So much has changed since Dean Kilpatrick became an advocate for crime victims nearly 50 years ago.
Back then, the judicial system was alternately focused on prosecution and protecting the constitutional rights of accused criminals. Their victims had few legal rights, and little in the way of a support system.
“I remember a crime victim in Texas was once quoted as saying about the only right they had was the right to be present at the scene of the crime,” Kilpatrick says.
The indignity that sexual assault victims endured after their attacks led Kilpatrick to co-found People Against Rape in 1974. (Today it is Tri-County SPEAKS.)
People Against Rape was an early example of the societal awakening fueled by the civil rights movement, and the idea caught on. Soon, police departments began hiring victim advocates, and grassroots activists organized various groups focused on specific causes — Parents of Murdered Children and, in 1980, Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
These groups offered victims not only support, but a voice. A year later, just a month after he was the victim of an attempted assassination, President Ronald Reagan declared a national Crime Victims Week. It’s now called the National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and today marks its 40th anniversary.
In that time, Kilpatrick has become a leading expert in traumatic stress. He’s testified before Congress and been honored by presidents. He is now director of the Charleston-based National Mass Violence Victimization Resource Center.
The center’s mission is to improve the country’s ability to serve victims of mass violence through research and advocacy. Located in MUSC’s Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, it’s partially funded through the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime. Which didn’t exist when Kilpatrick started — and is needed now more than ever.
“We have a lot of reminders of how important this work is: Rock Hill, the insurrection at the Capitol, mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder,” he says.
Unfortunately, the center has no shortage of work these days. But those efforts that began in the 1970s help immeasurably. Nearly all the courts, solicitors’ offices and police departments have victim advocates on staff today.
Victims now have legal rights, too. When Dylann Roof appeared at a bond hearing after his arrest for murdering nine people at Emanuel AME Church, the families of his victims were allowed to speak. That wouldn’t have happened just a few decades ago.
Kilpatrick says the point of this National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is to remember victims and survivors. But this year, we also should recognize that their support system is under significant pressure.
The national president of MADD recently wrote that, in the past three years, federal grants from the Victims of Crime Act have been cut by nearly two-thirds. The funding source for nonprofits that help victims, and even their governmental counterparts, is drying up.
The national Crime Victims Fund — replenished by fines, forfeitures and seizures and matched by states and the federal government — hasn’t been this low in two decades. Some of that money is now diverted to the general fund, threatening the very existence of victims’ rights.
Kilpatrick says a bipartisan group of elected officials, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is trying to fix this. Perhaps they could use an assist. So call members of Congress, and let them know the VOCA Fix legislation deserves their attention.
There should be little controversy in that. As Kilpatrick notes, all the advances in victims’ rights over the years have been bipartisan.
“In the late 1980s and 1990s, polls showed 87% of South Carolina residents said they would support spending money to help victims,” Kilpatrick notes. “You can’t get that many people to agree it’s a sunny day.”
In 1996, South Carolina put the question to voters in a referendum, asking if the state should amend its constitution to guarantee crime victims’ rights. The proposal passed with 89% support. At a time when even public health policy is politicized, can you imagine anything garnering such unanimity?
Kilpatrick says that for all the advances we’ve made, he’s most surprised that there’s still so much to do. “You don’t realize how many people have been victims of crime, or relatives of people killed in homicides,” he says. “It affects you for the rest of your life.”
He’s absolutely right. These insane times constantly remind us that anyone can become a victim of crime at any moment.
Let’s not forget that, or them.