Crime victims offered more help to navigate system

When you walk into the offices of the territory's victims services office in Whitehorse there are early signs that it's not your standard bureaucratic hub.

When you walk into the offices of the territory’s victims services office in Whitehorse there are early signs that it’s not your standard bureaucratic hub.

Past the couch covered in stuffed animals are people helping victims of crime navigate an often-overwhelming system, and answering some complicated personal questions.

How do I move on after what happened?

What happens if I go to the police?

When is this person going to be released?

How does the court system work?

The staff help victims assert their rights – rights that have been spelled out in Yukon laws.

The issue of victims’ rights has been at the forefront of the news recently.

About two weeks ago, Prime Minister Steven Harper announced plans for a federal victims’ bill of rights.

The announcement has raised concerns among critics, including, but not limited to, whether a national policy would be redundant and unnecessary when each jurisdiction already has some version of its own.

The Yukon’s victims’ bill of rights, part of the Victims of Crime Act, is relatively new. The territory was the last jurisdiction in the country to implement one when it was officially proclaimed in 2011.

The new law brought with it changes to the victim services branch.

Before then, staff only provided support to people who were victims of domestic violence and sexualized assault.

All other victims were dealt with through the lawyers who saw them through court.

“Now it’s a victim. A victim of crime is anyone who has suffered harm as a result of an offence. Any offence. Any crime,” said director Annette King.

With its expanded mandate came additional staff and resources.

Six victim support workers are in Whitehorse, two are in Watson Lake and two part-time positions are in Dawson City. Most have a degree in either social work or some form of counselling. Together they have a mandate that covers the entire territory.

“Victims can come, walk in the door, many do, and say, ‘I just need to talk to somebody,” King said.

Last year the offices saw 959 clients, 442 of those were considered new referrals.

“A client can come in for one time or many years of support. We have files where the accused ended up being convicted, had a federal sentence, is released on parole. We’re still supporting clients over long periods of time,” King said.

Victims can come for guidance and referrals, even if they choose not to go to the police.

When court is involved, victim services workers attend court appearances and report back.

“It navigates the whole system for them. When you hear it in court, even when our new workers start, it takes months before you understand what’s going on. And if you’re stressed, you hear less.”

Referrals can come from many different places – the website, local women’s groups or drop-ins.

But King says most of the referrals come from the RCMP.

Since the Yukon legislation was introduced, RCMP officers have been equipped with small green cards that outline services available.

If the victim agrees, his or her basic information is passed on to victim services.

In language alone, there are some clear similarities between the territorial law and the proposed federal bill.

Both say victims have rights to information about how the justice system operates, rights to be protected from intimidation and retaliation, and a right to share their views and concerns with the authorities.

In a recent panel discussion on crime legislation, Yukon MP Ryan Leef said there are two key features of the proposed federal law.

“They have the rights to those services. But they also have the right to be explained where those services are, how to reach them, how to access them and what recourse they have if those resources are denied to them.”

He said the federal bill isn’t redundant, despite its similarity to other laws.

“It complements, it doesn’t contradict or offset anything that’s already going on in the provinces.”

At the same panel, CYFN’s Chantal Genier praised parts of the federal bill but raised concerns over a proposed right to restitution.

The law says every victim has the right to have the court consider making a restitution order against the offender. If they’re not paid, a victim can go to civil court.

“I think we already know that a lot of our people that are involved in the criminal justice system are impoverished,” Genier said.

She added that it could be difficult for victims to navigate the civil law system.

Territorial NDP justice critic Lois Moorcroft criticized the Harper government’s tough-on-crime policies.

“It pretends that society can be divided into two separate groups, criminals and victims, and it’s a lot more complicated than that,” she said.

“A great many prison inmates have been victims of crime and many of their victims were also criminals.”

Before the proposed federal law was written, each province and territory was consulted.

Yukon Justice Minister Mike Nixon said he is still reviewing the proposed federal changes.

“If there’s overlap, that’s fine,” he said. “At the end of the day what’s important on that is that it focuses on victims of crime. That can’t be a bad thing.”

King said her office is also analyzing “exactly what the bill says, what the criminal code amendments are and what that means for the Yukon.”

In the meantime, any discussion of victims’ rights is a good thing, especially for a group of professionals who normally shy away from attention, she said.

“There has been a fair bit of local attention to it. And all that does for us it bring more attention to what already exists here.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at

ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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