EPD's Victim Services Advocates Should Not Fall Victim to Evanston's Budget Crisis

Ariel Jackson and Kelli Nelson, EPD Victim Services Advocates

“Victim Service Advocates play an integral part of everything we do as detectives. I understand there is a budget crisis, but losing Ariel and Kelli is losing an entire unit that supports victims, families, and police officers. It would be devastating.” — Tosha Wilson, detective, EPD

If you’re lucky, you’ve probably never met Ariel Jackson and Kelli Nelson. But if you or a loved one have been the victim of a violent crime, a sudden death, a sexual assault, or domestic violence—or if you’re a police officer called to the scene—these two competent, qualified, kind, and dedicated women are your lifeline, providing emotional comfort and practical guidance to help you through the crisis while the police investigate and interview.

Come December 31, though, crime victims in Evanston could receive far less, if any, support during and following a sudden traumatic experience.

With Masters degrees in counseling and social work respectively, Jackson and Nelson are both long-time, full-time victim services advocates at the Evanston Police Department, in a bureau that is more than 40 years old.

They carry a heavy load of 50 to 100 cases each month. In addition to on-the-scene victim and police support, the advocates notify families of a death, respond to walk-ins at the station and many domestic disturbances, walk and talk victims through complex paperwork and processes, amend orders of protection, and attend or support victims in court until and during a trial.

But their positions—which comprise EPD's entire victim services unit—are headed for the chopping block if the City Council votes next Monday to eliminate their jobs, a move proposed by the City Manager to help close Evanston’s budget gap.

Instead, the City will hire a new full-time and three part-time employees for redefined (or maybe undefined) positions that will function separately from the EPD through a reorganized Human Services Division.

New employees will focus, according to a memo to City Council members from Director of Health and Human Services Director Evonda Thomas-Smith, on an integrated trauma-informed-care approach to public health in Evanston in general—an excellent goal that should be supported, but not at the expense of the two crisis workers.

Though the City Manager’s office claims victims services will be kept in tact, the memo doesn’t mention continuing the immediate trauma support and follow-through for crime victims or the crucial relationship between the advocates and police officers, which, say both victims and officers, vastly improve communication.

According to Jackson and Nelson, no-one has approached them to discuss how their caseloads will be transferred and managed once they leave next month, or who will attend the slate of court cases lined up early in January.

What About the Victims?

Though they were offered the option of leaving with pay through December when they received their notice in early October, both Jackson and Nelson chose to stay (a third victim advocate left).

“It wasn’t about my job,” says Nelson. “The first thing I asked was what will happen to the victims? The people we’ve worked with for years, who’ve come to rely on my calls with updates or just to check in?”

Jackson nods. She talks about an elderly couple whose daughter, blind and nonverbal, was sexually assaulted at the residential facility where she lives, and whom she frequently calls.

“It’s heart-wrenching because when I call them, the first thing they ask is whether there’s been a break in their case. But even if there’s no new information, I just call to let them know that I haven’t forgotten about them. Who will call them?”

The Skokie, Wilmette, and Glenview police departments all list social service units or social workers within their departments who provide crisis counseling and advocacy for crime victims. EPD Police Chief Richard Eddington says it will be tough losing two dedicated and talented long-term employees.

“It will be extremely difficult to duplicate the services they provide, especially with the reduction in hours,” Eddington says.

“With that said, the reality is that there’s a $6 million budget shortfall and cuts must come from somewhere. Is it going to be the same? No. Will there be fewer services? Yes. But we won’t ignore victims either. It’s a horrible situation where it’s what you want versus what you can afford.”

It’s unclear whether, in the new arrangement, victim advocates (if in fact any are hired) will be housed at the Civic Center or maintain an office at the EPD.

“My question is the logistics of it either way,” says Nelson. “You have confidentiality issues, pending cases, how are they going to share information out of the police department with another city entity? What will that look like? And how would they respond directly to a police call in a crisis?”

Cuts Seem Extreme

The women believe there are other ways to address the financial issue. “Just don’t axe the entire social service bureau,” says Nelson. “Limit the kinds of issues we’re called out for. Call the Red Cross for a fire or for overtime. That would save money. We’d take more furlough days, we’d make other sacrifices. Cutting us just seems so extreme.”

Jackson agrees.

“We provide a direct service. We recognize there’s a budget problem, but cutting us is a quick fix, not a smart one. And it’s not who Evanston is,” she says.

Though they serve residents of all races and socioeconomic levels, Jackson says that because certain types of crime are tied to poverty they work frequently with Evanston’s most vulnerable residents.

“I think people who are indifferent to this kind of service, who think we baby people too much, they don’t realize … we’re the type of service you don’t ever want to need. But down the line if you need us, you’ll realize how we benefit the community.”

"I Would Have Crawled into Bed."