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Report: Untold Stories of California’s Crime Victims

Sonya Shah
Sonya Shah (Photo: Californians for Safety and Justice)

By Michael Collier

Some of California’s most vulnerable crime victims did not receive the healing they needed because they weren’t aware of trauma-recovery services or didn’t think they were getting adequate access, according to a new report by a Berkeley Law research center.

The report, released this week by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, highlights the gap that exists between service providers and victims, including those who were repeatedly victimized. It recommends that policy-makers support counseling, job, and housing services, particularly in communities that are most affected by violence.

Untold Stories of California Crime Victims uses new research and focus-group interviews with several crime victims in Los Angeles, San Joaquin, and Sacramento counties to give a voice to the injured, said report author Heather Warnken, a legal policy associate.

Many of the people interviewed were quoted anonymously in the report. Their stories give a sense of whether state and local policy is working “on the ground as it interacts with the realities of victims’ lived experiences,” Warnken wrote.

“We want to build an understanding of why so many crime victims are falling through the cracks,” she said.

New site offers help

UC Berkeley unveiled a web site this week that aims to help victims of sexual violence and harassment get immediate help and support.

The site includes information on where to go for prompt medical and emotional care on campus, how to report incidents, where to find legal help, and much more.

Several of the report’s recommendations, such as placing trauma counselors in schools, came directly from victims, Warnken said. The idea makes sense, she added, because children can be vulnerable to repeated trauma.

As a very young child, Sonya Shah was the victim of sexual assaults by a caretaker in the building where her family lived in New York. She didn’t recall her abuse until she went away to college, she said, and she didn’t seek help then because she felt shame and self-doubt.

Shah found a healing place at a New York hospital after college and received free therapy for a year. Two years later, she was the victim of rape. Now 40, she lives in the Bay Area and helps small groups of prisoners at San Quentin State Prison open up to their traumas.

“My experience has given me great capacity to sit with others who also have suffered,” Shah said.

Findings and recommendations

Berkeley Law researchers worked with Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit that commissioned the report. The organization seeks alternatives to incarceration for some crimes and lower-cost means of creating safe and healthy communities.

Last year, the nonprofit commissioned David Binder Research, a San Francisco polling firm, to conduct a survey of crime victims in the state. Five hundred of the 2,600 respondents said they had been victims of crime, and two-thirds of them said they had been victims more than once in the past five years.

Perhaps most startling, Warnken said, was that most crime victims surveyed said they did not know about most of the services available to them. Nearly half of those who used services said they found access to be difficult.

The report singles out San Francisco General Hospital’s Trauma Recovery Center as a model for communities to follow. The center, opened in 2001 as a project of UC San Francisco and the hospital, helps victims of sexual assault, violence at home, and other traumas.

More than three-quarters of the center’s clients have shown improved mental health and more than half are more likely to return to work, according to the Berkeley Law report. The model has expanded to Los Angeles County.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Many repeat victims are reluctant to report their cases because they don’t trust law enforcement;
  • Many of the victims interviewed in the focus groups said their relationships with first responders other than police were more positive than those with law enforcement;
  • People repeatedly traumatized by violence developed other problems over time, such as substance abuse.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Building trust with law enforcement officials and agencies in communities burdened by violence; 
  • Promoting access for crime victims to services that emphasize creative expression, movement and exercise, in addition to counseling.

Untold Stories adds to a groundbreaking study, led by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, of 17,000 adults who in the late 1990s recounted their trauma as children. The study associates childhood abuse with health issues in adult lives.