JustResearch No. 14

Research in Profile (cont'd)

The Professionalization of Victim Services in Canada

Susan McDonald, Senior Research Officer,
Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada

We need to move towards the recognition that this is a profession … How we move is critical.


In Canada, and indeed in other countries around the world, victim services can still be considered an emerging occupational field, particularly when compared to other well-established professions such as law, medicine, or engineering. It is a field that has developed in response to demands from the women's movement and the victims' rights movement. It is a field that is interdisciplinary in that it encompasses criminal law, mental health, and social services.

This study on the professionalization of victim services in Canada, which was undertaken by the Research and Statistics Division of for the Policy Centre for Victim Issues, Department of Justice Canada, is the first work being completed in this area. Despite much discussion, there has been no research completed on the issue in Canada and, indeed, very little in other countries, including the United States. The goal of this particular project was to explore the different opinions around professionalization of victim services in Canada.

The Literature

Given the paucity of research on the issue of professionalization of victim services, there is very little literature on the subject. The author, therefore, reviewed academic journals, conference proceedings, as well as government and non-government reports using search words and phrases such as, "victim services," "victim assistance," "profession*," "credential*."

Victim services have arisen from the ongoing efforts of those individuals who make up what is today called "the victims′ movement." The term may seem to suggest a single, united front, but there are fundamental political differences amongst the different players. These differences impact objectives and goals, methods of achieving those goals, and messages. At the same time, however, all players agree that victims′ rights are important and that the needs of victims are worthy of attention.

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), United States Department of Justice, describes the occupation of victim assistance as "a full-fledged advocacy and service field dedicated to meeting the physical, financial, and psychological needs of victims and their families" (New Directions 1998). The OVC has supported the development of victim services program standards, pre-service and continuing education for practitioners; has supported the development of standards in order "for the victim assistance field to become a recognized profession" (New Directions 1998, 183); and has recommended the development of a code of ethics. Universities, state agencies with regulatory authority, and professional associations currently offer varying aspects of credentialing in victim services in the United States. Little formal, post-secondary education in this field exists in Canada.

Barriers to professionalization that have been identified in the literature include: the conflict among the various service agents regarding consensus of mission or purpose and the lack of occupational identity (National Victim Assistance Academy 2002, Chapter 20). In Canada, barriers could also include: different service delivery models, jurisdictional differences, and a lack of resources.

At the outset of this project on professionalization, it was felt that a review of the literature on professions in general might be useful.

What Is a Profession?

The early study of professions, of which there were relatively few (law, medicine, divinity), was based on a functional-structural approach, which identified set criteria. In considering the concept of professionalization, it is useful to think of a continuum with the very well established professions at one end, such as law and medicine, and emerging professions at the other. A profession has both social/structural and individual/attitudinal elements; the former refers to the occupation or the structure, while the latter refers to ideologies or attitudes (Hall 1968).

The structural attributes of professions identified in the literature include (Wilensky 1964):

  1. Creation of a full time occupation.
  2. Establishment of a training school.
  3. Formation of a professional association.
  4. Support of law (i.e., legal recognition of title and/or work activities).
  5. Formation of a code of ethics.

Attitudinal elements can be thought of as the invisible characteristics of professionalization, less visible than a title or letters after a name, or an association. The elements identified in the literature include (Hall 1968):

Schack and Hepler (1979) added another factor to Hall's original five:

Professor Thomas Underwood is the Executive Director of the Joint Center on Violence and Victim Studies, an interdisciplinary initiative between New Haven University, Washburn University, and California State University at Fresno. His research, "The Professionalization of Victim Assistance: An Exploratory Study of Attitudinal Dimensions and Factors," (2001) was one paper that was located that deals directly with this topic. Underwood reviews the theoretical foundations for the professionalization of victim assistance. The author suggests that what is not known is the individual attitudes of victim assistance practitioners towards professionalization. The main purpose of his 2001 study was to identify the extent to which victim services workers have attitudes that support professional attributes; its secondary purpose was to identify characteristics associated with the differences in these attitudes. Underwood found that despite few structural attributes, overall, the workers held very strong professional attitudes.

Anti-Violence Advocacy

Some of the earliest support available to victims of crime was that provided by the women′s movement to women who were victims of sexual assault and family violence. Bonisteel and Green (2005) have written on the shrinking spaces in Canada for anti-violence advocacy work. The authors discuss credentialism, which "refers to the belief that credentialed workers have more skills and knowledge than those without formal credentials" (2005, 30). They distinguish credentialism from professionalism, noting that professionalism is a far more complex construct. The authors do acknowledge, however, that the terms are used interchangeably.

The authors note that when shelters and sexual assault centres began to receive funding in the 1970s, the concern was raised that the "drive to professionalize … may increase the distance between abused women and (anti-violence) workers" (Bains et al. 1991, 224). Anti-violence advocates feared this would lead to a clinical service delivery model over an advocacy model. Given that core elements of anti-violence work include advocacy, public education, and prevention, the adoption of a clinical service delivery model could result in the elimination of these key elements, or at the least, in a diminished role.

In a Canadian article entitled, "Rape Crisis: The Debate over Professionalized Services," the author (O′Connor 2005) notes that in a movement that has seen many changes, both positive and negative, one of the most controversial is the shift towards professionalization.

In sum, this review identified a body of literature on professions in general that identifies specific structural and attitudinal characteristics of professions. The presence of these characteristics helps to categorize a profession as well-established at one end of a continuum, and as emerging, marginal, or "in transition" at other points on the continuum. The characteristics can also be used to identify what might be important to victim services workers.


This study was designed with a modest objective: to explore the range of perspectives on the professionalization of victim services workers in Canada. In June 2006, provincial and territorial members of the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group on Victims of Crime were each asked to provide the name of at least one individual who would be able to participate in the study. The majority of the jurisdictions responded in a timely fashion. In some cases, the respondent was the Working Group member, but not always. Other respondents were recruited through "snowballing."[1] In this manner, a total of 25 individuals were included in the study: 12 from government, 5 from academe (universities or colleges), 3 from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and 5 workers or program managers from victim services programs.

All individuals were sent a letter of information and a letter of consent in advance. Interviews ranged in length from 25 to 75 minutes and were carried out as follows: 23 individuals were interviewed by telephone, 1 individual responded in writing, and 1 individual conducted a mini focus group to provide more fulsome responses to the questions. Notes were taken during the interviews, and if there were any questions regarding the accuracy of quotations, the respondents were contacted. All the interviews were completed by mid-August 2006.

This study was reviewed by the Research Review Committee of the Department of Justice Canada. The Research and Statistics Division of the Department has developed an internal ethics review process that is derived from the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans.[2] An ethics template was completed for this study and was presented to the Committee, along with copies of the letter of information and the letter of consent that were to be provided to each participant in the study.

Findings and Discussion

Overall, respondents were enthusiastic and interested in the topic. Some called it "timely" and mentioned that it was "exciting that we are having this discussion," or as another said, "A discussion on this issue is a huge step." The frequency with which this type of comment was heard is testament to the importance of the issue to victim services in Canada. The findings from the study are presented thematically and include: the meaning of professionalization, the use of volunteers and the service delivery model debate, pre-service training and degrees/diplomas, the reasons for professionalization, costs and benefits of professionalization, and recruitment and retention.

i) The Meaning of "Professionalization"

While respondents were given the questions in advance, they were not given the list of characteristics found in the literature. Having those characteristics might have influenced how they answered this first question. One or two noted that a dictionary definition might include a professional organization and a standardized education/training, as in the legal or medical professions. Overall, however, the majority of respondents replied in a consistent fashion. For most, professionalization means training, consistent standards, and a certain skill set. Those who work in jurisdictions that do not utilize volunteers at all, or to any great extent, also added that it means full-time, paid staff.

The importance of training and standards was highlighted vis-à-vis the need for legitimacy and better services for victims themselves.

The professionalization of victim services will mean the work (and practitioner) is legitimized and recognized as an integral component of first responder, criminal justice, and community response networks/systems. It will encourage the development of a "common language," communicate expectations, and set standards for service all of which will improve responses and will result in victims of crime and trauma, their families, and their communities receiving high quality services that are coordinated and comprehensive.

Few respondents spoke about ethics in their response to this question. Given the particular sensitivities involved in victim services (confidentiality, re-traumatization, family violence, sexual assault, etc.), this was interesting and somewhat surprising. The Canadian Statement of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime, 2003 (Department of Justice Canada 2003), which could be utilized as a tool for victim services agencies and their workers to define the parameters of the services and principles underlying those services, was mentioned by only one respondent. The one respondent who did refer to the development of a code of ethics stated that professionalization means "the provision of services that meet ethical standards, a level of competency, and respect in dealing with victims."

None of the respondents referred to more than two or three of the elements (structural and attitudinal) that define a profession, and there was definitely an emphasis on the structural elements. As with the absence of a discussion on ethics, this near absence of attitudinal elements was also interesting. Given the preliminary nature of this research, however, as well as the emergent status of victim services in general across the country, the absence of attitudinal elements should not be too surprising. It is far easier to identify structural characteristics, such as professional organizations (the law societies) or dedicated formal education (the medical schools), than it is to quickly define the often nuanced attitudes that comprise the very essence of the phrase "acting like a professional" (Hall 1968, 93).

We know very little about the people who make up the emerging profession of victim services workers in Canada and their attitudes. Replicating the work of Underwood (2001) with interested jurisdictions would provide insights into this area of work.

Recognition was a theme that was very apparent throughout the interviews. It reflects the challenges that victims encounter not only in society, but in the criminal justice system, particularly in contrast to accused and offenders. It was articulated by respondents from all of the categories (government, NGOs, etc.).

Professionalization of victim services means a recognition that we need to provide quality services, a recognition of what it is to be a victim, and a recognition of what the recovery process is.

The process and the complexity are not recognized.

ii) The Use of Volunteers and the Service Delivery Model Debate

In Canada, the provinces and territories provide victim services differently. They use different delivery models (community-based, police-based, system-based) with different resource levels. For several respondents, the service delivery model debate must come before one can really talk about professionalization. It is intrinsically linked to the model of service delivery. In this sense, for these respondents, professionalization means "full-time, paid professional staff versus volunteers."

There can be very qualified people working as volunteers, but unless they do the work every day, it is, in my view, impossible to offer consistent quality and service - due to 1) the complexity of the CJS, 2) the essential nature of networking, building relationships of trust and maintaining those relationships

The use of volunteers does not fit in with professionalization. Period.

One respondent′s comment makes clear the very real differences between services for victims and services for offenders.

Equalizing professionals - we don′t use volunteers for offenders.

Comparisons to the fields of probation, parole, and criminology were often made. Respondents spoke about the discrepancies in terms of training, salary, job security, and benefits, as well as the integral role of these professionals in the criminal justice system, which, to victim advocates, already appears offender-oriented.

However, other respondents felt strongly about the need not to exclude volunteers.

Professionalization does not need "to shut out" volunteers.

From the NGO perspective, I would suggest that we should be able to have both systems - with professionally trained, paid staff and with volunteers. We cannot afford to exclude volunteers. Victim services are not resourced at a level where that is possible; we would ultimately have significant cuts to services.

Several respondents reported feedback from victims with whom they had worked. The valuable life experience and empathy that many volunteers bring to the work was acknowledged. There were, however, many cautions about the lack of training, standards, and support within jurisdictions as well as between them.

I worry about those without sufficient training, who are often very well-meaning.

Experience gave you a real sense of what it was to be a survivor.

Many come with valuable life experiences, but timing is also important. I also find this with family members of homicide victims. They want to help, get involved, but without appropriate training, and if the time is not right for them, they can do damage - even if they are well-intentioned.

iii) Pre-Service Training/University Degrees

Several jurisdictions in Canada require a university degree (usually a BA, BSW, or the like) when staffing their positions. Respondents who work with such requirements expressed overall agreement on their importance. As one respondent noted, we reach "… an agreement on the level of quality required before hiring."

In contrast, all respondents in academe agreed that a degree does not mean better workers or better services for victims.

I do not believe they need a BA - training is not necessarily better at the universities, nor is every BA created equal.

The desire for letters or a designation amongst service providers was certainly not uniform. As one victim services worker noted, "We do not need a professional designation." At the same time, many respondents acknowledged that letters or a professional designation does bring a certain level of respect from the general public and from those within the criminal justice system, such as judges and Crown attorneys.

In general, there was reticence to push for formal, university/college courses or programs in victim assistance due to the lack of employment opportunities in most jurisdictions. There was definite support for incorporating victim assistance content or courses into existing appropriate programs, such as BSW/MSW, BA in Criminology, or BN, or college programs. Courses that incorporate or are directly about applied victimology are available, but certainly not to any great extent. Cataloguing such courses and course content would be a valuable addition to the discussion.

iv) Reasons for Professionalization

One respondent noted that the primary argument for professionalization of any emerging occupation has typically been "improved services for the client group." While noting the importance of better services, quality services, or the best services for victims, respondents did not hesitate to point out that there is a desire for greater respect, particularly within the criminal justice system.

Professionalization of victim services would mean more prominence for VSWs, increased respect for them as professionals. With more prominent services, this can only lead to better services for victims.

One respondent failed to see the link between professionalization and quality services: "… but in my experience, really good services - do not need professionalism." However, victims continue to face challenges within the criminal justice system.

One can imagine a trickle-down effect: increased respect; prominence through professionalization might lead to a greater acceptance in court, on the part of different criminal justice professionals (Crowns, judges, police); more police cooperation in their own referrals; more judges might be more accepting of support persons in court, etc… Professionalization of victim services workers would only contribute to this culture change.

As other respondents noted, "credibility" is extremely important.

What is really at issue is "credibility" in a war with other professionals.

Credibility in the courtroom. Of course. Whoever is the most professional, has the most credibility. This will be a hard one to win. Why do you think victims come with lawyers and seek standing?

v) Costs and Benefits of Professionalization

Respondents were asked about benefits and costs of professionalization. Answers were consistent and indicated that benefits for victim services workers could include:

Victims/family members could benefit as follows:

Responses concerning the costs of professionalization were also fairly consistent and included the following:

One would hope that professionalization would not divert scarce resourcing away from the much-needed services and result in cut-backs.

There may also be less tangible costs related to professionalization.

Society is becoming increasingly professionalized. Is this a good thing?

vi) Recruitment and Retention

Respondents were also asked how professionalization might affect the recruitment and retention of victim services workers. Answers on recruitment were varied and reflected, to a large degree, how little we know about the occupation of victim services worker in Canada. The recruitment and retention challenges in rural, remote, and isolated communities (particularly in the North) were highlighted.

Depending on the definition used, a move towards professionalization would pose very real challenges in rural and remote communities for recruitment purposes.

In addition, respondents pointed out that:

With a standard professional program in different jurisdictions, the profile would rise and it could have a very beneficial impact on recruitment… and retention.

Diversity will continue to be important and recruitment on that front does pose challenges. We don′t do that well now. This may open more doors for newcomers, for example, because to some degree it levels the playing field.

There was a consensus that professionalization would not adversely affect retention. Many believe that it would actually improve retention.

I have received ample feedback from victim service practitioners that BC′s demonstrated commitment to the professionalization of victim services (through the training programme and the introduction of the certificate program) is a prime reason they remain in the field.… It is important to build and sustain a learning culture.

The retention challenges that some programs face was highlighted in the comment below:

Right now, a victim services worker job is seen as a "stepping stone," "a great place to get good experience, clearance, but you have to move on." This attitude is a slap in the face to victim services organizations. We lose people to law enforcement, to children′s aid, to any organization with a recognized title.

All respondents believe strongly in the importance of victim services and the importance of furthering the discussion on the professionalization of victim services workers.


The objective of this study was modest: to further the discussion on the issue of professionalization of victim services workers by exploring the range of opinions of workers in the field and other stakeholders. The respondents in this study were asked what next steps they might like to see to further the discussion. The answers they provided contained a range of ideas on both research and program activities. Suggestions regarding research included:

  1. Research in interested jurisdictions to identify the extent to which victim services workers have attitudes that support professional attributes and to identify characteristics associated with the differences in these attitudes. This would be a replication of Underwood′s study in the Northwestern US (2001).
  2. A more comprehensive understanding of who victim services workers are.
  3. A review of what is happening regarding professionalization in other Western, democratic countries.
  4. Research that looks at what elements of professionalization best serve the victims themselves.

In terms of program activities, the following were suggested as next steps:

  1. A national working group to explore further work on definitions, training, baseline/national standards, curriculum, research, etc.
  2. A nationalized, computerized (i.e., on-line, distance learning) training program that jurisdictions could access with standard elements, for example a module on the Criminal Code.
  3. A national clearinghouse for research and training materials in this area. Look into the possibility of linking to the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence.

These suggested next steps all reflect the high level of interest in the issue. By highlighting areas that would benefit from more research, as well as suggesting concrete steps to clarify the numerous issues at hand, this study may be an important catalyst for further work.