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Still work to do to help victims

J.B. Van Hollen

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week begins April 6.

This year’s theme is 30 Years: Restoring the Balance of Justice, referring to the passage 30 years ago of the Victims of Crime Act. The act is a milestone in our nation because it created a system to use fines and penalties paid by criminal offenders in the federal system to create an infrastructure of services and compensation for victims of crime.

Thirty years later, the act remains an important source of funding that provides counseling, crisis response, advocacy, shelter and other critical services to victims of crime, without using a dime of taxpayer money. Without the victim’s rights act, many of the local and statewide victim services would not exist today.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice administers funding and other victim-centered grant programs through the Office of Crime Victim Services. During my term as Attorney General, we have worked hard to develop a consistent and strategic approach to use victim services grant money efficiently.

For example, the Office of Crime Victim Services received $2 million for the Sexual Assault Victim Services Program as part of the state’s 2013-2015 biennial budget. This funding is available to local victim support service providers through a competitive grant process. The budget also moved the Violence Against Women Act Program to victim services. We have evaluated and refined this program to complement our other victim service grant programs, such as VOCA. We enhanced site visits, improved our technical assistance and training, and found new ways to maximize the dollars available.

In the last year, we have improved our Crime Victim Compensation Program and Sexual Assault Forensic Exam trainings for advocates, hospitals, sexual assault nurse examiners and sexual assault response teams. We organized and held the first statewide Victim Assistance Academy to provide advanced training to victim service providers.

My multidisciplinary statewide Sexual Assault Response Team identified ways to implement improvements in how medical forensic exams are collected and tested. These are just a few of the ways we use our resources to improve services to victims of crime.

While we have made great progress, there is still much work to be done to ensure every victim’s rights can be fully exercised and programs established to support these rights fulfill their promise. Crime Victim’s Compensation, and Victim and Witness Services continue to struggle to meet their obligations. Funding must match statutorily created expectations. We need to make sure our district attorneys have the resources they need to hold offenders accountable while protecting victims. We need to do more to ensure offenders fully pay restitution to victims they have harmed. And, we need to continue to develop multidisciplinary approaches in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

During National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, advocates and public officials across the nation will speak about the important laws that give victims the right to be informed, present and heard during criminal cases. Many will speak about the fine work accomplished by government and private victim service agencies that work in the trenches to provide support and day-to-day services to victims.

I also want to recognize the often overlooked and unseen work accomplished by a different group — the survivors themselves. Through their voices, perseverance and willingness to help others, survivors have always been the momentum behind advances in victims’ rights and services. Survivors start and facilitate support groups, movements and organizations. They educate legislators and public officials about how to improve the system. Survivors bravely share their stories, and in doing so, give others the courage to speak. Thanks to them, we better understand justice is holding offenders accountable as well as ensuring victims understand what is happening in the courtroom while being treated with dignity, respect for their privacy and with sensitivity.

When we celebrate victims’ rights, we celebrate the countless, unnamed survivors who have used their losses and painful experiences to make the system better for everyone else.

J.B. Van Hollen is Wisconsin’s attorney general. He also served as the U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Wisconsin and district attorney in Ashland and Bayfield counties.