Victim Services Toronto members and those who work in the Victim Witness Assistance Program are invisible heroes, said Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders during the launch of Victims and Survivors of Crime Week at police headquarters on May 28.
The Justice Canada Policy Centre for Victim Issues celebration runs from May 27 to June 2.
“Working in the Homicide Unit, I have seen the great work that both sides do daily,” said Saunders. “When we have these types of ceremonies, we are making everyone aware of that great work that is being done and we are providing awards because people deserve that recognition at a higher level.”
During VSCW, professionals and volunteers, who help create a better experience for victims and survivors of crime through advocacy and delivery of effective and efficient services, are recognized.
This year’s award recipient is Crown Law Office counsel Jill Witkin.
“She was really an obvious choice,” said lawyer Robin Flumerfelt, who nominated her. “She is a leader in the Toronto Crown Attorneys Office and all of her work has, in one way or another, been victim focused and it continues to be that way.”
Sgt. Brian Smith of the Crime Prevention/Community Services Unit witnessed, first-hand, some of the great work Witkin has done at the Toronto Police College during the investigative training and sexual assault course he was part of for nearly eight years.
“The work she did with our officers, giving them the victims’ perspective, and some of the work she has done on the legal framework and helping officers understand, has been very useful,” he pointed out.
Patricia Wilson, the manager of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program in Toronto, joined Saunders and Inspector Dave Rydzik in making the presentation to Witkin.
“I have been in the program for the past 12 years and I think it is fair to say that Jill has been one of my mentors,” said Wilson. “She was there from the very first day I walked into the courtroom at Old City Hall.”
A deputy crown attorney at Old City Hall for six years, up until 2015, Witkin is the co-chair of the federal, provincial and territorial working group on Access to Justice for Adult Sexual Assault Victims.
“Public service is a gift. To me, it’s not just a job or career,” she said. “It’s a genuine and meaningful opportunity to help a community that we live in.”
Witkin, a crown attorney for 24 years, was involved in the development of the Child and Youth Advocacy Centre as well as the Integrated Domestic Violence Court.
“We all know that the job can be very challenging but, for those of us who work in the criminal justice system, I think we are fortunate to work with each other,” she added. “…When it comes to serving the victims in our community, I would like to think of all of us, as actors in a play or musicians in a symphony, each doing our respective roles so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The services that we provide to victims of crime are crucial. We have all seen victims enter the system, at their weakest and most desperate moments, hurt, confused, ashamed and in utter despair. That is how many victims come to us and it is up to us, collectively, to give them courage, hope and understanding.
“We cannot always guarantee justice, we cannot promise a conviction or a lengthy sentence. What we can give them is respect and validation when they do walk out of the courthouse. At the end of that journey, they are a little bit lighter, they feel empowered and they have a sense of closure.”
This year’s theme is “Transforming the Culture Together.”
“The theme recognizes that, throughout Canada, countless dedicated professionals and volunteers work to create policies and initiatives that help transform the culture of the criminal justice system by creating a better experience for victims and survivors of crime,” said Rydzik.
Victim Services Toronto, which provides crisis response, trauma and support to victims of crime and sudden tragic circumstances 24 hours daily, was represented at the launchby associate executive director Bobbie McMurrich.
“While our mandate doesn’t include providing assistance to victims in the criminal court, we work in partnership with all levels of the criminal justice system to facilitate access for our clients,” she said. “These partnerships play a meaningful role in increasing access by bridging communication, particularly for our vulnerable clients.”
Supervised by crisis counsellors, volunteers provide crisis intervention and referrals, assist on the telephone or attend the scene as requested and also aid with fundraising and other community outreach initiatives.
Last year, VST launched the city’s first trauma dog program.
Dandy, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever, provides support and comfort to the organization’s clients.