Bringing Awareness to the Many Civil Legal Needs of Crime Victims

Remla Parthasarathy January 12, 2016

When you hear the words “crime victim,” what images immediately come to mind?  Someone who was mugged or assaulted, or who had their property stolen or damaged?  Someone who sustained injuries – physically or emotionally – because of the crime? Someone going through the criminal court process “Law & Order” style, the complaining witness in the District Attorney’s case against the defendant, waiting anxiously in court for a “guilty” verdict?

If that’s what you pictured, you wouldn’t be alone. Nowadays, there is an assumption that crime victims will have access to the help and assistance they need through the police and the criminal court system.

But many victims have non-criminal legal needs that are not addressed by these support systems. Yet these related issues have the same power to upend a victim’s life.

Picture this:  Someone is attacked and assaulted in their neighborhood, a couple of blocks from where they live. They are beaten up badly, and their wallet with cash, credit cards, and I.D. is stolen from them. Although the attack did not occur in their apartment building, they may no longer want to live there — they may feel uneasy walking in the neighborhood and they are constantly reminded of what happened to them.  They can’t sleep, not just because they are now hyper-vigilant, but they are also in pain from injuries that are still healing. They can’t make it to work because of the injuries, even though not working means not getting paid, which in turn may impact their ability to pay child support, rent, or their medical bills. They think of moving, but that means breaking the lease to the apartment and incurring financial penalties.

That crime victim may have medical, landlord-tenant, employment, child-support, and possible identity theft issues to worry about, in addition to any criminal court matter.

Overwhelming? Yes.
But where can they go for help?

Fortunately, the recently-created NYS Crime Victims Legal Network Project will bring awareness to the many civil legal needs of crime victims while also helping victims access civil legal assistance.

The Project, a partnership between Empire Justice Center, the NYS Office of Victim Services, the University at Albany’s Center for Human Services Research, and Pro Bono Net, will focus on the on the 57 counties outside of New York City.  It is funded by the federal Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs.

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project will commence in two phases. During the first 18-month phase, we will conduct a needs assessment to determine the civil legal needs of crime victims, and the availability of those services. In the second 12-month phase, we will develop a new online resource that allows victims of crime to easily find the legal help and services they require. Critical to the Project is an Advisory Committee comprised of victim advocates, attorneys and social workers from community based organizations, district attorneys, court personnel, and crime victims. Their knowledge and expertise will guide the needs assessment and, ultimately, the implementation of the online tool.

NYS is one of four sites selected in 2014 to form a legal network; six other sites were selected in 2012.  We’re fortunate to be one of only 10 sites across the nation that received OVC funding to create this network, and we’re excited to work with colleagues around the country who can support our efforts and from whom we can learn. Each of the ten sites is building a network to meet the specific civil legal needs of crime victims in their community. We plan to create a technology-based tool to meet the diverse needs of residents living in areas outside New York City – areas that are typically under-resourced.

From my vantage as the Project Leader, I can say how great it is to get the Project off the ground and start the needs assessment. Having worked for over two decades with victims of domestic and sexual violence, I have an acute awareness of civil-legal concerns faced by that population of crime victims, and I’m excited to see if the empirical evidence matches our experiential knowledge. For me, the best part of the Project is that we’re working to provide resources and build capacity in areas where there are little or none, and that soon this underserved, vulnerable population will have access to the legal services they need. To make justice accessible to all – it’s one of the reasons I became a lawyer in the first place.

The goal stated in OVC’s “Vision 21: Transforming Victim Services” report is a simple one: to permanently alter the way we treat victims of crime in America. That’s what the mission of the Crime Victims Legal Network Project aims to do in New York State – to develop new technology solutions to connect victims of crime with the appropriate trauma-informed, culturally competent legal services they need. Keep your eye on us in these next few years, while we work to make positive transformations.

This report was produced by the Empire Justice Center & the New York State Office of Victims Services under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.