Show Summary Details

The section “Recent Challenges, Innovations, and Recommendations” updated. Bibliography expanded and revised.

Updated on 4 November 2013. The previous version of this content can be found here.
Page of

PRINTED FROM the Encyclopedia of Social Work, accessed online. (c) National Association of Social Workers and Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the applicable license agreement governing use of the Encyclopedia of Social Work accessed online, an authorized individual user may print out a PDF of a single article for personal use, only (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 23 September 2018

Victim Services

Abstract and Keywords

Social workers provide services for crime victims and their families in a variety of settings, including law enforcement, the court systems, corrections, and parole or probation. This entry presents a historical overview of the types of victim-services programs and models that have been developed since the beginning of the 20th century. Social-work roles and interventions in victim-services programs are discussed. The need for specialized education and training in crisis intervention, domestic violence, and child abuse is addressed, along with recent challenges and innovations in the field of victim services.

Keywords: advocacy, victim services, victim and witness assistance, crisis intervention

In the aftermath of a crime, victims and their families often must cope with the impacts of the traumatic incident, such as physical pain, acute stress, psychological trauma, phobias, fear, grief, loss, medical problems and expenses, financial needs, and legal proceedings (Knox & Roberts, 2007). This is a critical time for intervention, and social workers have unique opportunities to work with victims, survivors, and witnesses of family violence, child abuse, sexual assault, robbery, kidnapping, homicide, and other crimes. Across the country, social workers are employed by law enforcement agencies, court systems, and corrections departments in a variety of roles to meet the needs of these crime victims. As part of a team of first responders, victim-services counselors in law enforcement also provide crisis intervention services to victims and survivors of disasters and terrorist attacks.


The social-work profession has a long history of working with police departments to provide victim services, beginning with the establishment of Women's Bureaus within police departments during the early 1900s (Roberts, 1997). There was a steady increase in the police social-work movement over the next two decades; however, throughout this time period obstacles such as harassment, sexism, and stereotypes of women in law enforcement negatively impacted this movement, which, along with other problems such as lack of funding and support from community leaders, led to a decline in victim services in law enforcement (Knox & Roberts, 2007).

It was not until the 1970s, when the battered women's and rape crisis movements became active, that the social-work profession was focused again on crime victims. With the emerging crime victims' movement, federal legislation and funding established victim-assistance programs in all states through the Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and the Victims of Crime Act of 1984; by 1999, there were close to 10,000 victim- and witness-assistance, victim-services, domestic violence, and sexual assault treatment programs nationwide (Brownell & Roberts, 2002; Roberts & Fisher, 1997).

Programs and Models

The primary theoretical models used in victims-services programs are crisis intervention, grief and bereavement therapy, brief or time-limited treatment, cognitive–behavioral approaches, family therapy, reality therapy, rational–emotive therapy, and eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (Knox & Roberts, 2002). These models reflect the need for short-term treatment and a focus on immediate needs, not past issues or problems requiring long-term treatment.

Victim-services programs in law enforcement offer crisis intervention on the scene or immediately following the crime or traumatic incident, short-term counseling, assistance and referrals for the victim's immediate needs, death notification to family members, and advocacy and assistance during the investigative process. Depending on other community resources, victim-services workers may use a team approach with the local domestic violence shelter, rape crisis center, and mental-health authorities.

Victim- and witness-assistance programs in the court systems try to minimize revictimization by the criminal justice system and encourage cooperation of victims and witnesses during the court process. Revictimization can happen when victims and witnesses have negative experiences with attorneys, prosecutors, and legal systems that are insensitive and unfair and provoke feelings of being victimized again, albeit by the legal system rather than by the offender. The primary objectives are to inform victims and witnesses of their legal rights, such as victim compensation and restitution benefits to which they are entitled, to provide information and notification on the court processes, and to offer court preparation, accompaniment, and crisis intervention during the court proceedings. Victim compensation is available in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam (Knox & Roberts, 2007). Victim compensation assists financially with medical expenses, lost wages, and counseling services.

Victim-advocacy programs in corrections provide information on offender parole or probation status and release dates, opportunities to impact on parole board and probation hearings, and involvement with victim-impact panels where survivors can confront and educate offenders on the effects and consequences of their violent crimes. Restorative justice programs focus on repairing the harm caused by offenders and include mediation and restitution services through which social workers advocate and mediate for victims and their families.

Social-Work Roles, Services, and Training

Microlevel practice and direct services and counseling roles start with crisis intervention and short-term counseling. The role of broker is essential as social workers make referrals to other community and social-service agencies for long-term treatment. Basic-needs services are provided through home visits, transportation services, and emergency assistance funds. Investigative services and roles include videotaping witness statements, hostage negotiation, and debriefing. At the macro level, the role of educator often involves victim-services staff in providing public education and training for law enforcement personnel and community volunteers. The advocate role is an important one at both the micro and macro levels. At the case level, the role is to ensure that the needs and rights of victims and their families are met during the investigative, court, and corrections processes. Also at the macro level, social workers engage in the roles of mediator, negotiator, and trainer in restitution programs, victim–offender mediation, and community services where offenders perform required community service as a condition of their probation or parole. Social workers also offer support and advocate for victims, survivors, and family members at court, probation, and parole hearings during victim impact statements and testimony. Victim impact statements are an opportunity for victims, survivors, and family members to tell the perpetrator and the judge and jury how the crime affected them and how the offender impacted their lives. It is also an opportunity to give their opinion and advocate during sentencing of the offender, so the victims and survivors have some input into what they consider a fair or just sentence to fit the crime.

Staffing patterns range from one-person programs to large programs with support staff and volunteers. Social workers are more frequently employed in victim services than are other counseling professionals (Knox & Roberts, 2002). Social workers in victim services are trained to work with a wide range of criminal offenses, mental-health problems, family violence situations, child abuse and neglect, grief and loss, death, and drug- and alcohol-related offenses. Specialized knowledge of the dynamics and issues associated with these problem areas is essential and can be provided by social-work education programs, on-the-job training, and continuing education conferences and workshops. Opportunities for training and experience for social-work student volunteers and internships are also available within victim-services programs.

Recent Challenges, Innovations, and Recommendations

Victim-services programs must do a better job of educating the public and increasing awareness about their services. Research findings report that many victims who do not access services are unaware of and not informed about the services that are already available in their communities (Sims, Yost, & Abbott, 2005). Victim-services programs must also focus on those victims who are most likely to need and utilize services. Research findings show that those who experience more traumatic, serious offenses, those who are most vulnerable, and those who have the fewest resources are more likely to access services (Alvidrez et al., 2008; Stohr, 2005).

Interagency coordination and cooperation between community victim-services providers is necessary to meet the multiple needs of victims. Victim-services providers should stress the importance of an interactive team approach in providing a continuum of services. Research findings show that crime victims receiving comprehensive psychosocial services were much more likely to apply for victim compensation (Alvidrez et al., 2008). Innovative programs have been implemented through the President's Family Justice Center Initiative in 2003, which provides funding for comprehensive, collaborative, community-based domestic violence services, including medical care, counseling, law enforcement assistance, victim services, faith-based services, social services, employment assistance, and housing assistance. The Family Justice Centers are based on the “one-stop-shopping” model where multiple services and programs are housed in one central location, making them user-friendly.

Evidence-based research in this field guides best practices for training and education of victim-services professionals (McCart, Smith, & Sawyer, 2010; Parsons & Bergin, 2010). Research studies of victim-services agencies and services have found that providing crisis intervention, financial assistance, referral information, support, and advocacy services has a positive correlation with victim satisfaction with the criminal justice system and increased cooperation with the legal process (Camacho & Alarid, 2008; Larsen, Tax, & Botuck, 2009; Ruback, Cares, & Hoskins, 2008). Standards of practice, national credentialing programs, and other continuing education training are offered by the National Organization of Victim Assistance and the National Victim Assistance Academy. In 2000, the National Organization of Victim Assistance organized representatives from state, federal, and national victim-assistance programs and developed a 40-hour national credentialing program, which officially began in 2003. Sponsored by the Office for Victims of Crime, the National Victim Assistance Academy also offers a 40-hour course that awards certificates after successful completion and provides both undergraduate and graduate academic credit.

With increasing opportunities for social workers to work with victims, witnesses, and family survivors, the profession must step up to the challenge to provide leadership and direction for victim-services programs in the future.


Alvidrez, J., Shumway, M., Boccellari, A., Green, J. D., Kelly, V., & Merrill, G. (2008). Reduction of state victim compensation disparities in disadvantaged crime victims through active outreach and assistance: A randomized trial. American Journal of Public Health, 98, 882–888.Find this resource:

    Brownell, P., & Roberts, A. R. (2002). A century of social work in criminal justice and correctional settings. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 35, 1–17.Find this resource:

      Camacho, C. M., & Alarid, L. F. (2008). The significance of the victim advocate for domestic violence victims in municipal court. Violence and Victims, 23(3), 288–300.Find this resource:

        Knox, K. S., & Roberts, A. R. (2002). Police social work. In G. Greene & A. R. Roberts (Eds.), Social workers' desk reference (pp. 668–672). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

          Knox, K. S., & Roberts, A. R. (2007). Forensic social work in law enforcement and victim service/victim assistance programs: National and local perspectives. In A. R. Roberts & D. W. Springer (Eds.), Social work in juvenile and criminal justice settings (pp. 113–123). Springfield, IL: Thomas.Find this resource:

            Larsen, M., Tax, C., & Botuck, S. (2009). Standardizing practice at a victim services organization: A case analysis illustrating the role of evaluation. Administration in Social Work, 33, 439–449.Find this resource:

              McCart, M., Smith, D., & Sawyer, G. (2010). Help-seeking among victims of crime: A review of the empirical literature. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23(2), 190–206.Find this resource:

                Parsons, J., & Bergin, T. (2010). The impact of criminal justice involvement on victims’ mental health. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23(2), 182–188.Find this resource:

                  Roberts, A. R. (1997). The history and role of social work in law enforcement. In A. R. Roberts (Ed.), Social work in juvenile and criminal justice settings (pp. 105–115). Springfield, IL: Thomas.Find this resource:

                    Roberts, A. R., & Fisher, P. (1997). Service roles in victim/witness assistance programs. In A. McNeece & A. R. Roberts (Eds.), Policy and practice in the justice system (pp. 127–142). Chicago, IL: Nelson–Hall.Find this resource:

                      Ruback, R. B., Cares, A. C., & Hoskins, S. N. (2008). Crime victims’ perceptions of restitution: The importance of payment and understanding. Violence and Victims, 23(6), 697–710.Find this resource:

                        Sims, B., Yost, B., & Abbott, C. (2005). Use and nonuse of victim service programs: Implications from a statewide survey of crime victims. Criminology and Public Policy, 4, 361–384.Find this resource:

                          Stohr, M. (2005). Victim services programming: If it is efficacious, they will come. Criminology and Public Policy, 4, 391–397.Find this resource:

                            Further Reading

                            National Center for Victims of Crime:

                            National Organization for Victim Assistance:

                            National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children:

                            Office for Victims of Crime:

                            Restorative Justice Online:

                            Victim Offender Mediation Association:

                            Witness Justice: