Study* Investigates Civil Legal Needs of Crime Victims

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Legal Services

A study by Leana Bouffard and colleagues investigated the legal service needs of crime victims.

Only two-thirds of victim service providers are trained to identify the civil legal needs of their clients, and there is little consistency or structure in referrals to outside agencies, researchers found.

In a study of 80 victim and legal service agencies in Texas, researchers found that social service agencies frequently provide legal assistance on issues related to the criminal justice system, such as counseling, victim-witness programs, shelters, hotlines, and crisis centers, but rarely address related civil issues for victims.

“Civil legal services are an essential, yet often overlooked, support component addressing common procedural and representational needs, such as divorce proceedings, restraining and protective orders, and child custody for crime victims,” said Leana Bouffard, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University.”Victims may turn to legal services to obtain measures of safety.”

The most common services provided to crime victims by legal and victim service providers centered on legally defined victim’s rights, such as assistance with victim impact statements, restitution and property return, and compensation. Other services were offered less frequently for many related issues, such as divorce, custody, child support, and housing, which were available only from legal service providers.

In cases of domestic violence, separation, divorce and custody proceedings are important for securing safety for victims because they establish appropriate contact and parenting guidelines. Crime victims also may experience homelessness or housing instability due to their victimization and may have difficulty in securing or maintaining employment or economic self-sufficiency. They may also encounter immigration issues.

To help connect crime victims with civil legal services, it is important for victim service providers to recognize the needs and identify agencies able to take referral.
“In looking at the perceptions of the most important barriers to victims receiving needed legal services, lack of coordination and communication may play a large role in the reason that victims are not aware of the availability of services to meet their needs or do not understand how to access those services,” said Bouffard.

Although many service providers in the study expressed frustration with the ability to meet the needs of crime victims, they also offered recommendations on how to improve the system. Among those identified in the study were:

  • Provide better methods for inter-agency communications
  • Develop an assessment tool to identify victim needs and eligibility requirements
  • Create a one-stop agency for victims by consolidating services under one umbrella, such as the Family Justice Center Justice Model

In response to these recommendations, the Office for Victims of Crime tapped Lone Star Legal Aid and its partners to create the Texas Crime Victim Legal Assistance Network. This Network has increased communication between service providers and helped coordinate services to provide survivors of crime with the full range of civil legal services they need to recover from victimization. To learn more about the Network visit www.texasvictimnetwork.org.

“Service Providers’ Knowledge and Perceptions of the Legal Service Needs of Crime Victims,” by Bouffard, Matt Nobles, Amanda Goodson, Kadee Brinser, Maria Koeppel, Minor P. Marchbanks and Nandita Chaudhuri, was published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.

*This study and the Texas Crime Victim Legal Assistance Network project is supported by Grant No. 2012-VF-GX-K019, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.


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