One of the most challenging aspects of victim advocacy is the moment immediately after a tragedy has occurred. Helping to guide victims through these circumstances requires poise, knowledge, and above all, empathy. Deborah Bradley and Kara Dager have a combined 30 years of experience in the field of victim advocacy, and received the 2020 Crime Victim Services Award from the National Sheriffs’ Association for their exemplary work with all victims of crime or tragedy. These situations include homicide, rape, sex offenses, unattended deaths, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, home invasions, assaults, shootings, overdoses, fatal motor vehicle crashes, fatal fires, and many other situations. Bradley and Kara have regularly navigated these extremely challenging circumstances with grace and courage.
Sponsored by Appriss Insights, the NSA Crime Victim Services Award recognizes outstanding achievement by a sheriff’s office in support of victims. Deborah Bradley and Kara Dager recently spoke with Appriss Insights about the award, the challenges and rewards of working in victim advocacy, and the importance of empathy when helping victims.
Why did you decide to start working in the field of victim assistance?
Kara Dager: I went to college for counseling and, once I graduated, I wasn't quite sure what direction to take that degree. At the time, I was already working during the summer at the Sheriff's Office. I started in their Personnel Department after I graduated and knew a couple of people at the agency and also individuals within partner agencies. The Office of Mental Health had been putting together a grant for a position that would connect families with resources that had been involved with police interaction. Because of my background, they reached out to me and we chatted about what that might look like. And so, that's how I got in with the Sheriff's Office in a victim advocacy position.
Deborah Bradley: For me, I've just always been drawn to helping people during crisis. I used to be a florist, believe it or not, but during that time, my boss' son-in-law had backed over and killed his small son, and I helped walk the family through that whole process. And from that experience, I decided it was time to go back to school and explore that kind of advocacy as a career path. I wound up getting a paralegal degree, but hated just sitting at my desk, pushing papers. I wanted to work more with the victims, so I went back to school and got a criminal justice degree with a minor in victimology and then got brought on to the Sheriff's Office.
What does it mean to each of you to be named recipients of this award?
Dager: I appreciate our supervisors and the application process, and them thinking of us. When you work in a field where you're worried about other people, it's always a little weird to receive an award, because obviously I am not doing this for awards.
Bradley: I can speak for both of us by saying we're accepting this award on the behalf of the victims, because they're the heroes in all this. They are surviving the worst things imaginable.
What is the biggest challenge you face on a daily basis in this role?
Bradley: I think the biggest challenge that we face is lack of resources on a national level for helping victims. When the economy tanked years ago, victim assistance was the first thing to go and it really has not built up a whole lot since then. So, that continues to be a huge challenge.
Dager: I primarily work with children in my role and we find that especially the resources geared towards children are lacking. It's not that there aren't any; it's just that there aren't enough.
In your role, you are walking victims through what are sometimes horrific and unimaginable circumstances. What's your approach?
Dager: I think the initial approach when we arrive on a scene involves a quick assessment. We touch base with whomever is working the case, whether that be patrol or a detective. And then, you're almost in a liaison position – you are there as a go-between. So, if it's a crime scene where they have the family separate from the detectives who are working in the case, as a Harford Sheriff's Office employee I am there for the victim. If they have questions while the process is unfolding, you're able to address them while also providing some support and talking through next steps and what they need to be doing and planned to do. There is so much for them to process in that moment. We do provide written instructions and resources that day so that they don't necessarily have to remember everything that we're saying, but primarily we are a go-between for them and the detectives working the case.
Bradley: As advocates, our role is to just be there and show people that you care. Just keeping them informed is a big deal. Without advocates like us on the scene, we've heard stories about victims feeling treated as if they are just another case and not being treated with empathy. That's a tragedy. That's our role in approaching them during these horrific circumstances, and sometimes that doesn't mean talking a lot. Sometimes it means simply listening, and other times it means total silence.
After the immediate incident, we are able to follow up with them and provide grief and bereavement information, check in to see how they're doing, and provide any information that they need.
I also make sure we're providing their immediate crisis intervention, trauma services, in some cases doing the death notification – just providing them funeral home information or the medical examiner process or crime scene clean up information, all those types of things, and then just guiding them through the law enforcement process so they understand what’s going on.
What is an important thing that comes to mind about what these victims go through that the general public doesn't know about or needs to understand?
Bradley: Trauma affects all aspects of somebody's life, and people really need to be more empathetic when dealing with someone who has been traumatized. I think a lot of people act in sheer frustration when people act out in certain ways. The truth is, trauma affects not only the body but the mind as well, and people need to be more informed about what that looks like. There is a lot of trauma in this country and there are a lot of people hurting, and as a nation we're not dealing with it well.
Dager: We've been out on scenes and neighbors or passers-by are filming on their phones or gawking at what's happening. When you're working with the victims’ families, that kind of behavior is unsettling and invasive. These victims are trying to make sense of what's happening and trying to deal with this tragedy, and you have all these people who are being insensitive in different ways. These people deserve some space and privacy.
What's the most rewarding thing that you find about working in victim advocacy?
Kara: Obviously, you go into roles like this to help people and so, I think when you're doing your follow-ups with the families that you've been working with and you see the progress, and you're able to connect them with the resources and services that are able to help them start the healing process – that is extremely rewarding. It’s rewarding when you hear them making some progress and able to be made right again in some capacity in light of what has happened.
Deborah: It’s rewarding to be there for people when they need the most support. For these victims, this is probably the most traumatic thing they will ever face in their lives, and they couldn't go through it alone.