For people who are the victims of crime, it can be difficult to know where to go for help and support, writes Louise Thomason in the latest of our profiles of voluntary organisations based at Lerwick’s Market House.
Everyone’s needs are different: some people need emotional support while others might need more practical help.
Victim Support Shetland (VSS) is on hand to offer free, independent and confidential support, in whatever way it is needed. It is the local branch of a national charity, which is the only organisation in the UK existing solely to support the victims of crime, and also offers completely confidential advice and assistance to witnesses.
Local officer Iain Souter, a retired police officer, explained that VSS can help folk during what can be an isolating experience, and act as a gateway to other organisations, with which they work quite closely, such as Women’s Aid and counselling services.
“[People] come to us and initially we listen. We let [them] talk. Especially in cases like domestic abuse, somebody might not have had the opportunity to speak for a very long time; sometimes decades,” Iain said.
“We let them talk, find their comfort zone. Sometimes it will be the first time a victim has spoken to a male for years. So it’s about building their confidence.”
Iain is assisted in his work by a female volunteer, Evelyn Drake, who is available upon request should a client rather speak to a female.
VSS used to get the details of every victim of crime that was reported to the police automatically, however now this is based on the victim’s consent, which Iain explained meant that sometimes people don’t get the help they need.
“The biggest problem we have at Victim Support is that a lot of people don’t know that we’re here, and those people who do hear about us think that we’re part of the courts, because you also have Victim Information and Advice, who are part of the Crown Office.”
VSS is a separate organisation entirely. Based at Market House, a convenient location in being in such close proximity to other helpful organisations, such as Shetland Rape Crisis, with whom VSS shares an office.
However if people wish to meet elsewhere that is also possible. Iain said: “It can be as formal or informal as [the client] chooses. Ideally if we’re going to talk about something confidential then Market House is perfect.”
The range of support VSS can provide for victims of crime is huge: from emotional support and someone to talk to, to helping with completing criminal injuries compensation claims or advising on how best to speak to different organisations and departments.
People can be victims of anti-social behavior and don’t need to have contacted the police.
Iain said: “It’s not necessary for people to have reported a crime to the police before they make contact with us – I have several clients who have never spoken to the police and in all likelihood never will.”
For example, victims of serious bullying and their parents can also reach out. “It’s about helping parents manage and understand what their rights are when dealing with the education department,” Iain said.
Which can be quite daunting, not because there is a block [in communication], but just that they don’t know what to do when they make the initial approach.”
The support is not only available to victims of crime, but to their families, too, who might need support in knowing how to communicate with their loved one, or with more practical issues.
Support for witnesses is broad ranging. Going to court can be a daunting process and folk can sometimes feel as though they are on trial.
Iain said: “We let them know early on about the court process – what’s going to happen in court, how you should address people. That it’s not like what you see on the telly!”
Court familiarisation visits are common: clients are taken up to the court, can stand in the witness box, have a look around and feel prepared. A witness can be accompanied to court if they wish, and have Iain on hand throughout the day to assist them or just be a friendly face.
The work being done by VSS is invaluable and can mean the difference between someone moving on with their life, or continuing to be affected by the crime.
However like many third sector organisations VSS relies on charitable funding. As a branch of Victim Support Scotland, VSS receives a range of national and local funds, some of which can be ringfenced to be spent locally.
There is however only one member of staff, and one volunteer, Mrs Drake, who Iain says is “worth her weight in gold”.
February is Victims Awareness Month, and VSS would like to appeal to anyone who might consider volunteering with them to get in touch.
“In Shetland people are so generous, and they will put their hands in their pockets without hesitation for a good cause, but when it comes to time, most people [who might volunteer] are already giving their time to several different institutions,” he said.
“In some people’s minds there’s also a fear… people don’t think they could do it, or wouldn’t want to meet folk that they know. It isn’t really supposed to happen but it has to, in small communities.”
Iain said that folk can provide as much or as little time as they choose, and that training is provided at Victim Support’s expense. “It is very rewarding, it’s a crucial job; there’s just nobody else doing it,” he said.
“[It’s about] building a relationship with someone who has been the victim of crime and helping them find their way back to some sort of normalcy in their life where they can – there’s no closure for victims of crime … they just have to learn to move on; but they can learn that and that’s what we try to help them to do.
“As long as people need us, we’re here.”
Victim Support Shetland can be reached on 01595 744524 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
More information is also available at Victim Support Scotland’s website at www.victimsupportsco.org.uk