This September marked the 10th anniversary of the National Victim Services Program at the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). When it was launched on September 4, 2007, the program built on ongoing progress with respect to victims in the criminal justice system and their rights to information about the offenders who harmed them.
Over the past ten years, this progress has continued with several pivotal changes in the way we serve victims of crime. No one has seen and experienced this evolution more closely than the people who have worked throughout the period – CSC’s Victim Services Officers (VSO) and Regional Victim Services Managers (RSVM). To mark this important anniversary, we sat down with some of them to talk about what it’s been like to work with the program since the very beginning. Throughout this article, you will hear from:
Laurie Burnouf, Regional Victim Services Manager, Prairie Region
Mona Thompson, Victim Services Officer, Prairie Region
Anita Guliker, Victim Services Officer, Pacific Region
Adrienne Coutts, Senior Officer, Victim Services, NHQ/Pacific Region
Rachel Desmarais, Victim Services Officer, Quebec Region
Cindy Leek, Victim Services Officer, Atlantic Region
What was it like when you started with the newly launched Victim Services Program in 2007?
Laurie: I arrived on September 10, 2007 as a VSO. Prior to the launch of the new national program, victim services were handled at the institutional level. With the launch, that changed. There were now five regional victim services offices across the country and a more unified approach to the service at the national level. I was thrilled that CSC was creating a dedicated unit for this purpose. It was groundbreaking.
Adrienne: I joined the team right from the start on September 4, 2007 on assignment from the Parole Board of Canada as a VSO. Ten years ago, we had nothing. No common practices, no standards, no protocols, not even any standard templates! We started from scratch in every sense of the word. The managers met frequently with national headquarters victim services personnel and together they developed everything from file management to what type of information to provide to victims for different types of events that happened to the offender.
Rachel: I started working as a VSO in the Quebec region in June 2008. At the time it was just starting out, and there was a lot of work to be done for the department to be able to operate at its full capacity.
Over the years, what would you say have been the biggest accomplishments and changes experienced by the program? How have they impacted the work you do?
Laurie: Legislation! New legislation such as Bill S-6 in 2011, C-10 in 2012, and C-32 in 2014 have had a significant impact on our work because they have not only changed, but also increased, the amount of information we can provide to victims. The importance of these legislative changes cannot be underestimated.
Mona: Ten years ago, victims of crime were not as informed about their rights. They did not have as much of a voice in the criminal justice system as they do today. This is a result of the legislation that has come into force, but also of our public outreach and education efforts to raise awareness about what we do for victims and to encourage people to register as victims so that they can benefit from our services. The number of victims we help has increased dramatically because of these efforts.
Cindy: I agree with my colleagues, but I would add that the new Victims Portal has also changed our roles as VSOs over the past 15 months. Today, victims have more input into the system and they have easier access to the information they are entitled to. This has increased the amount of work we do and how we do it.
Adrienne: When our program started, many of my colleagues within CSC, some of whom are or were senior management, weren’t sure about how long our little program would survive. That said, I have witnessed the fastest shift in perspective I have ever seen. Even five years ago managers were including victims concerns in many aspects of their work. In the beginning, having little attention paid to us was a plus as we developed the processes that worked for us. Today, we have many eyes looking at our work. It’s an easy price to pay, though, because it brings victims’ concerns to the level they should be. It’s the right thing to do and we have all helped make that change happen.
Over the years, how has your role as a VSO/RVSM changed?
Anita: The biggest change is that today I can share more information than I could ten years ago. For example, today I can say that an offender is going on an ETA for medical purposes. Ten years ago I could only say that he or she was going on an ETA, with no reason for why. In the early days, our conversations with victims were very straightforward. Today, it’s more of a two-way discussion. Victims know their rights, they know the information they are entitled to, and they want it. And if there is information they want but can’t have, they will fight for it. That’s a good thing.
Rachel: In the beginning, we had simple tasks to carry out (e.g. giving explanations about the penal system and conditional release, ETA program advisories, work release advisories, day parole advisories, etc.) We had the role of trying, as best we could, to explain how the penal system worked to people who were angry and frustrated by the system.
These days, with all the legislative changes made in recent years, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act recognizes that victims of crime have an important role in the criminal justice system. It enables victims to participate in federal correctional services and the conditional release process. CSC has taken concrete steps to ensure that this participation is respected by various stakeholders in the case management process. For example, a VSO is now part of the case management team for an offender, and a parole officer is obligated to call upon their expertise at various times throughout an offender’s sentence.
Laurie: I agree with everyone and what they’ve said, but I would add that our jobs have become much more than simply sharing information about an offender. Now, we also gather feedback and input from victims about the information we share, we actively involve them in our processes and procedures, and what they have to say is always top of mind when we are looking at how we operate. They absolutely have a voice in what we do and how we do it, and with that comes more accountability and responsibility.
What are some of your most rewarding moments as a VSO/RSVM?
Cindy: When a victim expresses their appreciation for the information you just provided to them. Some of the victims are extremely happy with the information they receive. This is especially true when I take the time to explain certain information to them such as what certain terms mean, why an offender will be released prior to the expiry of their sentence, or what a halfway house is. Many victims have little to no information about the criminal justice system, and I enjoy being able to help them.
Rachel: I’m not doing this work to receive praise, but I’m proud to be a part of the team because I know that my involvement makes a difference. I can say that one of my most gratifying moments was when two victims with whom I’d been interacting for several months decided to come meet me in person to thank me. That was a very nice surprise for me, and I was finally able to put faces to their voices.
Anita: The most rewarding thing for me is that I feel like I do make a difference in people’s lives. I’ve had victims tell me that I am the first person to have explained something to them, such as how the correctional system works and how offenders are managed within it. It provides clarity for them, and I’m happy to be able to do that for them. It makes this job well worth it.
In your opinion, what does it take to be a good VSO/RVSM? What kind of person do you need to be and what kind of skills do you need to do the job well?
Laurie: You have to be a strong individual. Maintaining your mental health and well-being can be a struggle in this line of work because you are constantly exposed to traumatic and graphic information, some of which is shared by victims in their conversations with you. You are often dealing with people who are angry, depressed, and want to blame you for what has happened to them. In our office, we have the understanding that you can’t take this work home with you. You need to talk it out with someone, you need to vent, and you need to step away to take a deep breath sometimes. You have to understand that it’s not your responsibility to answer for decisions that are out of your control.
Mona: First and foremost, you have to be an empathetic person. You also have to be able to think on your feet, stay calm when situations become heated or difficult, and you have to maintain your professionalism and composure no matter what is going on. This job is not easy.
Anita: I’d say that you need to be a person who can easily separate work life and home life. You need to be able to separate emotionally from work when you leave at the end of the day because much of what we deal with at work can be traumatic. For me personally, having a strong social circle outside of work is essential as is regular physical activity. I’m a walker, so I will take some time each day to get my walks in. That’s how I blow off steam and think through whatever I have experienced that day.
Rachel: Being a VSO is complex work. Obviously, it is essential to have in-depth knowledge of the criminal justice system to be able to provide explanations and to support our clients effectively. It is also important to keep up with legislative changes that affect our work.
A VSO must have certain personal qualities that can’t be learned from books. Sensitivity, empathy, good listening skills, and respect for others are all qualities that are important to this position. It’s also imperative that a VSO enjoys working with others.
And finally, a VSO has to be able to work effectively as part of a team and work under pressure. He or she cannot worry about the unpredictable, because every day brings its own surprises. I would also say that tact, diplomacy, and open-mindedness are essential assets to be able to work effectively with colleagues.
Cindy: A VSO must have empathy and be a good listener, but they also need to know when to speak up in a positive way. You should also have good communication skills to provide clear and concise information to victims about the offenders who have harmed them. As well, you should have hobbies outside of work activity and fellowship with others who can empathize with you. It’s also important to be aware of our own symptoms of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma or PTSD.
Adrienne: You need to be patient, compassionate, dedicated to doing the right thing if only because it is the right thing to do, and very organized! You need to have a big heart, but at the same time be careful to protect it as the work we do can be very heartbreaking and can follow you home.
In addition to this, we welcome anyone who is interested in becoming a volunteer with CSC to visit our webpage for more information.