According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, after a period of declining violent crime, the nation’s crime rate has jumped in recent years, along with the number of violent crime victims. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of victims of violent crime rose from 2.7 million to 3.3 million – an increase of 604,000 victims.
Trauma – the wounds of violent crime – are not always visible. While the physical wounds usually heal over time, the emotional and mental trauma often remain. From shock and numbness to intense feelings of anger to posttraumatic stress disorder and the anxiety, sleeplessness, outbursts, and panic that often result, these wounds are not as easy to heal, often resulting in long-lasting suffering.
For victims of crime, this time is often wrought with additional stressors that include navigating the complexities of the criminal justice and judicial systems, locating temporary housing/shelter, suffering from the effects of financial loss, and acclimating to life following the crime.
Victim advocacy services, which can be best defined as a system of support that’s in place for victims dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic crime, are an excellent source of system-level advocacy, counseling, and related services.
Victim advocates helps victims of traumatic events by employing a variety of approaches, including individualized counseling services that address the emotional and mental aftermath of being victimized. Their work involves the introduction of new skills and coping methods that replace the negative behaviors and thoughts that emerged as a result of the event. The use of applied behavior analysis (ABA) has become a widely respected form of treatment for victims of traumatic events, so its use in victim advocacy is a natural fit.
What Does a Victim Advocate Do?
Victim advocates (also called victim specialists and victim service coordinators) are specially trained professionals whose expertise is focused on the provision of support services, assistance, and counseling to victims of crime. Their services begin the moment a victim seeks help following a crime and don’t end until the victim’s needs have been met.
The role of a victim advocate is not always the same and is often dependent upon the agency or organization for which they work, the needs of the victim, and the scope of their license, certification, and/or job.
They are experts on victim advocacy legislation, the legal rights and protections of victims, the criminal justice process, crime prevention, and victimization and are excellent sources of information on everything from crime prevention to victim compensation. For example, they are there to explain the criminal legal process, victim statutory and constitutional rights, and legal terminology and processes. They often accompany victims to court proceedings, where they provide support and explain the process so they can make the most informed choices.
In addition to addressing the immediate emotional and physical needs of victims, victim advocates address any and all issues affecting their legal, spiritual, therapeutic, and economic needs.
Just some of their services include:
- Submitting the proper documents to courts and parole boards
- Securing temporary shelter and transportation
- Completing the required paperwork for social services support
- Providing referrals for legal and social services
- Providing crisis counseling, short-term counseling services, and emotional support
- Locating and coordinating social services and other resources
Outside of direct victim contact, their roles often extend to education; namely, educating the public on crime prevention, victimization, and the rights of victims in the legal system.
Victim advocates may work for:
- Law enforcement agencies
- State/regional district attorney’s offices
- Probation/parole departments
- Social services agencies
- Nonprofit support groups (sexual assault, domestic violence programs, crisis hotlines)
- Private practice
What Makes a Good Victim Advocate? – Their Role as Mental Health Counselors
As counselors, victim advocates help victims manage the emotional impact of the crime and begin to regain a sense of control over their lives. They may provide personalized counseling in person or through a victim hotline, or they may oversee group counseling services.
Counseling in this field rarely looks the same. The type of crime committed against the victim and how the victim reacted to the crime will all vary, but the support provided by the victim advocate is just as beneficial.
While many times victim advocates provide counseling and support to victims of violent crimes, such as attempted murders, rapes, sexual assaults, and assaults, other types of crimes are often equally traumatizing to a victim. For example, victims of theft, home invasions, and stalking often feel a deep sense of personal violation, vulnerability, and loss of control. And not all victims have had a crime committed against them; those who witnessed a crime first-hand can suffer long-term, both emotionally and mentally.
The role of victim advocates in the counseling process may also be different depending on when the crime was committed. They may provide crisis counseling to victims who are in a state of shock, numbness, and physical/emotional paralysis immediately following a crime, or they may provide counseling to victims who are experiencing the long-lasting effects of crime, such as panic, fear, guilt, shame, anger, and even intense hostility.
Victim advocates are there to provide the initial support immediately following the crime, and they often remain as the victim navigates the criminal justice and court systems. Should victims require long-term care in the form of medical or psychological interventions, victim advocates can be important points of contact for arranging these services.
The Use of Applied Behavior Analysis in Victim Advocacy
The evidence-based techniques of applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy have been gaining steam in recent years and are now widely used by many practitioners in the human services field, including victim advocates whose specialty lies with individuals recovering from trauma.
Using ABA techniques, victim advocates can help victims of crime learn new life skills and new coping strategies, improve their behavioral functioning, and diminish negative behaviors. Victims can learn to be less anxious or fearful, eliminate self-defeating thoughts, and work through the negative behaviors that result from trauma.
An example of ABA in action would be a victim advocate working with a victim of a sexual assault who is suffering from recurring flashbacks of the crime and has begun drinking alcohol in excess in an attempt to rid herself of these traumatic memories. Through ABA therapy, a victim advocate would help the victim replace her negative behavior (drinking) with positive ones to deal with these memories. This may include helping her implement mindful meditation, journaling, and breathing exercises when these images begin to replay themselves and then helping her slowly introduce other healthy coping skills into her weekly routine, such as exercising, spending time with friends, and completing positive writing exercises.
How to Become a Victim Advocate
Victim advocates generally hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology, social work, or criminal justice, such as:
- MS in Forensic Psychology
- MA in Community Psychology
- MS in Counseling Psychology
- MA in Counseling
- MA in Mental Health Counseling
- MS in General Psychology
- Master of Social Work
Additional training specific to the role as a victim advocate is also completed. Students of master’s programs may take specific elective courses related to victim advocacy, crisis intervention, and the criminal justice system and/or complete practical experiences in the victim advocacy field.
Or, they make complete training programs that are available through local law enforcement agencies, district attorneys’ offices, and community or national training programs like the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA).
State Licensing Requirements
You’ll need to obtain a state license if you want to work as a psychologist, social worker, or mental health counselor.
- To become a licensed mental health counselor, you’ll need to complete a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited college or university and two years of post-graduate training and then pass the National Counselor Examination through the National Board for Certified Counselors. You can learn more about state licensing requirements to become a mental health counselor here.
- To become a licensed social worker, you’ll need to be licensed at the bachelor’s or master’s level. But to hold a license as a clinical social worker, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree in social work and then complete at least two years of post-master’s clinical experience. Whichever license level you’re seeking, you’ll need to take and pass the national examination through the Association of Social Work Boards. You can learn more about state licensing requirements to become a social worker here.
- To become a state licensed psychologist, you’ll need to complete an American Psychological Association (APA)-accredited doctoral program in psychology and a period of clinical training (usually 2,000 hours internship and 2,000 hours post-doc, although some states may require more or less) and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). You can learn more about state licensing requirements to become a psychologist here.
National Certification Options
While national certification is not always necessary to practice as a victim advocate, it can position you as an expert and leader in your field and help propel your career.
Victim Advocate Certification
The National Advocate Credentialing Program (NACP) provides 40 hours of pre-service training for advocates, 32 hours of continuing education every two years, and offers credentialing at four levels:
- Provisional: No experience required
- Basic: Requires at least 3,900 hours of experience
- Intermediate: Requires at least 7,800 hours of experience
- Advanced: Requires at least 15,600 hours of experience
Additional specialist certifications available through NACP include:
- Child abuse
- Domestic violence
- Drunk driving
- Sexual assault
- Campus advocate
- Identity theft/financial crimes
- Human trafficking
- Comprehensive services
- Program management
Complementing your professional role as victim advocate with ABA certification through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board is a great way to position yourself as a leader in applied behavior analysis in your field.
To become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), you must currently complete a master’s degree in psychology, education, or behavior analysis that includes acceptable graduate coursework in behavior analysis and a defined supervised practical experience. You may also qualify by completing a verified course sequence, which can be completed through a number of schools as either a stand-alone course sequence or as a graduate certificate, provided you have a master’s degree in one of these three areas.
But if your master’s degree is in another area in the human services field, you may soon qualify for this designation. This is because in January 2022, the BACB will remove the degree restrictions, opening up the BCBA to a wide variety of master’s-level practitioners in the human services field. In anticipation of this change, many schools that offer the VCS have already removed the degree restrictions, allowing counselors, social workers, and other professionals to complete the VCA now. And then, in 2022, you’ll have the option of satisfying the experiential and exam requirements necessary to earn the BCBA designation.
Victim Advocate Salaries
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides salary overviews of a variety of mental health professionals, as of May 2021. The following statistics provide average salaries for a number of mental health practitioners at the 25th, 50th, 75thand 90th percentiles:
- Social workers, all others: $46,340, $61,190, $80,040, $93,540
- Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors: $38,520, $48,520, $61,660, $77,980
- Counselors, all others: $37,060, $45,160, $58,090, $76,780
- Therapists, all others: $46,980, $59,500, $77,830, $98,490
- Clinical and Counseling Psychologists: $62,040, $82,510, $126,590, $167,460
- Psychologists, all others: $73,910, $102,900, $120,240, $133,200
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Social Workers, All Other; Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors; Counselors, All Other; Therapists, All Other; Clinical and Counseling Psychologists; and Psychologists, all other reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.