LAKELAND – Being the victim of a crime is a traumatizing experience and being forced to navigate the criminal justice system can be a daunting task.
That’s why Victim Services Units (VSU) across the Lakeland are dedicated to doing all they can for those impacted by crime, helping connect them to the right supports as soon as a file is created.
Typically tucked away in the local RCMP detachment, a VSU member becomes involved with someone after a police officer has identified them as the victim of a crime.
“We reach out to people, often in their deepest and darkest moments,” explained Pat Laramee, program manager with St. Paul and Area Victim Services (SPVS). “Usually when there’s been some sort of an incident and oftentimes it’s a traumatic event.”
Debbie Winstone, Bonnyville VSU program manager, described the units as referral agencies.
“We refer, it can be criminal or non-criminal incidents, we will refer victims to different sources in town. If it is a criminal act and there are charges, we follow that file right from the beginning to end. That means from the time a statement is made through the investigation to when charges are laid,” she detailed. “From there, we provide court updates to the victim if they choose. Each time the accused person makes an appearance in court, we’re phoning the victim to update them with what happened. Once it goes to trial, we then prepare them for court so we do court prep, we ensure that they’ve had the opportunity to do a victim impact statement, and request for restitution.”
Although many VSUs have been in the area for close to three decades, some aren't aware of what they provide to the community unless they’ve had direct contact with them.
“It’s a hard thing to get out there,” noted Winstone. “You wouldn’t think it is, but people don’t know we’re here until something’s happened. Even then, they’ll say ‘why are you calling me?’ They still don’t understand what we would do.”
Almost 30 years in Bonnyville, Cold Lake
The VSUs in Bonnyville and Cold Lake have been operating for 29 years and have a history that’s interlocked with one another.
The units originally launched as the Bonny Grand Victim Assistance Society and served both communities throughout the 1990s. There were originally nine advocates covering the Cold Lake area and 13 in Bonnyville.
“They became a society in 1992 and then they hired their manager and started with advocates and operating in 1993,” detailed David Zimmerman, program manager for the Cold Lake VSU.
The groups officially became two separate entities in 1998.
There have been many changes for both units since their inception, but their main goal has always been to help victims of crime.
“In the aftermath of a crime, it’s very overwhelming for a person or a family or anyone that has witnessed the event,” expressed Zimmerman. “Our mission of the Cold Lake VSU, is to provide victims of crime with empathetic support, information, and referrals based on the victim’s needs.”
For Winstone, one major change she has seen during her time in Bonnyville was when the unit stopped driving clients to destinations.
“We would transport them to the shelter or if they needed to go somewhere. We don’t do that anymore, and it’s because of the safety of the advocates.”
Winstone was the driving force behind Bonnyville adding a four-legged member to their unit. Odie joined the team in 2014.
“He was the second victim services dog in Alberta, so that was a proud moment for our unit,” Winstone recalled. “He provided support for our victims in court, here in the detachment for our members, and staff. Then Romeo came in 2020. Now he’s taken on that role but Odie’s still around.”
Zimmerman and Winstone agreed the COVID-19 pandemic forced the units to pivot the way they assisted their clients.
“We had to really adjust the police business, as usual, responding to all emergencies and stuff like that,” Zimmerman recalled. “A good percentage of our interactions with clients were over the phone versus face-to-face.”
Winstone added, “Our victims still needed the services, they still needed information and different things. It became emails and our meetings became Zoom meetings and training became Zoom training.”
COVID-19 also prevented the units from going out into their respective communities and participating in events like they do most years.
Both of the units were kept busy with files during the pandemic. The Cold Lake VSU recorded 1,037 in 2020 and Bonnyville VSU had 824. Instances of family violence saw increases in both communities, with Bonnyville increasing by 30 to 289 last year and Cold Lake going up by 44 cases to 541.
St. Paul marks 26th year
The SPVS covers the St. Paul RCMP detachment area and has been doing so for 26 years.
Laramee noted one of the biggest changes she’s seen since being with the unit for nearly 10 years is how the local police officers have learned what they can offer to victims.
“When you work in a police detachment, it’s difficult for them to see the value in your services,” she noted. “Oftentimes, it’s convincing them of the things you can do because they often see us as the people that assist when they go out to do notifications of next of kin. So, if somebody has lost a loved one, it’s the police’s responsibility to notify the families of that loss and then we step in and stay with the family until they are able to manage on their own. For a long time, I think the police saw that as our major function, but it’s more than that.”
Supporting witnesses that have to go to court is one of their other roles, Laramee said, “because for many people the court process is intimidating.”
“If we can provide them with information and support them through that, then oftentimes you’ll see a higher success rate with prosecutions because if the witness doesn’t show up, the crown (prosecutors) hands are tied. They can’t proceed. I see that as a significant part of what we do.”
The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to the community outreach that the SPVS typically does in a year. According to Laramee, they still aren’t back to doing these programs just yet, but she hopes they will be in the future.
“We had to change a little bit of how we did business. Most of our contact with people has been over the phone, through email, texts, or other means of telecommunications. It’s worked. I don’t think it’s caused us significant challenges. We just had to think about doing things differently and making sure that we still adequately supported the clients that we connect with.”
Another challenge the SPVS saw during the COVID-19 pandemic was working from home when they could. Laramee noted that it wasn’t an ideal situation.
“It really creates challenges because our information that we have (at the office) is protected so we can’t take it home or we’re not supposed to. That would certainly compromise the integrity of what we do, if somebody ever had access to that when they shouldn’t.”
A decade strong in Elk Point
Elk Point and Area Victim Services (EPVS) marked its 10th anniversary July 21 as a registered society that was eligible to apply for a grant through the Victims of Crime Fund. That first milestone was reached after 16 years as part of SPVS, which covered both the St. Paul and Elk Point RCMP detachment areas, coming to Elk Point just one day a week.
In September 2010, EPVS program manager Guy Genereux set up a table at the Elk Point FCSS Information Night and generated enough interest to hold an introductory meeting the following month and an organizational meeting the month after that. Conlin, a lawyer, created the organization’s bylaws, paving the way for the group being approved as a society, and with its first grant approved in March 2012, the group hired its first program manager, Dawn Lavallee.
The new group had its own funding, but still continued its relationship with its St. Paul counterpart, with both groups having a representative of the other on their boards.
Ziomek, the only member of that first board still involved with EPVS, said she “never thought I’d still be with it 10 years later.”
The need for service has continued to grow over the decade, Ziomek says, and EPVS was successful in obtaining an Indigenous Victims Outreach Specialist (IVOS) in 2018, allowing the program to add a part-time position which regularly goes out to both Frog Lake First Nations and Fishing Lake Métis Settlement. When the Frog Lake First Nations RCMP and VSU satellite office opened last October, Victim Services became more accessible to victims in that area, who don’t always have a phone or phone service, or transportation to the Elk Point office.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, VSUs were declared essential services, and with a separate door to the EPVS office located in the RCMP detachment, “it allowed one VSU staff member to continue working from the office, while another worked from home, on a rotating schedule,” Ziomek says. “Most had to shut down, but we were fortunate to have that door and could come and go without coming in contact with the RCMP staff.”
However, she adds, the pandemic “changed the way VSUs did business. The restrictions put in place to protect people from illness interfered with victims receiving services. Doris Pindroch, our program manager, along with Sgt, Dave Henry, were able to come up with a car-to-porch technique that allows face-to-face contact, but at a safe distance, with appropriate PPE being worn.”
EPVS is having a very busy year, with 210 files so far in 2021, of which 165 are still open, according to Ziomek. “We’re one and a half months ahead of last year’s files at this point.”
With files from Vicki Brooker