Day in the Life of a Victim Advocate
“Do you remember when you gave me that first phone call after what happened to me?”
A victim recently asked this question to Natasha Willson, a Domestic Violence (DV) Victim Advocate in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The victim had just completed a very difficult and emotional trial after working with Natasha for several years leading up to it.
“I remember every word you said on that phone call, and it made such a difference in my life.” That experience encapsulates Natasha’s job — “the best job in the world” according to Natasha — which she considers to be an awesome privilege and responsibility.
There are two kinds of Domestic Violence Advocates in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office: individuals who support victims through domestic violence felony cases, like Natasha, and people who support victims in filing Civil Protection Orders, like Michelle “Chelle” Hunsinger de Enciso.
Civil Protection Order Advocates
“Everyday someone on our team calls the petitioners who are going to be on the court calendar the next day, goes over the proposed order with them, and gets their input. We let them know how the hearing is going to go and what it will look like. We even prep folks who didn’t initially come through our office, helping people brainstorm what kind of evidence might be out there, how they can get, and how we can get it in front of the court.” — Chelle
Civil Protection Orders are multifaceted and customizable, and the work of our Protection Order Advocates is the same. Whereas no contact orders can only protect the named victim, protection orders can protect minor children as well. They can restrain the respondent from causing physical harm, stalking or surveilling, contacting the petitioner in anyway, being present at certain places like your home, your kids’ school, your church and gym; and grant possession of essentials like a phone, ID, use of a vehicle, and pets.
The court typically grants orders quickly after filing, and once the protections are put in place the actions or behaviors that are prohibited then considered illegal on the part of the respondent. Law enforcement can then enforce violations of the order to ensure it is being followed. If the respondent commits any kind of assault while the protection order is in place it becomes an automatic felony.
“We don’t only help people fill out the paper work — we help them along the way as they try to navigate challenges throughout the process.” — Chelle
There are 5 advocates in our Kent office, and 5 in Seattle. Phone calls come in all day long, and after triaging those phone calls roughly 4–6 new people end up wanting to file each day. Since January, our office has registered more than 2,000 calls between Kent and Seattle.
One advocate is assigned to the phone — “advocate of the day” — and one person is assigned to call all the petitioners on the next day’s court calendar. Other advocates are “floating,” where you might look at intakes and see who is ready to go, checking in with people who have petitions that are nearly done to help folks get their protection orders across the finish line.
A lot of people have never filed a protection order before and they don’t even know where to start or the right protective order to meet their needs. The various types of orders are all based on different statutes and have different requirements. A lot of times people call us and say, “I want a restraining order,” so the first thing is teasing out what type of order they qualify for and if they qualify.
If the caller isn’t in the right place we try hard to send them to the right place. Advocates get told all the time, “I’ve called everywhere and you are the first person to answer and help me.”
A typical protection order involving children requires about seven different documents. The petitioner has to write out the story of abuse and meet legal standards under RCW 26.50 — proving to the court that it is more likely than not that the respondent has committed acts of DV (physical harm, bodily injury, assault, sex assault, stalking) or creating fear of imminent harm under the law.
The petition also has to include specific allegations — meaning a specific day, time, and act. So Chelle and her colleagues help petitioners think back to remember and identify a specific allegation they can include in their petition.
Four Protection Order Advocates in our office speak Spanish, including Chelle, and we also have interpreters available. We usually handle these conversations in two calls — the first is shorter to capture the demographic information which Chelle uses to fill out the paper work, and then the longer call is to really drill down that story, to make sure the victim presents an effective case to the court.
Domestic Violence Victim Advocates
Natasha has been in the office since 2016, and before that she was a Domestic Violence Legal Advocate at a community-based organization. Along with several of her colleagues, Natasha’s job is to support victims of DV crimes that are prosecuted in our DV unit. Every case that comes with a DV charge has victims. The DV relationship could be intimate partner violence or a familial relationship.
“Being an advocate is a multifaceted job to the point where it’s almost easier to explain what we don’t do. We don’t make decisions for people — we support them in their decisions.” — Natasha
The cornerstone of criminal advocacy is to help survivors of DV to have agency to make decisions while navigating a very complicated and confusing criminal justice system in a time of crisis. DV abusers strip survivors of that agency, they often coerce them into making decisions, and Natasha’s job is to support them in finding their voice again and building on their own strengths.
The job involves safety planning, crisis intervention, emotional support, connecting victims to resources including community agencies inside and outside King County where survivors and their children are supported in holistic manner. Many victims of DV crimes are deeply marginalized and are often financially dependent on their abusers; it is very important that they receive help and support so they don’t have rely on their abusers.
That’s why partnerships, like the one the PAO has through Project Safety — which provides pro bono civil legal aid to DV survivors — are so critical. We hope that it will help their safety in the long run. It’s really important to keep victims informed of their rights and keep reminding them of their rights throughout the process.
“I am also their voice in this office — to voice their wishes within our office, sometimes to disagree with prosecutors. The healthy tension between advocates and prosecutors is very beneficial for the process. The prosecutor represents the state; and my job is to be the victim’s voice.” — Natasha
Currently Natasha has almost 200 active cases — which is about 60–70% higher than pre-pandemic. During the pandemic, with DV crimes on the rise and trials suspended for a long time, it led to an extreme growth of caseloads. One week alone in April Natasha received 11 new cases.
The criminal justice system focuses so much on defendants’ rights, that often times victims’ rights are overlooked.
“I don’t like it when the state takes a paternalistic approach and makes decisions for people — it’s so important that we treat victims with the respect they deserve and that we provide equitable access to justice. We need to listen to victims, to hear what they want and what they need. Any decision in a criminal case has to take victims wishes into account — the ultimate decision may not exactly align with their wishes, or it may not even be possible, but they need to be heard.” — Natasha
This week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and we are highlighting stories of that lift up victims’ rights.