International Issues in Victim Assistance
In 2000, the Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice, funded a position for a Victim Assistance Specialist within the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs Office of Overseas Citizens Services (CA/OCS). This position was designed to assist the State Department in establishing a comprehensive and streamlined approach to providing services and assistance to Americans who are victims of crime abroad. The following description of the pioneering work being engineered and implemented at the State Department under this new program was written by Jane Nady Sigmon, Victim Assistance Specialist, CA/OCS.
U.S. Department of State
The primary mission of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs Office of Overseas Citizens Services (CA/OCS) is to assist Americans residing, studying, or traveling abroad. Consular officers in embassies and consulates overseas provide a full range of emergency and nonemergency services. These include: replacing lost or stolen passports; assisting Americans to find medical assistance; providing loans for emergency medical and dietary assistance; assisting with the transfer of funds from family, friends, employer, or a bank; repatriating destitute Americans to the United States through the repatriation loan program; locating and contacting Americans abroad to convey an emergency message from home; visiting and monitoring the condition of Americans who are arrested and/or imprisoned; notifying the next of kin of the death of an American abroad, assisting as necessary in the local disposition of or the return of remains, and issuing a Report of Death; providing crisis management and assistance to Americans following terrorist incidents and aviation disasters; assisting in the evacuation of Americans due to a natural disaster or civil disturbance; and overseeing federal benefit payments to people living abroad.
Consular services have traditionally emphasized providing critical assistance to U.S. citizens abroad in a time of need. The most important service normally provided to an injured or victimized American is immediate assistance to facilitate emergency medical treatment and the person's speedy and safe return to the United States, followed by efforts to make clear to the foreign authorities that the United States is interested in the pursuit of justice by the foreign government.
Building on established methods of consular assistance, CA/OCS initiated a concerted effort to develop a broader approach to respond effectively to American victims of serious and/or violent crimes overseas. The Department of State employed its first victim assistance specialist in 2000 to provide expertise in the development of a new crime victim assistance program. In 2001 CA/OCS issued guidelines for assistance to victims of serious crime and established victim assistance training programs for consular officers in Washington, DC, and abroad.
OVERVIEW OF CONSULAR ASSISTANCE TO CRIME VICTIMS
Consular officers often coordinate with host government and local resources. While consular officers cannot investigate crimes or provide legal representation for victims, they can express the interest of the U.S. government in the expeditious and proper handling of the case by local authorities. Assisting American crime victims to obtain appropriate medical and other emergency services overseas is a key consular role.
Because of the vast geographic areas covered in many consular districts, it is not always possible for a consular officer to respond in person to assist a crime victim. In these cases consular officers may be in telephonic contact with the victim, other Americans close to the victim, local officials, and medical and other professionals to coordinate needed assistance.
To identify appropriate victim assistance resources and make referrals, consular officers overseas coordinate their activities with their counterparts in Washington and the victim assistance specialist in CA/OCS. The goal is to provide victims with information about specialized victim assistance programs near home in the United States, such as rape crisis programs and shelters for battered women, as well as referrals to crime victim compensation programs.
Many American victims want to report crimes to the police, but they do not speak the local language, do not know how or where to report a crime to law enforcement, and do not understand the local criminal justice process. Most countries have not established victim assistance programs to provide victims with written information about the criminal justice process or to contact victims to provide information about progress in the criminal investigation or prosecution. Further, many do not have resources to provide interpreter or translation services to assist victims in making police reports or in obtaining case information.
Consular officers attempt to assist victims with the criminal justice process in the country where the crime occurred, consistent with the demands of their other duties. They can help victims to understand how the criminal justice process works, and they can serve as a point of contact for progress in the criminal case and court proceedings in many countries. However, local law and practice in some countries may substantially impede access to information about a criminal case; and, in some instances, victims must hire a private attorney to obtain even basic case information. In other countries, it may be routine for a victim to hire an attorney to represent his/her interests in the criminal proceeding or to prosecute the case on the victim's behalf.
Consular officers can also assist American victims, when asked, if the victim returns to the country to testify in criminal court proceedings. The assistance provided may include helping the victim to obtain information about possible local government funds to pay the victim's expenses, identifying the victim's safety concerns and raising these with local authorities, and accompanying the victim to the trial, if possible.