Victim advocates have a tremendously varied job description. They help eligible victims apply for assistance, work with creditors when appropriate, keep victims informed of the status of their cases, and keep the victims updated on whether the person accused of a crime in their case is arrested or released. They can also provide confidentiality, protection and transportation as appropriate.
Often, the work comes with a significantly emotional or interpersonal element to it. Victim advocates aren't just bringing information and help; they also provide some comfort to people in trying times.
It's a job that makes a difference — and changes lives — every day. And each day in a victim advocate's office brings different tasks, experiences, responsibilities and challenges.
Sadiyah Cochran, victim advocate with the Lexington Police Department. Photo: Town of Lexington.
Consider a case handled by Sadiyah Cochran, the victim advocate with the Lexington Police Department. A domestic violence victim told Cochran that her controlling partner had prevented her from working or from driving a car. When she decided to leave her abuser, the woman told Cochran that her top priorities were to get a job and a driver's license. She knew she wanted to be a part of this woman's journey, so on top of her regular duties, she offered some personal assistance in her free time.
"We talked, laughed, cried and cried again. I remember the day she came to the police department with her license. She said I was her first stop," Cochran said. "I knew that she would never allow anyone to tell her what she can't do."
When the woman left the police department that day, Cochran said she closed the case "in my file and in my heart. That's how I wanted to answer and end every 'call for service' the rest of my life."
Cochran is not alone. All cities and towns in South Carolina with a police department are required to provide victim assistance services, whether directly through the police staff or through an approved service provider. Victim service providers are required to fulfill initial and continuing education as approved by the state Office of Victim Services Education and Certification. Cities pay for victim assistance using restricted funds that come out of court fines processed through a municipal court.
The advocates that work in agencies all around the state help victims navigate the difficult, sometimes dangerous and often confusing days that follow a crime.
A typical day for a victim advocate can include reading incident reports, creating safety plans, meeting with victims at the hospital, attending bond hearings, working with police investigators, making referrals to counselors, helping secure vouchers for items such as food and diapers, and informing victims about services they can access, such as battered women shelters and funds for medical expenses.
Chanda Robinson, the victim's advocate with the Georgetown Police Department, said the work is both challenging and rewarding.
Chanda Robinson, victim advocate with the Georgetown Police Department
"When I can assist them, it makes their lives a little easier. It doesn't take away the pain, but I know I've been able to lift the burden and make life a little easier through a traumatic incident," Robinson said. "Victims don't ask to be victims. When I can look at them and say, 'I can help you with this,' that's my reward."
When Robinson first applied for the job 11 years ago after she earned her associate degree, she didn't realize the position was part of the police department. She ended up getting the job, going to the police academy, and becoming an officer and a certified victim advocate. Since then, she's gone on to earn her bachelor's degree in social work along with master's degrees in both counseling and criminal justice. She says her coursework has helped her better understand the law and victims' needs.
"By law, victims have rights, but they can fall between the cracks," she said. "The advocate can free up a police officer to investigate a crime while the advocate can listen, console and inform them of services," Robinson says. "Advocates are here five days a week and on call 24/7."
Krista Cooper had been a paralegal in an attorney's office when she saw the victim advocate position advertised in North Myrtle Beach.
Krista Cooper, victim advocate with the North Myrtle Beach Department of Public Safety
Now a certified victim assistance specialist with the North Myrtle Beach Department of Public Safety, she helps victims from all sorts of crimes, from criminal sexual conduct to robbery to car break-ins. She also said advocates sometimes fill the roles of social workers or counselors in situations where there may not be a "victim," but a person who is in need of help.
"Many people come to the police for all kinds of issues that aren't always police matters, but we try to help our residents and visitors as best as we can," Cooper said.
"I enjoy when someone tells me how much I helped them or they tell me how important the work I do is," Cooper said. "I don't see it that way, since I am so used to what I do. But I try to imagine if I had no experience with the criminal justice system how hard it would be to know what was going on."
She said while victim advocates may not always be able to resolve the situation in a way a victim would like, she always listens to their concerns, offers ideas and options, and tries to counsel them on the best next steps.
Cooper's biggest challenge right now is the lack of a domestic violence shelter in Horry County. "The shelter closed down several years ago. There are many grassroots efforts to get a shelter back open, but it is a huge undertaking," she said. "That is very hard to deal with when a woman needs a safe place away from domestic violence and has nowhere to go."
Cochran found her way to the Lexington victim advocate's office after serving as a patrol officer. She said she always felt the desire to go beyond the police calls.
"My heart would be invested in the people and their story. When the [victim advocate] position became available, it seemed I had no choice," she said. "I am happiest when I am making someone else's life a little better."
She said that can range from creating an escape from abuse to riding along with a patrol officer who is discouraged to crying with a sexual assault victim.
"The services provided to victims are not just for the victim but for the community that is impacted," she said. "I believe it comes down to one very essential ideal: How would you want to be treated if you were a victim of crime?"