“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.”
“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."
Evanston resident Jane Doe says that eliminating the victim services advocates is a big mistake, not just for the sake of the victim, but for public safety as well. A victim of domestic violence last year, Doe says she doesn’t know what she would have done if Kelli Nelson hadn’t shown up at the hospital soon after the police had taken her there.
“I would probably have just found my way home somehow and crawled into bed,” says Doe, who was beaten and badly bruised by her then-fiance.
“Kelli gave me emotional support, moral support, but she also explained things to me. She told me about Illinois Crime Victim Compensation that would pay my hospital bills, she showed me how to fill out forms. She did things for me that police officers just aren’t trained to do. They’re not there to care about the victim.”
With that, EPD detective Tosha Wilson agrees.
“The victim services advocates play an integral part in everything we do. When we have to notify a parent at 4 a.m. that their child has been killed, or a woman shows up at the station to report a sexual assault,” Wilson says. “They ask important questions we may miss during victim interviews. They console victims and families while we investigate. And they provide victims support beyond the time we can spend with them as police officers.”
Doe says Nelson stayed with her at the hospital for hours through ex-rays and tests and then drove her to the police station around 7 p.m., bought her food, and stayed with her past midnight until the State’s Attorney arrived to take her statement, the step that would allow her case against the offender to go to trial.
“The detectives told me that if I didn’t make an official statement to the State’s Attorney, the guy would get off on a misdemeanor,” Doe explains. “But with my statement, he would be charged with three felonies. I don’t think I would have made that statement if Kelli hadn’t been there. It was so overwhelming. I would have just gone home.”
Doe says that if the City doesn’t care about victims’ wellbeing, it should at least want to encourage them to make statements against an offender.
“He’s a dangerous guy,” Doe says. “I’m afraid of what he could do to me or to others if he’s out on the street, and without my statement the police wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”
Doe says that Nelson’s ongoing support—attending court dates on her behalf, keeping her updated, representing her in the system—is what keeps her moving toward the trial date.
“Victims need that support to go to trial in the end,” she says. “Kelli will make sure I show up. A lot of people say they don’t go to trial because they just want it to be over. And it's such a long process. They don’t want to go through the emotions again, to face the person in court. So they drop the case. But I feel like it’s my civic duty to protect others from him, and it’s a huge help that Kelli is there.”
I went to visit the victim advocates at the EPD earlier this week, and we talked more about their job and the kinds of cases they manage.
Nelson was hired in 2014. Jackson started working in EPD’s Youth Services bureau in 2001, moved over to victim services part-time and was then asked by an EPD commander to go full-time in April.
When I got there, Jackson had just returned to the station from a death investigation.
“Someone had called the station because her co-worker didn’t report to work yesterday and she couldn’t reach him today,” Jackson says.
“So police officers went to the home and found that he had died in his bed from diabetes complications. They called me because some of his co-workers were at the house and were pretty shaken up. So I went to offer assistance and help locate a family member, his brother, who lives in St. Louis. We typically make in-person death notifications, but because he lives out of town, I had to call.
The brother wasn’t expecting this kind of call and he wanted to know, you know, what happens now, what are the next steps? So I provided the information, where his brother’s body is, funeral information, transportation services, and to let me know when he comes into town so I can go with him to his brother’s home.”
Nelson told me that just the other day, an officer spotted an elderly woman roaming the streets with no shoes on. She didn’t know her name or where she lived, and she only spoke Chinese. “The officer called me and I connected her to a language line so we could figure out how to help her,” Nelson says.
“Any time there is an identifiable victim, mostly of violent crimes but of crimes in general, and sometimes mental health situations, we’re called in,” says Nelson.
Homicides and Trials
One of Nelson’s ongoing cases has been to support a family whose loved one was shot five years ago and whose case recently went to trial.
“I was there every day for the trial, provided comfort and support to the family, helped them understand the court process, and I’m still working with the family through the sentencing of the case. So they know you’re there for them,” she says. “I think that matters a lot to people in crisis.”
They also frequently work with police officers on sexual assault calls. “There are a lot more of those than I expected,” says Jackson.
In such instances, similar to Jane Doe’s case, they’re there to console and guide victims and serve as a bridge between the victim and police officers. They engage the victim, find out what they want to do. Does she want the perpetrator arrested? An order of protection? Counseling?
“I explain the process if she wants an investigation,” says Nelson. “I sit with the detective and the victim during the interview and rape kit, for the felony review process, the bond court date, and court dates from there on out to help the victim.”
Supporting Police Officers
The advocates also support victims and police by educating officers about symptoms of trauma; they may be less likely to understand how a crime victim can respond.
“Officers are there to investigate, and sometimes they can be so deep into the investigation they can’t ramp up the empathy or pay attention to a victims’ nonverbal queues,” says Jackson. “And that’s really not their role. They’re about the facts."
So the victim advocates explain the do’s and don’ts. “We’ll tell them, talk to a victim in a soft room, not an interrogation room,” says Nelson. “Be careful with the language and terminology you use, and your tone and inflection. You don’t want victims to shut down.”
Once, Nelson says, she worked with a woman whose husband had died suddenly in the store they owned. His wife asked Nelson over and over again what had happened.
“I had to get on my hands and knees so I could go right up to her, and I asked her...tell me what you hear me saying to you. She just couldn’t hear the news," says Nelson. "And then the detective told her really loudly that her husband was dead. I had to tell him, please don’t talk like that, she’s not deaf. She’s in shock. So it’s taking the time to talk to people, explain, be patient, understand they’re in crisis."
Sometimes Jackson and Nelson will tell an officer to go and sit in their car.
“Mostly they prefer that,” says Jackson. “They’ll say this is not what they’re trained for,” she says. “Sometimes we’ll arrive on the scene and they’ll tell us they haven’t said anything because they’ve been waiting for us to get there.”
Courage and Lovingkindness
I asked if either of the women ever thought they’d be doing this kind of work, and whether it had changed them.
“I think we all have gifts and talents. And I think that mine is hospitality,” Ariel says. “I think my inherent desire to make people feel okay, feel comforted, has allowed me to work in this field. I try to approach every situation with the most lovingkindness as I can.”
Once, says Jackson, she was called to the scene where a Northwestern student, in a freak accident, fell from a balcony and broke his neck (he lived).
“So I get there and his parents are there. His dad can’t speak. I’ll never forget that image,” says Jackson. “The student was lying there. He had gauze in his ears and it was completely bloody. And I look at his mother and ask what she needs. And she says she needs a chapel. So I grabbed her hand and we went. For me, I always want to know, what do you need? Whatever it takes to get you through the worst thing." Nelson says the job calls you to it.
“I don’t think just anybody can do it,” she says. “When I first started, no one told me about the dead bodies and all the different ways you see them in various kinds of death. And I had to figure out how to cope with it. I think of it as helping someone else. I know I can go home to my family, but the victims I’m working with are going to forever be affected by what’s happened. So you want to do whatever you can to make things easier for them. If it means building up my courage to help someone else, I can do that.”
Do you think the City should stand behind EPD’s Victim Services Advocates and the people they serve? Let your alderman know there has to be a different way to bridge the budget gap.
I’ll give Kelli Nelson and Ariel Jackson the last word:
“Our response to those with the least demonstrates who we are as a community,” Jackson says.
“The thing is, this program deserves to be saved,” says Nelson.