Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 3

Documenting the Growth of Resources for Victims/Survivors of Violence

By Myrna Dawson, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair, Public Policy in Criminal Justice, University of Guelph


Over the course of the past few decades, crime victims have become more aware of their rights and of the resources available to them largely due to the victims’ rights and the violence against women movements. During the same period, there has been significant growth in the number and types of available resources for victims/survivors of crime. With increasing numbers of victims/survivors of crime seeking help and limited funding, it is becoming more of a challenge to allocate available resources to meet growing demands effectively. Adding to this challenge is the fact that, despite growing resources in most industrialized countries, there has been little effort to document what these resources are, where they are, and who they serve.

This knowledge gap is significant because access to resources is not equal for all victims/survivors of crime. Identifying and documenting which groups are underserved, and where, requires consistent and detailed information about what services are available, where, and to whom. Such information would contribute to more informed public policy decisions regarding the distribution and allocation of victim resources and to an enhanced ability to examine their impact on victims/survivors of crime, and on levels of crime and violence in communities.

In Canada, the first national Victim Services Survey was conducted in 2003; it was repeated in 2005/2006 and again in 2008. Focusing on one “snapshot” day of the year, findings from the first two survey cycles[1] showed that victims/survivors of violence and women represent the majority of those served (72% and 68%, respectively, in the most recent cycle) (Brzozowski 2008, 36). Among female victims of violence who sought help, close to one half had been victimized by current or former intimate partners and one-quarter by family members. This national survey represents an important first step in addressing the dearth of information on available resources in this country and arguably moves Canada beyond other countries in documenting victim resources.

The finding that female victims of intimate partner and domestic violence represent a large proportion of those served by victim services also highlights why much of the research to date, largely conducted in other countries, has focused on documenting resources related to domestic violence or violence against women and examining their impact on levels of violence. These patterns may also be due, in part, to the fact that violence against women, particularly by male partners, has been a key focus of legislative, policy, and program initiatives in many countries that now recognize that these victims/survivors have not historically had equal access to resources or justice overall (Fineman and Mykitiuk 1994).

Given this emphasis, the results from two bodies of research are briefly described below and are followed by a discussion of the challenges of systematically documenting this information even when focusing on one type of crime or group of victims/survivors. Without this research, service providers, policy makers, and researchers lack the information necessary to determine if resources are distributed equally to all victims and to understand the role played by these resources in keeping victims safe and preventing future violence.

Domestic Violence Resources and Intimate Partner Homicide

One indicator of safety for victims that has received significant research attention is the level of lethal violence or homicide in society. In particular, recent documented declines in intimate partner homicide in several countries have lead to concentrated efforts to identify factors that may be contributing to these declines using an exposure reduction framework (Dawson et al. 2009; Dugan et al. 1999, 2003). Premised upon the consistent finding that chronic relationship violence often precedes intimate partner killings regardless of whether the victim is female or male, this perspective argues that factors which help abused partners safely leave violent relationships or avoid such relationships in the first place should reduce levels of intimate partner violence and homicide (Dugan et al. 1999). The increasing availability of domestic violence resources is one of three societal trends that were occuring at the same time as intimate partner homicides were declining, which arguably also contributed to reduced exposure to intimate partner homicide.[2]

Researchers in the United States examined whether increased resources lead to lower rates of violence and uncovered an unexpected pattern. They focused on the existence of state statutes related to domestic violence, local police and prosecution policies, and existence of crisis hotlines and shelters. The results of the study showed that as domestic violence resources increased over the past few decades, the risk of female intimate partner homicide remained stable or declined only slightly, whereas the risk of male intimate partner homicide significantly declined (Browne and Williams 1989, 1993; Dugan et al., 1999). Similar patterns were documented in England and Wales and in Canada (Aldridge and Browne 2003; Dawson et al. 2009; Ogrodnik 2008). On the one hand, these findings can be viewed as positive; one interpretation is that increased resources are providing women with alternatives to lethal violence against their abusers to escape victimization. US researchers also found, however, that some resources may actually increase the risk for some women, possibly due to retaliatory violence by male partners coupled with inadequate attention to ensuring women’s safety as part of the intervention efforts (Dugan 2003; Dugan et al. 2003). Resources were also shown to have different impacts for various types of victims depending, for example, on their race/ethnicity or the type of intimate relationship they shared with their abusers (e.g., married or unmarried). Despite these variations, Dugan et al. (2003) concluded that, more often than not, communities with more victim resources had lower levels of violence. While this research documents more of a correlation rather than a causal connection between resources and levels of violence, the findings have implications for victims/survivors of crime who do not have equal access to resources, a situation examined and documented by a second body of research conducted in the United Kingdom.

The Geographic Distribution of Violence against Women Support Services

There has been a renewed interest in the geography of crime, or environmental criminology, which draws attention to the fact that crime is not evenly distributed, but is rather concentrated in particular areas (e.g., Brantingham and Brantingham 1981). For example, Statistics Canada has released several recent publications using Geographic Information System (GIS) to examine neighbourhood characteristics and the distribution of crime (e.g., Fitzgerald et al. 2004; Savoie 2008). What has received less attention both historically and today is the way in which the availability of resources for crime victims/survivors may also be concentrated in particular areas or geographic regions which, in turn, may also have implications for the distribution and level of crime and violence in those areas. The dearth of research in this area is due, in part, to the paucity of available data with which to examine these questions. Studies from the UK have moved research in a positive direction with respect to understanding how resources are distributed across jurisdictions, using GIS to map the existence, or lack thereof, of victim resources, visually displaying those areas that are clearly underserved (Coy et al. 2007; Coy et al. 2008).

Focusing on specialized violence against women support services, this study showed that “access to support is a postcode lottery” for female victims/survivors of violence (Coy et al. 2007, 6). Simply put, depending on where they live, some victims/survivors have access to adequate services while others have little or no access to any services at all. This may seem obvious to many who work in this field and are aware of the often uneven distribution of resources; however, the ability to document and provide evidence of this has been a challenge. Graphically, this study was able to clearly show that one-third of the jurisdictions in the UK had no specialized support services for women experiencing violence. Furthermore, they found that most women had no access to rape crisis centres, less than one quarter had access to any services specializing in sexual violence, and there was only minimal coverage offered by sexual assault referral centres. Less than one in 10 jurisdictions had specialized services for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women; almost one-third had no domestic violence services at all; and few jurisdictions had services for women involved in prostitution. The authors concluded that few areas could actually claim to have “sufficient” service provision and several areas were particularly underserved. In a follow up in 2008, some improvements had been noted; however, one in four jurisdictions still had no specialized support services, BME women were still underserved, most of the new services were statutory (i.e., primarily related to the criminal justice system), while provision levels in the voluntary/third sector remained static or had declined (Coy et al. 2008, 7).

Challenges in Documenting Victim/Survivor Resources

The above research suggests that it is possible to document victim/survivor resources and to examine their impact on reducing levels of violence for particular types of victims/survivors. These studies also highlight some of the challenges in such documentation. For example, it has been argued that the US study which found that initiatives intended to make women safer actually provided more protection for men may be the result of research which relied upon inadequate or limited data to capture the existence of domestic violence resources (DeLeon-Granados and Wells 2003). Indeed, Dugan and her colleagues (1999, 2003) acknowledged the scarcity of information available. A similar argument can be made about the availability of data documenting victim/survivor resources more generally, which is largely the case in most countries that have experienced the rapid growth in resources since the mid-1970s. While the collection of such information is a large and complex task given the number of changes that have taken place, variations across jurisdictions, as well as the fragmented and unreliable nature of existing data, for example, this information is crucial for understanding the relative impact of these and other social trends on the victimization experiences of women and men. To begin to address this gap, three initial steps are required: defining what is meant by “victim resources”; identifying appropriate measures of resource provision; and determining appropriate data sources and needs.

Defining Victim/Survivor Resources

Today, there is a multitude of new initiatives that co-exist with long-standing resources for various types of victims/survivors. In the area of violence against women, rape/sexual assault centres and shelters that grew out of the violence against women movement in the 1970s are easily identifiable resources. The more recent implementation of specialized domestic violence courts and police units in some jurisdictions can also be easily used as examples of victim/survivor resources. Focusing only on the more obvious albeit important initiatives does not recognize the wealth of social, health, community, and other resources that are directly or indirectly related to helping victims of violence (e.g., Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, coordinated community protocols). Therefore, defining what is meant by “victim resources” – the “what are they” question – is the first step towards achieving an understanding of the role particular resources play in the lives of victims. Canada’s national Victim Services Survey defines victim services as “agencies that provide direct services to primary and secondary victims of crime and that are funded in whole or in part by a ministry responsible for justice matters” (Brzozowski 2008, 33). An initial question is whether some important resources integral to victims/survivors are excluded based on these criteria.

In the UK, the term violence against women “support services” was used to encompass agencies and organizations that provided “a range of support options that enable women to create safety, seek justice, and undo the harms of violence” (Coy et al. 2007, 10). Recognizing that these resources are often found in what they refer to as the “voluntary/third sector,” the authors included organizations in their study if they worked “primarily on violence and…provide significant direct support to female victims/survivors” (2007, 16). Based on these criteria, the following resources were included:  refuges (i.e., shelters), community domestic violence projects, rape crisis centres, and sexual violence support services; specialized services within the statutory sector that provide significant support services, including sexual assault referral centres, and specialist domestic violence courts; perpetrator programs belonging to a network that ensures minimum guidelines and standards are followed; prostitution, trafficking, and sexual exploitation services; and, finally, health-sector female genital mutilation services.

In the US, where researchers have focused more narrowly on documenting the impact of domestic violence resources, Dugan (2003) and her colleagues (1999, 2003) included in their definition of resources existing policies and laws pertaining to domestic violence as well as organizations and initiatives that responded to domestic violence. Specifically, they examined the role of shelters, legal advocacy, hotline and counseling services as well as existing state- and local-level policies such as child custody legislation, judicial discretion surrounding protection order violations, warrantless arrest, mandatory arrest, prosecutorial no-drop policies, and firearms legislation. Efforts were also made to capture the level of criminal justice commitment to domestic violence through the existence of specialized police units and training, as well as the prosecution of protection order violations, and/or written policies that standardized the prosecution of cases.

Two definition issues are highlighted by these studies. First, the UK study demonstrates that, before resources are defined, the particular groups of victim/survivors or crimes/violence being examined will need to be clearly identified because of the broad range of resources available, the varying types of victims, and the particular needs that may be acute in different countries. For example, in Canada, prostitution, trafficking, and sexual exploitation services as well as health-sector female genital mutilation services may not have automatically been included in a definition of “violence against women support services” even though this might well be warranted. Second, research in the US highlights the need to move beyond the narrow conceptualization of victim/survivor resources as only those responding organizations and agencies to encompass existing policy and legislative initiatives that often lead to varying levels of resources in communities or countries.

Measuring Victim/Survivor Resources

Once victim/survivor resources are identified, the challenge is to identify appropriate measures for levels of resource provision. While an important first step, resource availability is only one dimension of provision, representing a basic and somewhat crude measure of whether resources are distributed evenly among all victims/survivors. More detailed measures of resource accessibility, utility, and other important characteristics of an organization or policy will need to be identified. Accessibility measures might include average distance travelled by victims/survivors to access resources (particularly relevant for victims/survivors living in rural or remote areas), languages in which services are available, or whether a victim/survivor accesses services immediately or has their name put on a waiting list. Resource utility can be measured by the characteristics of those victims/survivors who are served, which, in turn, can be compared to the characteristics of victims/survivors in the population. An area might have a high concentration of Aboriginal persons who have been victims/survivors of crime, but a particular resource is found to serve only a small proportion of such victims/survivors. Such patterns can be used to identify areas for further examination and can lead to more equitable access and use of resources. 

Finally, as argued by Coy et al. (2008), documenting where services are and who they serve still provides only part of the story. Measures that capture the characteristics of those resources being examined will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the level of resources that are provided across jurisdictions. For example, documenting the existence of a shelter does not tell us the number of beds available or the services it offers in-house or in the community through outreach programs. Documenting the availability of a specialized domestic violence police unit does not provide information as to the size of the unit (e.g., whether it is comprised of one full- or part-time police officer, 10 police officers with support staff, or a number of civilian employees). Furthermore, sexual violence services available in a jurisdiction may be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or only for a few days per week. Thus, the documentation process must move beyond availability, accessibility, and utility towards the quality of available resources in terms of size, breadth of services, and level of commitment relative to the population of victims/survivors served. Efforts by US researchers to document the level of police or prosecutorial commitment are an example of this, recognizing that existing policies are often implemented at the local level by various actors, and therefore, policy and/or resource implementation will vary across jurisdictions.

Determining Appropriate Data Sources and Needs

Beyond the national Victim Services Survey, there is currently no central database on legal and/or community-based resources for victims/survivors which would provide a starting point for this type of endeavour, and because information can vary both across and within provinces and territories, there is no consistency in the current documentation of resources at the provincial or local level. Even Canada’s Victim Services Survey has limitations since the majority of responses were received from government-based agencies, and therefore, non-government/community-based agencies are likely underrepresented. In fact, police-based agencies comprised the largest number of respondents (42%), a finding which is consistent with DeLeon-Granados and Wells’ (2003) argument that there is an overemphasis on criminal justice services, ignoring the wide diversity of community-based resources and non-profit organizations that also offer assistance to women experiencing violence. Therefore, once victim/survivor resources are defined, and measures identified, the final task is to determine whether there are any existing data that are reliable and valid and can be built upon. If not, data needs and methods for collecting these data will need to be identified.

Why is it important to document victim/survivor resources?

The transformations that have occurred over the course of the past several decades in society’s response to crime victims/survivors has lead to a pressing need to begin to identify reliable and valid standardized measures that can be used to understand the role of this growth in resources in the lives of victims/survivors and in the communities in which they live. An examination of the distribution of these initiatives is vital to the development of public policy over time, but, as argued by DeLeon-Granados and Wells (2003), any efforts to document and ultimately examine the effect of resources requires “a dialogue among key stakeholders, practitioners, researchers, and policymakers on an important and growing research area; a discussion of the ways to improve data systems and to improve the manner in which data are used for social science; and an enhanced awareness of methods to track efficacy of state and federal policy over time (2003, 150).” Such a dialogue will begin to respond to the call that policymakers and researchers begin to identify what programs, policies, and/or legislative reforms have provided protection to victims/survivors of crime overall and, in particular, to victims/survivors of violent crime (Campbell et al. 2007).