Kate Wallace reflects on how Victim Support Scotland has changed as the charity marks a milestone anniversary
The year is 1985: Margaret Thatcher is in power; TV detective series Taggart airs for the first time; Back to the Future is taking cinemas by storm; and Freddie Mercury performs at the Wembley stage for Live Aid.
Meanwhile in Coatbridge, a group of volunteers come together to form the ‘Scottish Association of Victim Support Schemes’, eventually going on to become Victim Support Scotland - a nationwide charity at the forefront of Scotland’s criminal justice system.
Our success is down to the sheer dedication and hard work of our employees and volunteers, with our ability to adapt services dependent on the needs of those affected by crime.
Changing crime and how we’ve adapted services
Research shows that reported crime levels have fallen dramatically in Scotland since 1985, with Glasgow transforming its reputation as the knife-crime capital of Europe, but this hides the true picture. While there has been an overall sustained decline in some serious and violent crimes, less serious offences have risen and remain relatively high.
However, sexual crime reports have risen by 136% in this period. There are many reasons for this increase, some related to the introduction of new legislation. With increased public awareness of sexual crime, and the prevalence of awareness campaigns such as #MeToo, there is a reassuring message here that people feel more confident to come forward and report sexual crimes.
We have seen major changes at a societal level: for example, greater public intolerance towards hate crime and increased support for minority groups; as well as significant advances in technology allowing offenders to commit crimes in new and opportunistic ways.
It has never been more critical for Victim Support Scotland to adapt services to support a greater number of victims in a changing Scotland. For example, we now offer support through digital channels, such as webchat and Facebook, often an invaluable lifeline to people in unsafe situations or facing other challenges where phone or face-to-face methods would provide a barrier to obtaining support.
Following a successful campaign by the Moira Fund, we established our Support for Families Bereaved by Crime service, the first service of its kind in Scotland, providing a nationally consistent, reliable service for all families affected by murder or culpable homicide.
We have developed in-depth training for our volunteers and employees increasing skills to provide bespoke support in the aftermath of a wide range of crimes.
History and milestones
Victim Support Scotland (VSS) has come far in 35 years. In 1996, a pilot programme of our service to support witnesses giving evidence in court began with funding from the Scottish Office. By the end of 2002, VSS had 13 such services supporting victims and witnesses going through the judicial system in Scotland. We have since expanded the service to all courts in Scotland, numbering over 40.
In 2004, we introduced our first dedicated anti-social behaviour service. Around the same time, the Victim Notification Scheme was introduced nationally allowing victims access to information about an offender’s release date for the first time. Aware that these updates could be triggering for some victims, we made sure our services were available for victims at any time, not just in the immediate aftermath of crime. This continues to be one of our overarching principles to this day – support whenever you need it, in a way that suits your needs.
In 2008, VSS officially launched the Victims’ Fund, which has provided a lifeline for some of Scotland’s most vulnerable victims over the years. From paying for funeral costs, supplying mobile phones, funding alarm systems and other practical items, we can respond to the needs of victims in some of the most harrowing of circumstances.
VSS has continued to make strides in recent years. Following my appointment as CEO in 2017, we hosted our first Hate Crime conference with Lord Bracadale, who led an important review of existing hate crime legislation which has in part influenced the current Hate Crime (Scotland) Bill going through parliament. We train Police Scotland probationers about the impact of crime on victims and the support services available. We also have a pivotal role in the Scottish Government’s Victims’ Taskforce as a lead of the Victim-Centred Approach workstream, overseeing an ambitious programme of systemic improvement that has already begun to shape the experiences of victims and witnesses.
In our first 35 years, we have supported hundreds of thousands of people affected by crime. In 2007 annual referrals into VSS services were over 100,000; and by 2015 this number had doubled to 200,000.
Back to the Future for VSS
The criminal justice system has a considerable way to go if it is to effectively address offending without sacrificing the needs of victims. Reporting a crime and going to court is still traumatic, with many people describing the trial experience as worse than the crime itself. Victim Support Scotland remains committed to championing the rights and needs of people affected by crime, and to working with our partners to put victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system.
Our dedication to the people we support continues too. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic we have expanded the reach of our National Helpline and webchat facility and, thanks to increased funding towards the Victims’ Fund, more victims than ever are receiving financial support in their hours of need.
2020 has undoubtedly been an incredibly challenging time. It seems ironic that Victim Support Scotland began life with volunteers providing support from their homes, and now in 2020, we are here once again, working from home.
Despite the challenges, the resilience and dedication of our volunteers and employees has provided a guiding light to many through all of this.
I am confident that we are in an even better position now to tackle whatever the next 35 years brings.
Kate Wallace is chief executive of Victim Support Scotland