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Stakeholder interviews

Interviews were conducted with range of key stakeholders and a list of the agencies consulted is available at Appendix B.

Interviews with police

The following section summarises the views of interviewed members of ACT Policing thematically and highlights a number of issues that arose from the interviews.

Differing approaches to referral

Police officers were asked to describe the way they respond to victims of crime when attending an incident and the decision-making process they use to decide whether to refer a victim of crime to support services. They were asked to identify the type of referral mechanisms they employed and whether there were specific policies or guidelines in place when referring victims. Police members were also asked to comment on how successful they considered the referral process to be for victims. Finally, they were asked to identify strengths and weaknesses of the current system and to provide possible suggestions for change.

It became apparent during the course of the interview process that ACT police officers possessed significant discretion in deciding whether to refer a victim of crime to support services. In addition, it was apparent that there was a lack of consistency around who would be offered a referral, in what circumstances they would be offered a referral and how they would be referred. As a consequence of this lack of clarity about the referral process among police officers, victims of similar crimes may experience a variety of different responses. Furthermore, the offer of referral to victim support may be largely dependent on the degree of understanding of the referral process by the police officer attending their incident.

Who to refer?

The referral of victims of crime varied significantly between interviewees, with some indicating that they offered a SupportLink referral to all victims encountered and others indicating that they distributed the Are You a Victim of Crime? booklet to most victims encountered. Other interviewees described making a decision on whether to refer a victim based on the way they presented themselves at the time of offence; for example, whether they appeared distressed or vulnerable. In this way, the referral of victims of crime to SupportLink was largely dependent on a combination of both the behaviour of the victim and the attitudes of the responding police officer. Indeed, some interviewees described the process as ‘ad-hoc’.

Almost all of the interviewees indicated that referral was necessary for female victims of crime and they provided examples of attending crimes where victims were female. None of the interviewees provided an example where the victim of crime was male, which may suggest that police officers do not place the same degree of importance on referring male victims of crime as they do female victims. This appeared to be the case for all offence types.

Furthermore, some interviewees were not aware of the breadth of services available to victims and therefore might not refer certain victims of crime or victims of certain types of crime on this basis.

How to refer

The responses given indicated that some interviewees did not understand the various approaches available to them in responding to victims of crime. As noted above, some police members used SupportLink, others handed out the Are You a Victim of Crime? booklet and some used a combination of both in referring victims of crime. Concern arose where interviewees reported using SupportLink as their only method of referring victims of crime to support services. This is particularly problematic in cases where a victim declines the offer of a referral to SupportLink and is not provided with the booklet, but later changes their mind about wanting to access services.

It was noted by interviewees that some victims in need of support may not be identified as requiring a referral because they did not display types of behaviour that indicated their need for support at the time of the offence. Yet some only offered victims a SupportLink referral and did not leave them the Are You a Victim of Crime? booklet. Conversely, others reported handing out the booklet at almost every job they attended, however, this left the responsibility of approaching a service provider with the victim.

Guidelines

At the time the research was conducted, ACT Policing had two practical guidelines relevant to responding to victims of crime:

  • Practical Guide: Victim Liaison Officer; and
  • Practical Guide: Victims of Crime.

Although interviewees were specifically asked if there were any guidelines to assist them with the referral of victims to support services, no police member mentioned either of these guides.

The Practical Guide: Victims of Crime only briefly mentions the process of referral of victims from ACT Policing through to support services and this was is the context of what is expected of a VLO, not a case officer. Nowhere in the Practical Guide is it clear, except in the case of Family Violence, that police members had the capacity and/or the responsibility to offer victims referral to support agencies.

Police received training on the SupportLink tool but did not receive specific training on victim assessment and referral unless it was for family violence or sexual assault.

Strengths of the current system

Value of SupportLink

All interviewees felt the SupportLink service was a key strength of the victim referral process in the Australian Capital Territory. Police members described the system as being user-friendly and an effective tool. Responses indicated that interviewees were comfortable with the procedure and considered the service to be clear, simple and effective. In addition, it was indicated that the SupportLink team was able to arrange support such as counseling very quickly if required.

General strengths

When asked to describe strengths of the current system, most interviewees focused exclusively on the value of SupportLink. However, other strengths were highlighted and these are outlined below:

  • The ability of a police officer to offer victims support, whether it was accepted or not. Police reported that this assisted in building rapport with victims of crime, which is essential to investigations.
  • The Are You a Victims of Crime? booklet was reported to be a useful tool.
  • The VLOs, as a supplementary point of contact for some victims, were considered to be a strength of the referral process.
  • Interviewees felt the current referral process had fostered positive relationships with service providers in the sector, such as DVCS, CRCC and Victim Support ACT.

Weaknesses of the current system

Interviewees were also asked to consider if the current referral system had any weaknesses. It was noted that there appeared to be a number of services available to assist victims of serious crimes (eg sexual offences and serious assault) but there were few services available for crimes such as burglary or other property offences. Several police officers referred to a scheme in operation some years ago—the Community Liaison Advisory Safety Project—that was specifically designed for victims of burglary, but interviewees were generally unsure about whether it was still offered or what the service actually entailed.

No interviewee identified the program that was available for victims of burglary at the time of data collection—the Home Safety Program, sponsored by the ACT Government and NRMA Insurance. While only a small number of police officers were interviewed and this cannot be considered a representative sample, those who are not aware of the range of services available to victims are going to be less likely to offer such referrals.

Concerns were raised in relation to offence types where there was no firm guidance as to the referral process, with the example that victims of common assault (as opposed to sexual assault or assault covered by family violence legislation) might be overlooked. This was considered to be particularly relevant for victims who are under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault. These individuals are usually not offered support at the time of the offence, as they are intoxicated, but may require support after they sober up.

It was suggested by several interviewees that the current levels of feedback from victims on their experience with support services is inadequate. There does appear to be a mechanism within SupportLink for feedback to be given, however, not all of those interviewed seemed aware of its existence and those who were suggested it was rarely used.

Victims who do not receive referrals or access services

Most police officers interviewed indicated that they felt there were some victims in the community who police were in contact with and who might be in need of support, but who did not receive referrals. A number of reasons were presented for this, including:

  • A victim may not appear to be emotional or traumatised at the time when police are in attendance, which may result in a referral not being offered. Any victim who has a subsequent reaction to being a victim of crime would then have to seek out victim services themselves rather than being contacted directly by the service.
  • Police officers interviewed made the observation that an individual has to accept help—it cannot be forced on them. All interviewees had experienced situations where a victim was visibly upset but refused an offer of support. Reasons for refusal by victims varied, with some police members noting the person had a strong network of family or friends, had a previous negative encounter with a victim support service, or was simply adamant they did not want to be contacted by a support service.
  • The workload of case officers and VLOs was identified as an issue. One senior police officer made the point that victims of the most serious crimes were given priority, both by case officers and by VLOs.
  • Police officers interviewed suggested that services for victims of volume property offences such as burglary or car theft are limited. While it was acknowledged that many victims of these crimes simply want a police report for insurance matters, it seems likely there are victims of these crimes who are traumatised by their experience but have few services available to them.
  • Men are less likely to accept help than women, but are more likely to be the victim of crime. Police officers appeared less likely to discuss victims of crime as being male and it can be hypothesised that they are also less likely to be offered support services.

The use of Domestic Violence Crisis Services in family violence/domestic violence cases

Almost all police members interviewed were aware and able to describe the ACT Policing MoU with DVCS, which ensures all victims of family violence are offered the services of DVCS at the point of contact with the police. The majority of the feedback on DVCS provided by the police interviewees was positive.

Police officers interviewed did not generally comment on whether they believed DVCS had a positive impact on victims. In some interviews, it was indicated that there was a negative perception among police of the value of DVCS to victims and that some police saw mandatory referral as an obligation that they must fulfill, rather than seeing DVCS as making a significant difference to the victim. It was also felt by some interviewees that occasionally DVCS could get in the way of the criminal justice system by giving advice to victims, such as that they do not have to proceed with matters. However, notwithstanding these comments, interviewees felt the current system in place with DVCS was working well and they made no recommendations for changes to that system.

The role of Victim Liaison Officers within ACT Policing

The role of a VLO with ACT Policing is varied, but is mainly focused on assisting victims to provide victim impact statements, providing advice to both victims and case officers about victim-specific legislation and contacting victims on behalf of the case officer to offer support if, for example, they have refused the offer of SupportLink.

At the time of the research the role of the VLO, as specified in ACT Policing’s Practical Guide to VLOs, was to:

  1. support members in meeting their obligations to victims of crime;
  2. provide a supplementary contact point for victims of crime;
  3. provide supplementary support to victims of crime;
  4. promote initiatives aimed at developing best practice models to support victims of crime;
  5. provide policy advice about issues that affect victims of crime;
  6. maintain client records;
  7. comply with the AFP/DPP Protocol on Victim Support as to the treatment of victims of crime; and
  8. interact effectively with other agencies as necessary (ACT Policing personal communication 2012).

The staffing levels of VLOs were identified as an area of concern both by police officers generally and the VLOs themselves. VLOs indicated that they had a priority system in place to manage the high volume of work, yet it was also indicated that most case officers are not using VLOs to their full capacity. In fact, a recent policy change has mandated that VLOs in some work areas liaise with case officers in person to encourage the utilisation of the full range of services available. However, given the high volume of work that VLOs are managing, it is unlikely that they would be able to keep up with demand at current staffing levels if case officers were to take full advantage of the services provided.

Feedback gathered from VLOs indicated that they felt their roles were reactive rather than proactive and this was attributed to the limited availability of staff. VLOs were concerned that low staffing would mean that victims in need of services would not receive adequate assistance, or any assistance at all. Yet the VLOs interviewed indicated that those in the role of VLO were genuinely concerned with the welfare of victims and they provided victims of crime with the support and assistance they require.

It is clear that the role of the VLO within ACT Policing is a positive one that is highly valued by members of the service. However, the service that VLOs are able to provide is hampered by the current low levels of staffing. Since the research was conducted a new Practical Guide to Victims of Crime was developed and the role of VLOs was divided into two portfolios.

VLOs within Crime Prevention are responsible for providing support to patrol members while VLOs within Criminal Investigations are responsible for supporting victims of serious crime (ACT Policing personal communication September 2012).

Consent issues

All police officers interviewed were aware that victims were required to provide consent for their details to be passed onto a victim referral service. All interviewees were asked to discuss their reaction to a hypothetical change to legislation whereby it would become mandatory to refer all victims to victim support services, potentially without the victim’s consent. The level of detail given by police members in responding to this question differed greatly; however, almost all interviewees considered that the removal of the need to ask for consent before referring victims to a support service was negative and a potentially damaging position for the police. Interviewees indicated that consent was necessary as it ensured victims felt respected and that their right to privacy was maintained.

Issues specific to ACT criminal investigations

The Territory Investigations Group (TIG) within ACT Criminal Investigations is responsible for investigating serious crime in the Australian Capital Territory. Any sexual assault, death, or serious assault is immediately referred from the attending police officer to TIG. In this way, victims of crime referred to TIG are frequently those with the highest needs.

Although not within the scope of this report, it was noted that on occasion, some police officers in TIG had trouble complying with their obligations under the Victims of Crime Act 1994, which requires them to keep victims informed of police investigations at monthly intervals and to keep victims informed of the outcomes to any criminal proceedings. Interviewees indicated that the difficulty in meeting the requirements of the Act develops once the matter reaches court, where the case officer must rely on information from the DPP. Sometimes, they reported, it is the case that information is not passed on in a timely manner from the DPP to the case officer. For example, the case officer may not be informed of a bail application made by the alleged offender. In these circumstances, it is the case officer’s obligation under the legislation to keep the victim informed, a process that is reliant upon the timely exchange of information between the DPP and the police.

Broader issues

The value of victim support services to police

More broadly, it was identified by several interviewees that while there is a heavy burden placed on the police to refer the appropriate victims to the appropriate services, no formal feedback process exists. That is, police do not receive any systematic feedback from the victim on the level or quality of support provided by the victim support service. The point was made that the victim support sector needs to demonstrate to police how they add value to the business of policing. Some police officers interviewed saw the process of referral as an obligation rather than a process that helps the victim. In order for the victim referral process to have the most value, police need confidence that the agencies they refer victims to provide high quality service.

Victim support services and the criminal justice system

The question of whether victim support services could or should be considered part of the broader criminal justice system is an important one. Ultimately, the purpose of the criminal justice system is to bring those who break society’s laws to justice, that is, to prosecute crime. It is unclear whether victim support services might be able to play a more formal role in this process. In the United States, for example, the majority of victim and witness assistance programs operate within government agencies, with a close association to the criminal justice system (Roberts 1990). This is by contrast with independent, volunteer-run support programs.

One difficulty with this position was raised during interview. Namely, it was contended that if victim support services were to play a more formal role in the criminal justice system, they would not only have to advocate on behalf of the victim, but also on behalf of the criminal justice system. For example, to play a more formal role in the criminal justice process, it could be considered inappropriate for a victim service to recommend to a victim they do not proceed with giving evidence against the accused.

If victim support services were to play a more formal role in the criminal justice system, this would need to be considered in the context of the Victims of Crime Act 1994, which at the time the research was conducted, was under review. For example, the role of the case officer was described in some interviews as being primarily concerned with cultivating a close relationship with the victim, as this would increase the level of cooperation from the victim at the time of a trial. Under the Act, the case officer has a series of legislated obligations to the victim, such as sharing information about the progress of their case. By developing a close relationship, the case officer is able to monitor and regulate the flow of information to the victim. However, where an advocate is involved, the case officer may lose control of the information the victim receives. Therefore, a reasonable question for police to ask (which involves legal advice beyond the scope of this study) would be whether police obligations under the Victims of Crime Act 1994 would lessen if victim services became involved in the criminal justice process in a more formal way.

Conclusion

In summary, the interviews indicated that police were generally comfortable with the referral process. Key points derived from the interviews were:

  • With the exception of domestic violence/family violence matters and child protection matters, police reported having total discretion with regard to when and how to refer a victim to support services. It was clear that the likelihood of a victim being referred to support services was therefore largely dependent on the police member attending the incident.
  • At the time of data collection, ACT Policing did not have a specific manual or guideline to assist police with decision making in the victim referral process.
  • Police officers interviewed requested that they be provided with additional information regarding the range of services available for victims of crime and the positive outcomes achieved by these services.
  • VLOs play an important role in ACT Policing, but the number of VLOs were reported to be insufficient to meet the demand for their services.
  • Officers from ACT Policing were firm in their views that the process of requiring the victim’s consent prior to referring to support services should remain unchanged.

Interviews with government and non-government agency stakeholders (non-police)

As discussed earlier, interviews were conducted with a range of stakeholders, including representatives from the larger victim support agencies and government agencies involved in the referral system (see Appendix B for list of agencies interviewed).

Strengths of the current system

Most agencies appeared happy with the current process of victim referral. As the Australian Capital Territory is a small jurisdiction, close contact can be maintained between service providers, the police, other relevant government agencies and the court system. While there may be room for improvement, it would appear that the Australian Capital Territory is a national leader in terms of having a supportive police service and integrated IT system supporting referrals of victims from police to victim services.

Stakeholders interviewed were asked to identify strengths of the current system and these are summarised below.

SupportLink

SupportLink is contracted by ACT Policing to deliver an electronic referral (e-referral) framework and coordination services for victims who require additional support, as referred by police. SupportLink was identified as a strength of the current referral process by several agencies. Interviews conducted with both ACT Policing and service agencies indicated that the SupportLink model of ‘e-referral’ system was operating well.

Overall, the SupportLink system appeared to be working very effectively in the Australian Capital Territory. Discussions with some other Australian jurisdictions indicated that difficulties often arose in relation to multifaceted and multi-agency support networks, where it can often be difficult to provide a coordinated service. It was considered that one of the strengths of the ACT victim referral system is the ‘one desk’ approach, whereby a single agency manages the referral process from police through to support services. It was further identified that some jurisdictions rely solely on police giving victims a phone number they can contact, whereas other systems are paper-based.

Support available to victims of sexual assault

Interviews with stakeholders indicated that a high level of support was being provided to victims of sexual assault in the Australian Capital Territory. The CRCC received referrals from a range of sources including self-referrals, community organisation referrals, the DPP, government agencies, SupportLink and general duties police officers (both through SupportLink and through other mechanisms). In addition to a focus on female victims of sexual assault, the CRCC operates Service Assisting Male Survivors of Sexual Assault. This service has been in operation for 11 years and provides assistance to male survivors of sexual assault, as well as their partners, family and friends. The service also operates the Nguru program, which provides culturally appropriate services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients.

Interviews highlighted a close and effective working relationship between ACT Policing and CRCC. Protocols have been established between ACT Policing and CRCC, which were seen to be particularly useful. The top-down directive from police to refer victims to CRCC appeared to be working effectively. A protocol arrangement between the Sexual and Child Abuse Team at ACT Policing and CRCC means that CRCC is contacted by police when they come into contact with a suspected victim of rape or sexual assault. CRCC staff (often a counsellor) then attend the police station in order to provide immediate assistance and support to the victim.

The interviews drew attention to the importance of the ‘wrap-around’ service delivery approach provided to victims by police, Forensic and Medical Sexual Assault Care and CRCC, with the three agencies convening at the victim’s location and providing collaborative support. This was reported to function well as victims were provided with multiple points of contact. In addition, the CRCC was holding monthly meetings with the police and Victim Support ACT, where they determined whether victims of sexual offences were receiving appropriate support. As part of this process, all victims discussed in the meeting had to give their consent for their names to be raised. Therefore, contact did not just occur at the initial event, but at subsequent meetings involving key agencies who were part of the referral and service delivery. This ensured systems were in place to make sure the victim received appropriate support.

Support available to victims of family violence

DVCS have an MoU in place with ACT Policing that stipulates that victims of family violence must be offered the services of DVCS by the attending general duties police officer. Interviews with stakeholders suggested that this process has improved the outcomes for victims of family violence.

In addition to the MoU, DVCS and ACT Policing introduced the Family Violence Incident Review (FVIR) in February 2009 to address the issue of cases not being identified as family violence early in the process. At FVIR meetings, the family violence Sergeant and the DVCS Case Coordinator review all family violence incidents police attended, in order to determine whether DVCS were contacted and if they were not contacted, examine the reasons for this. In the event that contact was not initially made between a victim and DVCS, based upon a review of the case information, DVCS may decide to contact the victim directly to ascertain whether they require support. In general, if the individual is already known to DVCS, they will follow up the matter, but if the individual is not known, follow up does not always occur. Stakeholders interviewed indicated that the FVIR had a positive impact as it increased the levels of police accountability and ensured police adhere to the protocols agreed upon by the two agencies.

Weaknesses of the current system

Support for victims of specific offence types

With the assistance of a number of powerful victims’ advocates, the family violence and sexual assault interventions in the Australian Capital Territory have undergone significant transformation. Family violence and sexual assault legislative reforms have contributed to the professionalisation of the victim support network. Ideally, these positive transformations should be used as leverage to improve the provision of service to victims of other types of crime.

While it is clear that victims of sexual assault, family violence, and the friends and families of homicide victims are provided with a comprehensive support network in the Australian Capital Territory, it was identified by more than one agency, as well as by police, that support services for other victims of crime may not be as extensive. In particular, victims of the following crimes were mentioned by one or more of the agencies interviewed as potentially being overlooked by the current support systems:

  • aggravated robbery;
  • burglary;
  • non-family violence related stalking and victims of cyber/text stalking; and
  • families of victims of road fatalities.

Interestingly, police advised that support services like SupportLink are involved with assisting families of victims of road fatalities at the earliest opportunity, often attending when the police inform the family members of the death.

Reliance on police for victim referral

It is acknowledged that many crimes do not get reported to police. Even if all victims of crime in the Australian Capital Territory who reported to police were offered a referral to victim services (and interviews conducted with stakeholders, including police, demonstrated they are not), given that significant numbers of crime are not reported, there is potentially a large group of victims who are not aware of victim services. It is important that the ACT community is aware of the support available to victims, even if they don’t report their crime to police. Although beyond the scope of this project (therefore, no formal recommendation will be made), it is considered important that Victim Support ACT review its advertising campaign with a view to ensuring victims of crime who do not report to police are aware of government-funded services available to members of the ACT community.

Specific issues

Crossover between Witness Assistants, VLOs and DVCS/CRCC counsellors

Examination of the system of victim service provision in the Australian Capital Territory suggested a need for a more streamlined process to avoid any overlap between Witness Assistants, VLOs and counsellors or other support staff provided by victim services. Several agencies observed that it was not always clear who was providing the support to the victim (where support was being provided) and what exactly the support involved.

DPP Witness Assistants are able to provide support to vulnerable victims who are involved in criminal proceedings. This service is designed to help victims with the court process and to ensure that they receive the support and services that they need. The primary focus of a Witness Assistant is to support vulnerable victims such as children, aged persons, people with disabilities or illness, families of deceased persons, victims of sexual offences and significantly traumatised people to give evidence in criminal proceedings. Family violence victims are also assisted if they are reluctant to participate as witnesses in criminal proceedings. The role of the Witness Assistant is to:

  • assist witnesses both prior to and during court process;
  • liaise with prosecutors and outside agencies;
  • assist witnesses/victims to prepare Victim Impact Statements; and
  • train police officers/court staff/advocacy groups.

It can be seen that there is potential overlap between the roles of the VLOs and Witness Assistants, as well as the role of a professional counselor in the criminal justice process.

It was suggested that there should be a process to develop a system where the victim nominates the case coordinator or staff that they would prefer to be involved with—the CRCC or DVCS counselor, Victim Support ACT caseworker, Witness Assistant, or VLO. Providing the agencies are able to collaborate and communicate, this would ensure that the level of support provided to victims is appropriate and would prevent potential for overlap between various agencies involved.

Improvement of information exchange between agencies

A number of agencies cited that a more efficient information exchange between agencies would improve the outcomes for victims. Several examples of this were given that broadly fall into two categories—first, improvements in the communication between police and service agencies, and second, better communication between agencies involved with the same victim. It was acknowledged that this occurs best for family violence and sexual assault cases where a case-tracking model is in use.

There were few suggestions provided by stakeholders as to how improving information exchange might occur or exactly what information needed to be exchanged. It was a clear view that case tracking is highly resource intensive and as a result, should only be used for the most serious cases. Yet it was also clear that an improvement of information flow between agencies is needed. Therefore, it is recommended that victim support agencies, the DPP and ACT Policing conduct regular meetings to discuss (and monitor) the particular information that should be exchanged and the various ways to facilitate this exchange in the least resource-intensive manner.

Another associated issue that was raised by stakeholders relates to the need for agencies to provide a ‘seamless’ service for clients. Where multiple agencies are involved in providing support to a victim, having to recount their experience to each of the agencies can be traumatic. Furthermore, it is important that the public and other support agencies understand the role that each agency plays in providing support.

Decision making relating to agencies selected for referral

It is important to note that during interviews, one community-based victim support agency expressed concern relating to the decision making surrounding which agencies receive referrals through Supportlink. Feedback provided by the agency indicated that at the time they were interviewed, they were unhappy with the process for referral of victims from ACT Policing to victim support systems.

This suggests a need for clarity around the referral process and in particular, how agencies are selected as the most appropriate service to which a victim should be referred.

Clients of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds

There appeared to be some discrepancies between agencies as to their view of whether victims of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds were being appropriately supported in the Australian Capital Territory. One agency specifically noted that the referral of CALD clients appeared to be working very well, whereas another agency commented they received very few CALD referrals.

The differing views between agencies means it is difficult to make a recommendation about the referral process for this particular group. Further assessment and/or research should be conducted on this issue, with the participation of Victim Support ACT.

Conclusion

From the interviews conducted with stakeholders, nine key issues were identified as requiring further attention. These are summarised below:

  • There was a lack of consistency surrounding how police communicate information to victims of crime.
  • There were no ACT Policing guidelines outlining when it is appropriate to offer a referral to victim support services.
  • Men were more likely to be a victim of crime than women, however, they were less likely to seek help and possibly be offered help.
  • VLOs have limited resources and this impacted the work they were able to undertake.
  • The feedback mechanisms from victim support services in the Australian Capital Territory to ACT Policing were weak.
  • The needs of victims of robbery, burglary, non-family violence stalking and cyber-crimes, and families of victims of road fatalities were not well understood and their needs may not be met by the existing victim support services.
  • There was sometimes confusion about which agency was the case coordinator in the cases of victims of serious crime.
  • Information exchange between the DPP, victim support agencies and ACT Policing was identified as being a weakness that should be explored further.
  • There was a lack of understanding at the community level about the services that each agency could provide.

A more detailed analysis of these issues is presented in the following section.