By Jennifer Storm
It’s becoming widely acknowledged that survivors of sexual violence face doubt, threats, and character bashing when they come forward. What is less discussed is the demeaning intimidation and harassment that advocates face for doing their jobs.
Much like the hate crimes I experienced when I came out in college, there have been fresh attacks on my character and dedication to my work at the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate – most recently by Senator Street, during several articles published across the state and right on the Senate floor.
There were two major offenses laid against me.
First, that I have no personal experience with gun violence and therefore am unable to adequately represent victims/survivors, and second, that our office is not present in the Philadelphia region and responding appropriately to these crimes.
As a symbol of my transparency and the integrity of my office, I will address those now and remain available to respond to any questions from my colleagues across the state.
At the age of 13, while struggling with my own rape, my initial interaction with gun violence was self-perpetuated. Taking my brother’s shotgun to myself, I wanted to die. This wouldn’t be the last time I thought taking my life was the only way out, but holding that gun certainly left an impression.
Additionally, before the age of 16, my best friend took her life with a handgun; a classmate was shot and killed by a police officer who was never charged; another classmate shot and killed himself on a front porch in my neighborhood.
These experiences around me – layered by my own victimization in childhood and college – led me to a career in victim advocacy. In 2002, as Executive Director of Victim/Witness Assistance Program in Harrisburg, I worked to establish collaborations with law enforcement, local emergency dispatch, and the coroner’s office to provide trauma-informed responses to homicides.
During this tenure, I personally responded to over 100 homicides. Our team responded to crime scenes alongside law enforcement to aide and assist victims/survivors.
We walked crime scenes, informed families of fatalities, assisted families with body identification and funeral preparation, emotionally prepared survivors for trial by viewing evidence in advance, and relocated at risk witnesses.
We organized vigils, a wall of remembrance in the county courthouse, as well as the Courageous Ones emotional support group. We launched a mobile therapy program, and raised money for children after parents were murdered or imprisoned for murder.
Later, in 2006, another friend of mine was shot and left to die in Perry County. It wouldn’t be until 2013, when nominated as Commonwealth Victim Advocate, that I would have the opportunity to begin facilitating change across our state.
When I left Harrisburg, it was ranked the 25th most dangerous city in the country, above Philadelphia and Baltimore given the increase in gun violence.
Recognizing that much of my professional experience was in the city of Harrisburg, while also giving credence to my personal experiences of victimization across the state, my appointment to the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate brought a chance to begin weaving a net of support for survivors.
It was no longer my role to provide direct response to local crimes, rather an opportunity to elevate the good work of the local victim services that are committed to this work daily.
This meant establishing satellite offices, first in Philadelphia where gun violence remains well over the national average. The first in a series of co-located offices, the Office of Victim Advocate set up shop in Center City alongside the district attorney, in 2015.
We have, since that time:
- Surveyed homicide survivors multiple times for feedback on legislative changes and for representation at various task force meetings;
- Established monthly meetings with victim service agencies to facilitate collaborative responses to homicides;
- Built a partnership with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to disseminate registration information throughout the city;
- Held online homicide survivor forums to solicit input and feedback;
- Met in person, on multiple occasions, with families impacted by gun violence to discuss needed reforms, provide legislative updates and assist in the telling of their own stories;
- Called surviving family members when legislative changes were made retroactively;
- Facilitated a homicide survivor meeting with the Governor to allow for direct insight from the community;
- Launched a listening tour at State Correctional Institutions to discuss initiative with inmates;
- Partnered with entities such as Lakeside and Anti-violence Partnership to provide peer-to-peer support, trauma training and counseling sessions in the wake of violence, and
- Stood in solidarity at various press conferences about the need for trauma-informed services.
- Not only has my role allowed me the honor to champion these issues, but it has also afforded me the opportunity to meet with legislators to address systemic issues of victims’ rights compliance and victims’ compensation hurdles.
The Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate has established thorough restorative justice offerings, such as the Victim Offender Dialogue program, the Inmate Apology Bank, training inside state prisons, and the establishment of the first in the nation Institutional Victim Assistance Coordinator position.
My office is proud to stand on behalf of victims/survivors, and while it is not easy to represent an incredibly diverse group, my staff are dedicated to providing safe space for each survivor to grow and heal as they need.
Let this be an example to victims of crime and to advocates – never allow someone to diminish your story or your character. And if the day comes that you need an advocate by your side, the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate will rise with you.
Jennifer Storm is Pennsylvania’s appointed victim advocate. She writes from Harrisburg.