Pennsylvania’s victim advocate gives the state an A for its services but just a C for protecting its citizens
This year, amid #Metoo and a grand jury report on abuse by Catholic clergy, Pennsylvania has experienced a groundswell of support for victims’ rights. Citizens have marched through Harrisburg to seek protections for victims of childhood sex abuse and rallied in the Capitol to enshrine rights for crime victims in the state constitution.
They’ve held vigils and news conferences and met with politicians — all to demand that legislators pass a series of bills that would help victims of hazing, human trafficking and domestic violence.
Much of the time, Jennifer Storm has been among them.
Storm, 43, of Allentown, is the state’s victim advocate. When the Office of Victim Advocate was established in 1995, during Gov. Tom Ridge’s Special Session on Crime, it followed Pennsylvania’s decadeslong history of supporting victims; the state was home to the country’s first rape-crisis program and its first domestic-violence coalition.
Though the office is one of the lesser-known state agencies, it is tasked with providing a wide range of services for victims, from helping them navigate the media and the criminaljustice process immediately after a crime takes place to notifying them of changes to their offender’s status.
But it also includes a measure of restorative justice, offering programs to the offenders, such as the inmate apology bank and the victim-offender dialogue program, that encourage rehabilitation and accountability.
Since Storm was appointed director of the office by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2013, she’s overseen a substantial expansion of the agency: the staff has almost doubled, the budget has grown and the office has brokered new partnerships with other state agencies, including the attorney general’s office and the Pennsylvania State Police.
But more significant may be how the agency’s scope is changing under her watch, how it is broadening its mandate to include mental health and substance abuse services.
And Storm wants to see more.
What are front-end victim services?
It can include things like going to the hospital when someone is coming in for a rape exam, and accompanying them and making sure that they understand all of their therapeutic and supportive options.
I often refer to victim advocates as “the liaison” or “the navigator.”
Often, the advocate is the voice for that survivor if they can’t be their own voice. I spent 10½ years here in Harrisburg running Dauphin County’s victim services program, and I was really big, especially in the event of homicide, on making sure that media had a family approved photo to put out, because you always see the random Facebook picture or a mugshot or a PENNDOT picture.
Also you (often) see nothing but the accused or the offender. I’ve always been very passionate about making sure that victims have a voice in the media. And they should be central to the story,
and oftentimes they can be a side note.
So what’s a back-end service?
There’s a lot that happens when a person goes to prison or when they go on to supervision — and victims need to know all about that.
Our office has close to 50,000 registered crime victims, people who have opted to get notifications, information, access to advocates, access to continued service.
But the number of people who are eligible should be around 100,000. A lot of victims are confused at the time of sentencing, and they just think that if something happens, local victims advocates or the DA are going to keep me updated.
When I first started working there, we were getting calls daily from survivors saying, “I just bumped into my rapist at Giant. What’s going on?” Screaming at us. As I was evaluating the whole process, I thought, well that’s because they just don’t know
what they don’t know. So I made it my mission to reach out to DAS to work with the victims services, to work with the sentencing commission.
Unfortunately the way the Crime Victims Act is written, it’s incumbent on the prosecutor to give the victim information about us, and that’s it. So I have a bill that didn’t get taken up this session but that would mandate the prosecutor to give the victim’s information to us, so we can reach out to the victim, give them a full informational packet with who we are, what we can offer, what we have — that way they can make a more informed decision.
Victims of personal injury crimes. But quite frankly, we broaden it. So a personal injury crime doesn’t even include burglary — which is ridiculous. At some point that needs to get updated.
Your office is overseeing what seems like two very different types of programming, by offering services for both victims as well as parolees and people on probation.
Sort of. We believe philosophically that restorative justice is an integral component of victim services, and it’s always been part of OVA’S mission.
If we are solely looking at victims through this lens of “we’re just going to deal with the victimization that happened, and we are only going to work with you, and we are not trying to do something restorative on the other end,” then we are not really addressing the issue of victimization.
We know that 80 percent of offenders are coming out of prison. We want them to come out better people. We want to be able to say to that victim: The programming that the offender got helped them to rehabilitate or pay their restitution, because we did programming to encourage accountability. If we wouldn’t engage in all those programs, how are we really serving that victim?
With all these programs and this office’s creation, it sounds like Pennsylvania was at the forefront of a lot of these things. Where are we today? You know what the past year has been like, with the #Metoo movement and the church abuse report and trafficking and all these victims bills that seem to be so front and center. How do you think Pennsylvania is doing in terms of treating victims?
If I had to give us a scorecard on services, I’d say we have an A. If I had to give us a scorecard on protections and laws, probably a C. Maybe a C+. You are absolutely correct that we have been at the forefront of victims services.
In all 67 counties, we have victim-service programs; we have over 200 programs. We’ve actually started to expand into substance-use disorder agencies, mental-health facilities. We are even broadening what victim services look like, and we are starting to go into nontraditional places to make those connections, which are vital, because either the victimization is the root cause, or their mentalhealth issue is directly linked to something that happened adversely in their childhood — it’s all connected.
Jennifer Storm, a victim advocate, is interviewed by The Caucus staff in October.