Victim Advocates and what they do: saving lives behind the crime sceneSep 15, 2021 01:19PM ● By Erin Dixon
Carmen Contreras and her four volunteer victim advocates work for Midvale police and are available any day or night. (Photo courtesy Carmen Contreras)
By Erin Dixon | [email protected]
The body of a teenage girl on the ground, her brother in an ambulance, both surrounded by neighbors and police officers. Some are trying to get a look; some are looking for the shooter. These two kids have a family, a mother and siblings in shock. Within nine minutes of the police call, Carmen Contreras and her volunteers are at the family’s side.
Conteras is a full-time Victim Advocate with Midvale Unified Police Department. She has four volunteers, with two of them available, day or night.
Victim advocates show up whenever there is a victim of a crime, to be a calming presence and guide them through what is happening around them, get them financial help, and find a safe place or medical care. You do not need to speak English or be a legal citizen to qualify for help. If you need it, you get it.
“It may be child neglect, child abuse, child sexual abuse, domestic abuse, rape assault, shootings, or homicides,” Contreras said. “When we have a victim, we are willing and able to respond.”
After a traumatic event, victims are prevented from entering a crime scene, which may be their own home. Officers are making reports, taking statements, and coordinating searches if necessary.
“People get so aggravated; they think the officers don’t care. They do care because they call me,” Contreras said.
Back at the crime scene, Contreras and her volunteers are doing everything they can to help the police, and the victims.
“We helped with crowd control, to hold up the victims and not go and get the body,” Contreras said. The body was on the ground the whole night. I transported the mother [to the hospital]. The daughter died on scene; the son was transported. She gets this call now that he died too.
“We are trying to make it a little easier, even though I don’t know how easy it is. All night long, all day long we were with them helping them to find the resources to find money for the burial, for the ambulance.”
Norma Hood, a volunteer victim advocate, has worked with the city for years. Even if an officer is available to help a victim, they might be too intimidating.
“Sometimes. . . they don’t want to talk to that uniform,” Hood said. “There’s confusion. There can be the issue of alcohol or drugs and embarrassment. There’s pain. Sometimes it’s just the thing of somebody sitting on the same level.
“You're not an authority but you are there to provide resources. Sometimes they just want a hand to hold. Being willing to listen.”
Victims can deny the offer of assistance. But if they do want help, what can an advocate do?
“Sometimes victims think they don’t have a way to survive without the abuser. We show them there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel (offer services, medical help, shelters, protective orders, financial resources),” Contreras said.
With resources, “they are more willing to leave and more willing to cooperate with the charges,” Contreras said.
After an event or report, the advocates continue to guide victims. They will help people move out of state, help coordinate therapy sessions, walk victims through court processes and even go to the courtroom with them.
“Sometimes we have to hold their hands. We will explain the setting of the courtroom. [We explain], don’t make eye contact with the perpetrator, they will be there,” Contreras said.
Contreras continued to help the mother of the two teenagers who were fatally shot. “Weeks later I'm still dealing with this mother. [Utah Office for] Victims of Crime approved her and her family for counseling,” Contreras said.
While the family receives counseling, law enforcement continues to process the criminal charges. The mother calls Contreras frequently, thinking that no news is bad news. Contreras explains the process and that there are more than 50 pages of reports on her children’s case and that the process is moving forward.
“I’m talking about a period of two years before the sentencing,” Contreras said. “We keep it professional, but you form this bond because you are going to help them; explaining the court process, just knowing that we do care. We went with this family to the court hearing, we sat down with the family, holding hands, explaining to them. Once the perpetrator knew we were there, he pleaded guilty.”
The pandemic has not stopped the victim advocates’ work, though sometimes with distance for health and safety from the virus. “Especially now with the pandemic. . . the officers have been calling us over the phone,” Contreras said. “[But] if the officer sees we need to be there in person, we will go in person.”
Contreras and her volunteers are available any time, day or night. They can be reached in person at the Midvale Police Station, 7912 South Main Street, or by calling 801-743-7000.