By Jennifer Storm
The position of Commonwealth Victim Advocate was, admittedly, my dream job. Being a political appointment, the position has always held associated risks, and that has never been more evident.
When it comes to those inflicting unthinkable pain and abuse upon others, I have always stood steadfast in the corner of those impacted by crime and abuse, stood up for what was right, and spoke truth to power. Having been in that dark corner myself as a child rape survivor, I knew all too well what it felt like to face the system and the world alone. Victim advocates are necessary beacons casting light for those impacted persons to find their way out of the shadows and through a very complex legal system and emotional process.
I represented the needs and interests of all crime victims and survivors before the Commonwealth and the General Assembly. When a victim or survivor came to me and asked for my help, I was there 24/7 at their disposal. When asked, I was their voice, both in public and private, engaging in avenues of justice that met each individual’s respective needs.
Sometimes, this meant a public offering of a survivor’s story to hold people in position of power accountable, accompanying them in seeking criminal charges, and options of alternative justice resolutions.
Other times, it meant a quiet resolution of a case by simply listening, believing, resourcing, and yes, watching survivors choose to sign a piece of paper or a non-disclosure agreement that nullified their voices but allowed them to keep their anonymity and to maintain some semblance of dignity and normalcy in their lives. I leave this position content in the knowledge that my job was never to elevate a specific interest or issue, rather, it was to be the advocate for the victim/survivor in front of me at that time.
When tough policy conversations were happening around criminal justice reform, I never spoke from a place of my own opinion.
Rather, I polled thousands of victims/survivors, held focus groups, and engaged in countless hours of conversation and dialogue with crime victims, survivors and advocates on how the Office of Victim Advocate should craft opinions on various pieces of legislation that would directly impact those individuals’ lives. It was what framed our stances on things like a strong support of statute of limitation reforms for sexual assault cases and a strong opposition to blanket parole reform for murder.
Were there voices that opposed our positions – yes, and I never hid from those voices. I helped elevate them as well in all of our materials, speeches, interviews and testimonies. You will never have a scenario, regardless of how perfectly crafted the cause or legislation, that all victims/survivors agree upon. It’s like asking our often-divided country to agree upon one issue. It will never happen.
I am a person who seeks stability, my loyalty and dedication have kept my resume very short in my decades-long career. I knew in taking this job, I would not let it compromise my integrity. A part of me knew that if I was going to fully step into this position and do the job right, it could mean upsetting the status quo at times and might mean only being here for one term.
The Senate voted against my reappointment last November. I am grateful to each brave senator who stood up and spoke out on my behalf, as well as those who voted with integrity and conviction, even when it meant they stood against their own leadership. I am eternally thankful to Govs. Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf for believing in me, nominating me, and continuing to support me during these tough times.
In this era of criminal justice reform and a national backlash against the #MeToo movement, many advocates, like myself, are being punished for speaking up. We still live in a world where a victim or survivor of sexual violence comes forward against a person in a position of power, and the first instincts are to shame, blame, and silence them, by any means possible.
While the #MeToo movement gave rise to some accountability and much needed general awareness of the reality of such acts, the backlash that – women in particular – are now experiencing as a result has shoved the conversations right back into the shadows.
In the same vein, this new round of criminal justice reform is placing crime victims and survivors in an untenable situation where the only publicly acceptable stance seems to be on forgiveness, compassion for the offender, and no real thought of genuine concern for their needs or feelings in the aftermath of horrific, life altering crimes. If we do not try to meaningfully engage crime victims/survivors in these conversations, we will once again watch the pendulum swing radically in the years ahead.
Progress in these areas should be intentionally slow as to monitor evolution, prove outcomes and guide new thought process into old policies; however, when radical changes are pushed through and there is not enough thought given to the unintended consequences, you are inviting the rise and return to draconian rules.
While I ponder my last days as the appointed Commonwealth Victim Advocate, I can say with unflappable pride, I came here with lofty goals and I achieved and exceeded every single one of them.
I had the privilege of expanding the Office of Victim Advocate and the distinct honor of working with some of the best advocates I have ever met.
The victims and survivors served by the Office of Victim Advocate are receiving an exceptional level of trauma-informed service. To those victims and survivors, I want to say thank you for trusting our office and myself with your vulnerability, your pain, and your steadfast resolve in always wanting what is true and just. It has been the honor of my life to represent you in this capacity.
If you are a victim/survivor or advocate, please do not allow what happened to me dissuade you from seeking truth, accessing justice or services from OVA, and speaking truth to power. We need you to keep fighting for what is right. As I transition from this position, I will remain in this fight with you always and will forever be a source of support.
Untethered from constraints, ironically some meant to silence me; my departure only liberates me and amplifies my voice.
While this marks an end in one chapter, if high character is the moral barometer of courage, I stand tall walking out the door. I upheld the duties of my oath of office with fidelity, honesty and bravery, and I have only just begun my work.
Jennifer Storm is the outgoing appointed Victim Advocate for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and an award-winning victim’s rights expert, advocate, and best-selling author of multiple books. She has more than 20 years of experience in victim’s right advocacy.