always stopped short of considering the victim, who is the person left to cope.

Interview by Mary Montaut