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Crime victims help us help them

By Alexandra Lugo on April 05, 2017

I didn’t know what to expect before starting research as part of the Victims Legal Assistance Network (VLAN), a pilot demonstration project funded by the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime to Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services.

I knew that I would be observing and interviewing people who had experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, elder abuse, or gun violence, asking them to give us their opinion of an online portal designed for survivors of crime. I recognized that the people I met with would have extensive legal needs- needs that the portal sought to address. I also knew that despite the trauma they had experienced and the problems that they were dealing with, they were willing to take the time to help improve the path to help and healing for others. With each meeting, I developed an increasingly dynamic understanding of the needs and challenges that crime victims face, as well as their inspiring strength and resilience.

While wrapping up one of the first research sessions, a participant paused to ask about the portal. “So even if you’re homeless, you could come to this website and get help? Like if you went to the library or something?

This question struck me for two reasons. First, it perfectly captured the breadth and depth of challenges that crime victims face in accessing both criminal and civil legal help. A domestic violence survivor, for example, may need information about their rights in criminal cases as well as a lawyer to advocate for them.

Still, their legal concerns often extend beyond criminal court proceedings. They may seek help to get an order of protection or child support, or they might need a lawyer to help enforce these court orders. Further, they may need a caseworker to help them apply for victim compensation, food stamps, emergency housing, or other benefits; or if they already applied for and were denied these benefits, they may need a lawyer to help appeal the denial. They have also experienced trauma and need affordable health care. Further, all of these needs are compounded if the victim doesn't speak English, has a disability, or is homeless. It’s clear how overwhelming it must be to try to navigate these critical needs and to find help for them.

Second, the woman's question also highlighted the incredible adversity of crime victims. The woman I spoke to was seeking help to address a myriad of issues resulting from years of abuse. Yet, she was still concerned about how others might get help. This sentiment was expressed again and again in my interviews with victims. They were dealing with situations that threatened their well being, their livelihood, and their safety. Many have been living under unimaginably difficult circumstances. Yet, they are surviving.

Beyond that, they are thoughtful and compassionate in recognizing and articulating their needs and the needs of those in similar situations. When I described the stories and resources that would be part of the portal for victims of crime being developed on IllinoisLegalAid.org, they spoke about a sorrow that others might experience their same pain. But they also expressed a comfort in knowing that they are not alone.

The victims of crime portal is scheduled to launch in July of 2017 and not a moment too soon. If you would like more information on user research or the VLAN project, please contact me, User Experience Research Coordinator, Alexandra Lugo, at alugo@illinoislegalaid.org.

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