Back in December, L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón announced the formation of the Crime Victims Advisory Board, a program that brings together nine volunteers who, during the course of their two-year term, will make recommendations on how the county can do better by crime victims. They are a diverse group whose collective work experience ranges from gang intervention to LGBTQ+ activism to support for immigrant communities. What they do have in common is that all of the members have been impacted by crime—and they’re looking at trauma-informed and healing-centered approaches to help survivors.
“You have a large number that don’t report crime. You have a large number who do not receive services,” says board member Enako Major, a social justice advocate whose son was murdered in 2011. “Right now, we’re looking at how to improve this system for survivors and staying focused on making trauma-informed resources and things that work.”
The CVAB isn’t just a new program in Los Angeles; there are only two other similar models in the United States. Here, the board functions as a collective. They meet at least once a month and representatives from the DA’s office and Victims Services attend the official, monthly session. Since the members are tapped into various communities across the county, their job is to listen to concerns and consider the ways that local services and policies can be mindful of them.
“We’re not making policy,” says Susan Hess, a social work professor at USC. “We’re just focused on what would be the most healing-centered, trauma-informed way that this policy is going to happen.”
And that’s an important distinction at a time when the DA’s office has faced vocal criticism for policy changes that some say don’t take into consideration crime victims and their families. On Wednesday, Covina joined several local cities in issuing a symbolic vote of no confidence in Gascón’s policies, which have included eliminating sentencing enhancements and a directive to not prosecute certain lower-level offenses.
“I think that there were some folks in the community who, when they heard that there was going to be this advisory board, thought that our function was going to be somehow to justify or support DA Gascón’s policies,” says Rebecca Weiker, a restorative justice advocate. “In fact, our mission is really to support survivors within the context of what is happening.”
Board member LaNaisha Edwards, an advocate for at-risk youth whose younger brother was murdered, says, “We come in with the mindset of staying specifically focused on what we can do to increase survivor and victim awareness.”
They’re essentially looking at how victims services can better reflect the needs of people who need them. “It’s a complicated, bureaucratic process that can be really weird when you’re in your trauma place,” says Lenora Claire, who’s become a vocal advocate for victims of stalking. “Let’s face it, if you’re at the D.A.’s office, something horrible has happened to you. This may be the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in your life. You’re going to need assistance when you navigate that, so that’s what victim services does.”
Part of that is letting people know what resources and services are available and how they can access them. Los Angeles County offers a variety of services for crime victims, while the California Victim Compensation Board may offer financial assistance for expenses related to the crime. However, not everyone knows the breadth of what’s available or how to reach out for this help. Several of the board members mentioned that they discovered services they didn’t know existed when they needed them. “There are a lot of services that I’m finding out are available to me,” says Victoria Gómez, a youth organizer and the cofounder of the nonprofit Pride in Truth. “I had no idea.”
For the CVAB, that means identifying the gaps that currently exist in the system. Do people know that they might be eligible for assistance regardless of immigration status? How accessible is support in languages other English? Is there misinformation that need to be addressed? “I know that’s the thing that I would experience when I would support immigrant victims,” says Patty Ramirez, a transnational social worker and founder of the Healing Justice Transformative Leadership Institute. “They were often unaware of the support services that were accessible to them.”
Also, how cooperative do victims need to be with law enforcement to gain access to services? “The average person that I know that is shot or shot at, they run. They duck for cover. They try to run in the opposite direction,” says Skipp Townsend, an interventionist with Los Angeles Gang Reduction Youth Development. “Law enforcement will ask them what did you see? For the split second, all they saw was gun fire, all they saw was that their life was in danger. When they don’t offer anything that law enforcement can use, they say they’re uncooperative. ”
In order to address all these issues, though, the CVAB will need to hear from other locals. To do that, they’re in the process of developing subcommittees that would focus on specific issues and communities, and planning a town hall meeting in the near future. Details for that meeting have yet to be finalized, but will be announced through the board’s social media channels.
As board member Sydney Rogers, a trans femme non-binary performance artist, says, “It’s time to create community again.”
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