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JIS News

There is a haven of relief for victims of crimes in the Victim Support Unit (VSU) of the Ministry of Justice. The first of its kind in the Caribbean, the VSU was established in 1998 out of a need to extend the level of support that is offered to victims of crimes.
Since its inception, thousands of victims have benefited each year from the range of support services it offers, counselling being an area of primary emphasis.
Speaking with JIS News, Director of the VSU, Reverend Osbourne Bailey, informs that the Unit is staffed by a Parish Co-ordinator and a Social Worker in each parish, while there are 10 members of staff at the Head Office at 47E Old Hope Road in Kingston, which also serves the Kingston and St. Andrew region.
Rev. Bailey explains that, in addition to trained social workers and psychologists, the unit is also supported by a large number of volunteers, including students of tertiary institutions who are fulfilling the practicum component of their studies. Groups, such as the National Youth Service, have also provided persons to work in non-specialist areas.
The VSU has helped to rescue victims such as Susan Smith,* from the abyss of despair. Susan, a middle-aged mother of five grown children was raped in 2005. Violated, her self esteem plummeted and her purpose for living dissipated rapidly.
“I have been harassed by the person who raped me, by his family and by the Police,” she tells JIS News. As a result, Susan went through a period of depression, thinking that no one would believe or care about her situation, especially since she was a mature woman.
It was a policewoman who referred Susan to the VSU. Within weeks of her ordeal, she reluctantly approached the Unit for help. On her first visit she was met with a warm smile, but it was the prompt and empathetic care that went beyond the smile that bolstered her confidence in the Unit.
“When I did not know what to do I found myself confiding in these people,” Susan confesses. “I trust them with my life.because they are building back my self esteem.because I had lost it,” she notes.
As a client of the VSU, Susan says she can be at home locked away and out of the blue, receives a call from a social worker, just to find out how she is doing. They display concern for her total well-being.
Susan relates that on one occasion, when she needed medical care, her social worker insisted on transporting her to the doctor, because of her reluctance to go on her own. Additionally, the VSU helped to prepare her for Court, as she was extremely afraid of the prospect.
Now, Susan is willing to share her story. “My whole character has changed, my thinking most of all.because I wanted to kill myself,” she says.
She encourages those with a similar experience to visit the VSU. “Come in, come in and get some counselling from them,” she urges, pointing out that many persons are in need of the service, but are not aware that it is available. “They just believe that it’s only abroad you can get this help,” she says, adding that there are still good caring people in Jamaica.
Meanwhile, Janet Baker* is also appreciative of the work of the VSU. “It’s a very warm and friendly place. The staff is excellent. The minute you step in you are greeted with warmth and happiness,” she tells JIS News.
Janet’s life was thrown into turmoil, when her 18 year-old son was stabbed to death in 2004. A single mother of two, she recalls that a social worker from the VSU visited her on the same day the incident occurred to give her much needed support.
“During that time, I was in denial, I was depressed, there was a lot going through me,” she says. She also had feelings of guilt, thinking that if she had not gone to work that day, she could have prevented the tragedy. However, both Janet and her daughter, who was 12 years old at the time of the incident, have been greatly helped by the VSU. “The social worker helped me through the grieving process, until finally, I learnt to accept the death,” she says.
Rev. Bailey notes that the majority of the persons who access the services of the VSU are females. While this has always been the case, he observes that the margins are widening from a ratio of 2:1 to approximately 3:1. “We also find that a large percentage of the crimes are sex related (rape and carnal abuse), which when put together, outweigh the number of murders,” the Director discloses. He further notes that domestic violence is extremely high.
Notwithstanding, the VSU has the capacity to assist victims of any crime, and has been doing so quite efficiently.
National Co-ordinator, Nesta Haye reports that between January and May 2006, the Unit took on just over 2,000 new cases, while continuing to deal with a similar number of follow-up cases. With the dedicated staff and a cadre of volunteers, she says the Unit has been able to manage the numbers.
Susan and Janet are not the only clients who have expressed satisfaction. A recent User Satisfaction Survey carried out by the Citizen Security and Justice Programme (CSJP) indicates that 98 per cent of the clientele is satisfied with the service.
In addition to the highly professional and sometimes sacrificial attention given by staff members, clients are also appreciative of the high level of accessibility that characterizes the Unit. Sixty per cent of the respondents of the CSJP study said they are able to access a staff member within 24 hours, while 80 per cent said they are able to do so in 48 hours.
As a centre of advocacy for the rights of victims, the members of staff of the Unit work assiduously to meet the needs of victims of serious offences. “The whole emphasis is to ensure that from the moment the victim becomes a part of the system, every effort is made to provide them with all ranges of support that they may require,” says Rev. Bailey.
The VSU offers emotional support to victims, through mediation and counselling, crisis intervention, court support, technical services such as advocacy referrals and training of personnel working on victims’ issues. It also provides court support, where clients are prepared for, and accompanied to court.
Because the needs of victims very often overlap with economic or even social or medical distresses, the unit has established relationships with various community based organizations, service clubs, government ministries and agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations to source assistance for clients. Some of these groups include, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Probation Services, Food for the Poor, Red Cross, Social Development Commission and others.
Additionaly, the VSU has devised a method of helping to address the possible negative impact of exposure to crime and violence on children who reside in inner-city communities. Through an initiative, dubbed the Cultural Resocialization Process, large groups of children from inner-city communities are taken to a green area for a day. There, trained counsellors, social workers, and volunteers help them to deal with the trauma of the various crime related factors that they face.
“Many of them from the inner city deal with crime on an on-going basis, and really need to be empowered with coping skills in order to help them to function,” says Rev. Bailey.
“We re-create an understanding of what life could be like if they only learnt to deal with their trauma,” notes the Director.
The Unit is working on a manual of the best practices of the strategy, that it might be used by other organizations, which are catering to similar concerns.
Proven to offer the widest range of services available less than one roof to victims of crime, the VSU craves the support of the public, particularly through voluntary service. It also issues a call to anyone against whom a serious offence has been committed, to access the services as it lives out the mandate of providing healing and justice for all victims of crime.