The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 2, 2016

Three lessons for strengthening services for crime victims

In fiscal years 2015 and 2016, Congress released unprecedented levels of funding from the Victims of Crime Act Funds (VOCA) to support victim assistance and compensation programs nationwide. The fund, which consists of money collected from criminal fines from those who have committed individual and corporate federal offenses, supports local direct services for victims and provides compensation for losses incurred related to individual victimization. Disbursements from this fund for spending under the Victims of Crime Act tripled from $745 million in FY 2014 to $2.36 billion in FY 2015 and $2.65 billion in FY 2016.

Services that this fund supports—such as safety planning and crisis intervention, legal advocacy, and emotional support and counseling—have grown exponentially in the past 30 years. Nearly every city in the country now offers some type of assistance, and numerous victim resource centers are available by phone and online. Despite widespread availability, compared with other fields, we do not know much about what services are effective at helping victims.

The federal Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) has recently focused on narrowing the divide between research and practice to better understand what works best to help victims. OVC just completed a project called Bridging the Gap: Integrating Crime Victim Services Research and Practice, an effort led by the National Center for Victims of Crime in partnership with the Urban Institute and the Justice Research and Statistics Association.

As part of this multifaceted project, we conducted a survey of victim service providers to assess their familiarity with research and evaluation evidence; to discover what prevented them from using research in their day-to-day work, if that was the case; and to understand their experiences working with researchers to build the body of evidence in the field. Here’s what we learned.

Lesson for policymakers and funders

Resources are needed to support research-to-practice partnerships, including funding, time, and training. Over half of providers cited insufficient funding and training as barriers to using research at their organizations, and one-third cited having inadequate time to do so. Fourteen percent of providers had previously experienced unsuccessful partnerships with researchers, primarily because they did not receive funding to participate in the research. As one respondent summed up:

“A year ago, I attended a two-day event which brought together researchers and domestic violence practitioners around issues similar to this survey. It was a good idea, but essentially yielded nothing without further resources and support for continued cross-disciplinary collaborations.”

Given the current funding situation, many of these barriers ought to be surmountable.

Lesson for researchers

Collaboration and understanding among both parties are important for successful partnerships. Though less than half of providers (42 percent) had experienced a successful partnership with researchers, those practitioners credited two factors with that success.

First, successful collaboration happened when practitioners were partners in developing the research questions, methods, and reports. The second key to success was researchers taking the time to get to know the agency staff and truly understand their day-to-day work demands and service offerings.

The bottom line: to have a successful research and practice partnership, researchers should involve practitioners in decisionmaking around evaluation design and build realistic understandings of practitioners’ work.

Lesson for practitioners

Practitioners reported the best ways for them to learn about research and evaluation in the field were through interactive means: attending in-person conferences and trainings, as well as online webinars.

Practitioners should seek opportunities to interact with researchers and peers who are “in the know.” They should invite researchers to conferences and local meetings, and attend conferences or sessions where researchers are presenting. The more practitioners can expose themselves to the research in the field through interactive ways, the more helpful they may find this information to be.

Crime victim researchers and practitioners ultimately share the same goal: to improve the lives of those who are victimized by crime. But there remains a gap in the research evidence about what works best to help people in these situations. Though a movement to implement evidence-based services has started, researchers must also value input from practitioners and embrace their practice-based knowledge and experience. Until researchers and practitioners work more cohesively, the gap between victim services and research will continue to limit our nation’s response to crime victims.

Melissa, 18, a resident of Tracey's Place of Hope, a shelter for teenage females battling drug addiction, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, straightens up her room in the residence in Loomis, Calif., Thursday, July 23, 2015. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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