How To Become a Victim Advocate

Victim advocate briefing client

After surviving a violent crime, victims must relive their trauma repeatedly to answer investigators’ questions and testify in court. They must also deal with the challenges of navigating the criminal justice system and applying for restitution. The journey through these obstacles can be eased by the work of dedicated victim advocates.

If you have a compassionate, empathetic nature, you might consider becoming a victim advocate and making it your life’s work to help others. If you are interested in learning what exactly a victim advocate is and how to become a victim advocate, you can learn key information about this profession from this detailed career guide.

What Does a Victim Advocate Do?

To understand exactly what a victim advocate does and why their work is so important, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of what victims must deal with in the wake of traumatic experiences.

Victims of violent crimes may or may not be hospitalized. If not, they may need assistance obtaining or coordinating medical care and ongoing therapy. Victims of domestic violence may also be dealing with the loss of their home; also, if they have children, the kids’ safety will be a matter of considerable concern.

In addition to medical needs and personal safety considerations, victims of violent crimes often feel overwhelmed when trying to navigate the criminal justice system. For instance, they may need assistance obtaining an order of protection and securing the services of an attorney. Some victims face job loss, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and significant stress when answering questions for investigators and in court.

Victim advocates provide an essential service by helping victims navigate the challenging processes of physical and socio-emotional recovery, as well as the logistical difficulties of getting their lives back on track. These professionals are jacks-of-all-trades, providing both emotional support and practical assistance. A victim advocate’s specific job responsibilities will vary depending on a particular victim’s needs but may include any of the following:

  • Providing emotional support and solace to crime victims and their families, often by meeting with victims at the hospital
  • Accompanying victims in meetings with law enforcement officials and ensuring that victims understand their legal rights
  • Creating a safety plan to ensure that a victim has safe accommodations and other necessities
  • Providing referrals to needed community resources ranging from transportation and emergency housing to emotional counseling and support groups
  • Educating victims about their rights and legal protections and helping them exercise their rights, such as by helping them file for an order of protection
  • Intervening with employers, landlords and creditors to prevent victims from suffering adverse consequences of crime-related health problems
  • Helping victims apply for financial restitution
  • Helping victims submit statements to the court and parole boards and attending court hearings with victims
  • Notifying victims when offenders have upcoming parole hearings, are being transferred to other correctional facilities or have been released from incarceration

Every victim has unique needs, and so an advocate must tailor their services to suit the client. For instance, if a victim is leaving an abusive spouse and the spouse had not allowed the victim to get a job or a driver’s license, the advocate could help the victim learn how to drive, apply for a license and search for gainful employment.

Domestic violence victims are just one type of client that these professionals often work with. Advocates typically work with victims of violent and serious crimes, including:

  • Attempted murder
  • Sexual assault
  • Battery
  • Hate crimes

Where Do Victim Advocates Work?

Victim advocates can work in a range of settings. They are frequently employed by police departments, prosecutors’ offices, criminal court systems and social services offices. Some of them are employed by hospitals or shelters, while others work for nonprofit organizations.

How To Become a Victim Advocate: An Overview

If you’ve decided that this career field appeals to you, then it’s time to take a look at how to become a victim advocate. If you’re still in high school, you can talk to your guidance counselor about taking courses that are relevant to your professional aspirations. Courses in psychology, sociology, criminal justice, communications and other social sciences will be helpful.

You will need to earn a bachelor’s degree to become a victim advocate. However, there is some flexibility in the particular type of bachelor’s degree you will need. For instance, you may choose a bachelor’s degree in social work, criminal justice, justice studies or psychology. During your time in college, it’s important to actively pursue relevant volunteer and internship positions, as employers prefer to hire job applicants with significant field experience.

You may or may not decide to pursue a graduate degree in social sciences. A master’s degree isn’t a strict requirement, although some employers do either prefer or require their victim advocates to possess one.

After graduating, you’ll need to consider whether to pursue a certification. Victim advocates aren’t uniformly required to obtain certification, although some employers may prefer to hire professionals who have one. Earning your certification generally requires the completion of a training program, which typically includes an exam.

When you’re ready to begin looking for work, you should be aware that many victim advocate positions are found in the public sector. If you plan to pursue these types of positions, you’ll need to go through the government hiring process. Regardless of whether you pursue a government or private sector job, you can expect to undergo a meticulous background check.

Earning an Undergraduate Social Work or Criminal Justice Degree

There isn’t a specific degree that all aspiring victim advocates must acquire. Rather, there are a few options in the human and social services field. Future victim advocates typically earn degrees in psychology, social work or criminal justice.

Any of these degrees would be a solid choice. However, you may wish to place a heavier emphasis on a degree related to counseling, such as social work, because this will give you a strong foundation for working with crime victims. For example, you could declare a major in social work and a minor in criminal justice, or perhaps a double major in both of these fields.

The curriculum for your degree will depend on the specific program you choose. If you decide to earn a criminal justice degree, you can expect to study topics such as:

  • Civil and criminal law, including penalties for liability
  • Criminology and victimology, including motivations for criminal behavior and issues pertaining to victims of crimes
  • Ethical principles and decision-making for professionals who serve the public
  • The identification and analysis of justice-related problems in communities

A social work degree may also consider social justice and crimes, but it will emphasize social services delivery, trauma-informed care and client case management. Some specific topics you may study include:

  • Methodologies for screening, assessing and treating traumatic stress and preventing compassion fatigue in professionals
  • Leadership and management styles in social services contexts
  • Fundamental skills to work with individuals and families
  • Case management skills, such as tracking and managing client caseloads
  • The professional values and ethical principles of social work professionals

Note that if you opt to major in social work instead of criminal justice, there is no need to choose a program that leads to licensure. Social workers do need to be licensed, but victim advocates do not.

While you’re working toward your degree, you can also bolster your resume to improve your chances of landing a job quickly after graduation. For instance, you might consider becoming a volunteer or an intern at a social services agency, a hospital or the National Sexual Assault Hotline operated by RAINN. Racking up internship and volunteer hours is a smart move for aspiring advocates; many employers won’t consider hiring new advocates who lack significant field experience from volunteer or internship positions.

Does a Victim Advocate Need a Graduate Degree?

There is no clear-cut answer here as it varies by employer. Although social workers do need a master’s degree to obtain a professional license, victim advocates do not need to be licensed and aren’t necessarily required to earn a graduate degree. However, some employers may prefer their victim advocates to have this qualification.

After graduating with your bachelor’s degree, you may decide to immediately enter the workforce. You can pursue an entry-level job in this field with a bachelor’s degree and plan to return to school later to earn your master’s and open the door to higher-level job opportunities. Or, you may decide to immediately enter graduate school before joining the workforce.

The benefit of going to graduate school first is that you’ll be qualified to pursue more attractive jobs much sooner in your professional life. However, if you do choose to land a job first and then earn your master’s degree, your employer may offer a tuition reimbursement program for your continued professional development.

As with your undergraduate degree, there is some flexibility in the type of graduate program you can choose. However, it may be best to choose a program that mirrors the focus of your undergraduate program. For instance, if you majored in social work, it’s best to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.

There is no need to earn a terminal degree in this field. The only exception is if you plan to return to academia as a professor of social sciences. A community college may hire instructors with only a master’s degree but four-year universities generally require a doctorate.

Do Aspiring Victim Advocates Need a License or Certification?

There are no national or state licensing or certification requirements for aspiring victim advocates. However, some states have established other requirements. For example, some jurisdictions may require advocates to undergo a certain number of on-the-job training hours within a certain period after being hired.

Although states don’t require certifications, some employers may either require a certification or prefer to hire advocates with this credential. There are several certification options to pursue. Some of the most well-known certification programs for victim advocates include:

  • NOVA Victim Assistance Academy
  • RAINN Online Hotline Training
  • The Center for Legal Studies—Victim Advocacy Certificate Course (online)
  • OVC—VAT Online Training
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline Training
  • Strand2 Squared 45-Hour Victim Advocacy Online Course

All of the above credentialing programs meet the requirements of the National Advocate Credentialing Program. Do note that you may need to periodically acquire continuing education training credits to maintain your credential.

Essential Qualities and Skills for Becoming a Victim Advocate

As you work through the process of becoming a victim advocate, you can actively nurture the qualities and skills that are important for this position. Victim advocates must be highly empathetic and compassionate. They should also be dedicated to practicing self-care to reduce the risk of compassion fatigue.

Other important skills and characteristics include:

  • The ability to think on your feet and brainstorm creative solutions
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Communication skills, including active listening
  • Organizational abilities

You can take the first step in your journey toward becoming a victim advocate by applying for enrollment in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University. Choose from a range of relevant degree programs, such as the Bachelor of Social Work or the Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies. Graduates will emerge with strong foundational competencies in social sciences that can be used to pursue a meaningful career spent in service to others.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.