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New UCF Program Provides Help to Victims of Crime

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That's why attorney generals' offices hire victim advocates onto their staffs. These advocates are paid to help victims and their families navigate the legal system, help with referrals to services they may need and often to sit in court and hold a victim's hand.

"It takes a special kind of person and the right kind of training to be effective," said Mary Ann Eastep, an instructor at the University of Central Florida who leads the new Victims Advocate Program. She was the director of a domestic violence program that serves Brevard County and worked with many advocates in that capacity until she joined UCF in 1995.

"It's a tough job, but it is so very necessary. And it can be rewarding because you are helping people start to heal."

UCF approved a certificate program in Victim Advocacy late last year and has about 10 students enrolled in the program this semester. The students take several classes that help prepare them for working with victims of crime. Among the classes are Criminal Victimization in Society, Crisis Intervention, Sex Offenders and the Criminal Justice System, Women and Crime and Domestic Violence and the Criminal Justice System.

Students also participate in the CourtWatch Service Learning project. It puts students into real courtrooms to observe. They go through training with the CourtWatch group and volunteer 12-15 hours each while taking the courses at UCF.

Tracey Harrelson is a student in the new program and says anyone pursuing police work or legal studies should earn a certificate.

"It gives you a different perspective - the victim's take on things," Harrelson said. She hopes to become a criminal investigator and said she enrolled in the certificate program because she wanted to make sure she understood what happens to victims after a crime.

"I know I'll meet many victims," she said. "Police tend to focus on suspects, but I want to make sure I know how to work with victims to aid my investigations."

UCF's Victim Services Office employs three advocates who provide crisis counseling and emotional support along with other resources as needed.

The State of Florida recognizes the importance of victim advocates. It offers free victim services training for law enforcement personnel, state attorneys' office staff, private non-profit victim advocates and other professionals through the Florida Crime Prevention Training Institute. However, participants have to travel to various parts of the state from the Keys to the Panhandle to take the required eight-hour courses.

Stephanie Carter, a 2008 UCF graduate with degrees in Criminal Justice and Psychology, says the certificate is invaluable. She had completed the coursework just as the certificate became available. She credits it with helping her land a job once she graduated. She is a victim advocate with Victim Services Center of Montgomery County, Penn.

"This is exactly the job that I wanted," Carter said. "I spend most of my time dealing directly with victims, and feel that all that I learned in school is being put to good use. This is a job where I can actually see the good that I do for people and that is very rewarding."

She highly recommends the coursework for the certificate. "It will prepare you to understand where people are coming from and to anticipate what will be hard for them," she added.

Eastep says victim advocates are very important and proper training is vital.

"A good victim advocate can make all the difference in the world for someone trying to recover from a horrible experience," she said. "That's why we've created the program we have. It will serve our students well and those they will serve."

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