Compassion and resilience are hallmarks of a good Victim Services Officer (VSO). The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has 36 of them across the country—employees who speak with victims and survivors of crime on a daily basis.
“VSOs are the point people, the liaison between victims and the Correctional Service of Canada,” said Ryan Quance, former VSO, and now Acting Senior Project Officer with the Victim Services Division at national headquarters. “VSOs give information to victims. They spend their day explaining to victims certain developments in the offender’s file, helping them understand what that information means, and helping them understand what their rights are as victims.”
Ryan Quance, Acting Senior Project Officer with the Victim Services Division
They do this by using a victim-centered approach, which systematically focuses on the needs and concerns of victims to ensure compassionate, trauma-informed delivery of services.
A victim, as defined under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR), is an individual who has suffered physical or emotional harm, property damage, or economic loss as the result of the commission or alleged commission of an offence.
Following the implementation of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) and until 2007, staff at institutions and parole offices provided information services to victims, in addition to their responsibilities of managing offenders. However, as the number of victims increased over time, a need was identified to have certain CSC positions exclusively dedicated to the provision of services to victims. In response to victim requests for an enhanced service delivery, CSC implemented the National Victim Services Program in 2007, with services delivered from each regional headquarters. Through their respective mandates under the CCRA, CSC and the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) have a shared responsibility for the delivery of information services to victims of federal offenders. Victims can register with either CSC or PBC to receive services from both.
Victims have the right to request information about the offender who harmed them throughout the offender’s sentence, which can include eligibility dates, different types of absences, transfers and releases, and the offender’s progress against their correctional plan. Victims can also receive information about CSC’s victim-offender mediation services and may be referred to other services, as needed.
Victims also have the right to participate in the federal corrections and conditional release process. One way this is fulfilled is through their right to submit and present a victim statement for consideration by CSC and the PBC before certain decisions are made in an offender’s case, such as parole, or when deciding what special conditions, if any, will be imposed on the offender’s release, such as no contact and/or geographic restrictions.
VSOs guide victims in navigating the correctional process. They are well versed in the CVBR, the CCRA, and the correctional system, and know what information they can provide to victims and under what circumstances. They maintain communication with the offender’s Case Management Team, as well as with colleagues at the PBC, in order to keep informed of developments in the offender’s file. They are responsible for registering victims who submit a request to receive information, preparing and documenting all communications with the victims, and managing victims’ submitted statements.
Mandi MIcks , Acting Regional Victim Services Manager
“Each VSO in our region carries a caseload of approximately 300 to 350 victims,” said Mandi Micks, Acting Regional Victim Services Manager for Ontario and Nunavut. “Our work is driven by offender movement and applications, so our days vary. VSOs may engage with five victims or 40 victims in a day, depending on what’s going on. Last month, our seven VSOs in the region completed over 1,000 notifications to registered victims.”
VSOs often work with the same victims for many years, speaking to some of them every week, so they get to know them, hearing about their families, life, and work. Each VSO has their own style and approach, and have learned trauma-informed ways of sharing information that makes it easy for victims to understand. Most importantly, VSOs offer compassion and understanding.
“I don't make assumptions. Sometimes we imagine that a victim is going to react a certain way and we worry about making certain calls, which results in heightened stress when they answer,” said Mélodie Fortin, VSO in the Quebec region. “My priority is to present them with all the information they are entitled to receive. We not only give them information, but also present them with options on how to participate in the decision-making process, and how or where to find answers to their questions. We also refer victims to other resources when needed.”
“Any information I share, even though it may be difficult for a victim to hear, will serve as a starting point for understanding,” Mélodie added. “I offer active listening. I let the person on the phone express themselves, even though sometimes the emotions expressed may be difficult (anger, sadness). It can be helpful for them to do so, and during my calls, this is allowed, accepted, and even encouraged.”
Mélodie Fortin, Victims Services Officer
One of the more difficult aspects of being a VSO is listening to victims talk about what they have endured, including details of the crime committed against them.
“We become an open ear to what they are living and going through. Victims share their own sense of injustice and powerlessness,” said Ryan, who has spoken with hundreds of victims over eight years as a VSO. “We are at risk of vicarious or secondary trauma, and being harmed ourselves by repeated exposure to their stories. It feels like you are almost living it through them. We get training on how to recognize trauma, and how to take care of ourselves.”
The strong comradery at work helps VSOs handle distressing conversations with victims. Each has firsthand experience of hearing the traumas that victims recount, and so easily relates to the conversations their colleagues have. They support each other, debriefing after a difficult phone call or talking about a challenging file.
“I work with a tight-knit group—seven of us. When we were all in the office prior to COVID, we would sense when someone was not on a good call. So, we always made sure we were there for them after they hung up,” said Peggy Brouillette, VSO for the Ontario region. “Even now, we call one another and say, ‘Wow, this was a tough one.’”
Mélodie agreed, “I am surrounded by a wonderful team. These extraordinary people allow me to confide in them and 'decompress' when needed.”
Work-life balance is key. Knowing how to unplug, turn off their computer and phone when the work day is over, and mentally limiting work to working hours is essential. Although VSOs have a natural resilience, they also need to surround themselves with a positive support system that includes family and friends.
The National Victim Services Program makes an important difference to victims’ lives. Peggy noted that she sees this in action.
Peggy Brouillette, Victims Services Officer
“We start this work relationship with a victim and over time see that things that used to upset them, no longer bother them as much. They have gained a better understanding of the information being shared or of the correctional process. That is rewarding when you know you’ve helped,” she said.
Victims often express their appreciation to VSOs for their work and share that it has had a positive impact on their lives. Ryan noted that 95 percent of people thank them for the service they provide and the kindness they show them. While CSC has a formal complaint mechanism for victims, we know that VSOs are doing a lot of the work to resolve issues, as evidenced by the very few formal complaints that are received despite the tens of thousands of contacts with victims every year.
CSC is grateful to VSOs for their dedication and compassion, and for helping victims through challenging times in their lives. We also recognize the outstanding role VSOs play in helping CSC uphold victims’ rights under the CVBR and its mandate of contributing to safer communities. We tip our hat to CSC’s VSOs during Victims and Survivors of Crime Week, while we also honour the courage and commitment of victims and survivors of crime and their families on a daily basis, and thank them for putting their trust in us.