Social Justice for "Victims"?

Social Justice for "Victims"? Challenging the Label and Widening the Lens

By Alana M. Abramson

June, 2009


Headlines like "Father murdered: Innocent man killed" (Vancouver 24 Hour, May 19, 2009) are hard to ignore. Chris Whitmee was shot and killed at a bar in Cloverdale along with another man who was critically wounded. The injured man is suspected to be the target in this gang-related shooting and we know little about him. Most news coverage related to this case concerns Whitmee as the innocent bystander caught in the cross-fire and his nine year old daughter left behind. While this young girl reels from the loss of her father, a child of almost the same age loses her life in another province. The disbelief and devastation over the abduction and murder of Tori Stafford in Ontario has been felt across the country. Quotations and images related to cases like these scream at us from newspaper boxes and play a dramatic leading role on televised news. We struggle to make sense of these cases that seem so senseless. When we hear of other citizens tragically losing their lives we pause to consider what it means to be a victim in Canadian society and in the eyes of our criminal justice system.

What is the connection between this issue and the law and social justice?

While the Canadian criminal justice system is busy dealing with offenders, asking questions of legal guilt and then applying punishments, victims stand on the sidelines. Although today there are more services for victims since the victims' rights movement began several decades ago, change is slow. The majority of the national $11 billion dollar criminal justice budget goes towards identifying, apprehending, prosecuting and "correcting" (through probation, community or custodial sentences) offenders, not to directly serve victims. In fact, what services do exist for victims are often the first to be cut in times of financial strain. For example, in 2002 Crown victims' services was cut in BC, leaving victims to testify and attend court alone and often feeling confused and overwhelmed by the process.

The harm suffered by victims is typically made worse when they have to interact with the justice system, especially if they are left to navigate it alone. Family members, in helping the victim, also become embroiled in the system and may feel victimized. The harm felt by victims in dealing with the criminal justice system is called "secondary victimization." Perhaps the most common place this occurs is in the courtroom where family members and others close to the primary victim might be asked to take the stand or offer victim impact statements. Although considered a victim by police and the community, for the purposes of criminal court these same individuals are considered "witnesses." In the Canadian criminal justice system, the role of the witness in court is to help the prosecution prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused person is guilty of the crime with which he or she has been charged. This means that the victim turned witness is often subject to ruthless interrogation on the stand where his or her memory, experience and credibility is called into question. Often this switch from being called "victim" to "witness" makes them feel like their role is minimized and they may feel "used" by the process and discarded once their testimony is given.

Given the low level of satisfaction reported by victims when dealing with the system and the risk of secondary victimization (Strang, 2002), it is baffling that important programs like court-based victims' services are not present in all communities. People who work in these programs provide support in court and well as information about the process and other helping resources to deal with loss and trauma. They provide an important link between the complex legal system and those most affected by crime. It is troubling to know that victims we read about in the news may not have this or other similar support. This may be the case with Tori Stafford's mother who recently reported knowing (albeit peripherally) the woman responsible for her daughter's abduction. Tara McDonald, while grieving the loss of her daughter, Tori, will now have to worry about the time-consuming and painful process of court, along with the anticipated media frenzy that surrounds this case.

The labeling of victims as witnesses in court is not the only source of pain for victims of crime. Sometimes the way professionals, the media and the community respond to "victims", can also be a source of discomfort for those affected by crime. This powerful label of "victim" may be assigned to people, often without their consent, and may put them into a category that they might not want to be in. Rock (2002), writing on this topic, notes that the word "victim" is "not necessarily considered an appealing term" and it can convey "stigmatized meanings of weakness, loss and pain" (14). It also carries powerful stereotypes and can create a situation where if a "victim" does not act accordingly, the person's integrity can be called into question. A striking example of this was the response to Tori Stafford's mother, who was under suspicion for possibly playing a role in her daughter's disappearance. Until others were arrested, she was not awarded the "victim" label, likely due to the fact she did not act the way society felt a "true victim" was expected to respond. In a recent Edmonton Sun news article, one reporter asked whether Ms. McDonald was owed an apology for the harsh judgment she was given by the media and the community for "never react[ing] the way we expected a worried mom would -- there were never enough tears to satisfy the TV lens I watched her through." Further he states, "There were all those disquieting daily press conferences when her makeup would be done perfectly for the cameras, with not a tear smudging her mascara. Who even thinks about their looks when their child has been kidnapped?" (May 21, 2009). Having expectations about how victims should behave and making judgments about their response to tragedy does not value the individual experiences and expressions of persons harmed. Crime affects people in different ways and we all express ourselves differently, especially under public pressure. The imposed label of victim risks stereotyping that further adds to the pain family members are already experiencing.

While there are problems with defining who victims are and assigning the label, there are other issues when it is not ascribed. It is sometimes the case that those affected by crime are not called "victims" at all, and therefore are generally ignored by criminal justice professionals and communities. In cases like Stafford and Whitmee, it is clear that their families have been greatly harmed but what about neighbours, witnesses (others in the Cloverdale bar who saw the shooting), friends, classmates (from Tori's school), and other relatives? How are they coping? It is often the case in highly publicized cases like these that the communities where these crimes took place and the wider society are affected. The pervasive role of the media ensures that almost everyone hears sound bites about these cases and, in smaller communities like Cloverdale, word travels fast. Although not a lot of information is known and shared about cases in the early days of an investigation, just a headline involving the loss of life due to violence produces a reaction in most of us.

It could be said that through the saturation of news media, almost all Canadians feel the ripple effect of these crimes, and experience feelings of loss, anger, and fear. All those harmed need information, support and feelings of safety in the aftermath of a crime. Without acknowledgement or attention paid to these needs, people can feel bitter, resentful, and unable to make sense of the event and their response to it. This can contribute to feelings of cynicism or even apathy towards the state of the world, fellow citizens and the justice system. These attitudes are of concern today when more active participation in social change is needed. While all community members will not be affected the same through hearing about these cases, consideration must be given to how sensationalized media coverage and the lack of information and context about these unusual cases affects large numbers of Canadians.

There are other situations where people have been directly harmed and the label of "victim" is not readily assigned. For example, the media and the public respond differently to situations where a person involved in a gang is killed in a drive-by shooting, or where women working in the sex-trade are murdered. When referring to the Whitmee murder, CTV News states, "Among the dozens of dead in Vancouver's gang warfare, there have been at least three innocent victims. Whitmee had no criminal record and his family said he had no enemies" (May, 19, 2009). This implies that the others killed were not innocent and because of their possible gang involvement, their families are less deserving of the "victim" status. When we reserve the victim label to only "innocent" victims, this can exacerbate the cycle of violence. Their neglected needs can create resentment towards society and its systems as these individuals are left to cope with their pain alone. All victims and their families are deserving of care and attending to them in the aftermath of harm could provide an opportunity to address some of the underlying reasons for the behaviours. Families, many of whom are uninvolved in the criminal subculture, will be able to find support and understanding rather than being shut out.

Taking another step back in thinking about who is a victim, consideration must be given beyond those affected by "street crime" like murder and assault. Although the justice system and media focus almost all of their attention and resources on these crimes, there are white collar (corporate) crime and social injustices occurring every day that are largely ignored. For example, 1,000 Canadian workers die annually from job-related "accidents" and approximately one million Canadian workers are injured (many permanently disabled) on the job every year (Finn, 2003). Many of these incidents are preventable yet corporations generally are not held accountable for their neglect. Other "invisible victims" include those most marginalized by society, who are denied safe and affordable housing and have limited access to health care. Those who suffer from addictions and self-neglect are not usually considered victims worthy of attention. Fattah (2001) notes, "One of the major, perhaps the major, ethical problem in victimology is the problem of selectivity, discrimination, and unequal treatment of victims" (131). By this, he is referring to thousands of people who experience harm and are not considered to be victims, such as those considered "socially undesirable" (i.e. sex trade workers, drug dealers, gang members and people harmed by organized groups or governments). Through the lens of social justice, we can see there are thousands living every day as victims of unequal distribution of resources and power. Who is responsible and held accountable for these inequities?

Widening the Lens: The Role of Community in Responding to Harm

Given the low level of satisfaction among victims who interact with the formal system (Strang, 2002), society must consider more victim-focused and meaningful responses to those who experience harm. While professionals such as police victims' services are an important part of the response, reliance on this already under-funded resource will not provide service to all those in need. Although improving and expanding professional services is part of the solution, it should be remembered that many of our most marginalized citizens experience harm every day as a result of the structural impediments, policy decisions, and inattention by governments and fellow citizens. As a result of these inequalities and structural harms, people at the margins may be suspect to any "helpful" interventions offered by the same institutions that oppress them. The lack of trust of government and professionals must be acknowledged, respected and met with alternatives in the community. We know that victims need information, support, and safety and many of these needs can be met through caring family and community members. Although there are many volunteers who support victims of all ages throughout the country, people need to reach out and be more empathetic towards others, particularly towards those who are systematically disadvantaged. Everyone should be willing to get involved in some capacity, rather than relying on professionals to heal the harms of our fellow citizens.

Fortunately, many of the things people who have been harmed require can be provided by people without formalized training. We all have the capacity to lend a listening ear, to acknowledge pain and to share information and support. These caring responses should be available to all those harmed, not just those who fit nicely under the "victim" label. While directly supporting people who have been harmed, communities also need to advocate governments for additional reflexive, respectful and inclusive professional responses. Communities and professionals can work together to fill the gap in providing healing supports for victims of all types of crimes.

Not all those impacted by crime are affected the same way but many of the underlying needs are similar no matter what the experience of harm: compassionate and caring support, information about the case and answers to questions, and to feel safe from further victimization. For some, being awarded the label of "victim", and living in a community where professional and community support abound will fill these needs. But many others are not so lucky. Finding meaningful responses to deal with the harm caused by societal inequalities and individual acts of violence like the ones we have been reading about in the press over the last couple of weeks is no easy task. However, continuing to rely on the criminal justice system and professionalized services will not achieve justice and healing for all those in need. As a community, we need to widen the lens, open our eyes, and be prepared to help.

Questions to Consider

When a crime like the one against Tori Stafford happens, who is affected and how? What are some of the emotional, physical, financial, relational, and spiritual needs that can arise for those harmed?

If all of us feel affected by crime, how can all of us share the responsibility to respond and to care for those most harmed?

How can community members and professionals work together to respond better to people's needs? What types of service providers could be included? How can community members be actively involved in support and advocacy? Do existing places for cooperation between the community and professionals exist or do they need to be created?

How might taking care of all "victims" reduce the cycle of victims becoming offenders?

How might expanding our understanding of the "victim" improve social justice for women and ethnic minorities?

Resources for Further Exploration

Fattah, E. (2001). Does victimology need deontology? Ethical conundrums in a young discipline. In A. Gaudreault and I. Walker (Eds.), Beyond Boundaries: Research and action for the third millennium, X International Symposium on Victimology: Selected Symposium Proceedings. Montreal, QE.

Finn, E. (2003). Corporate Crime Goes Unpunished: Canada's appalling work safety record among the world's worst. Accessed at:,3,4,5,6,7

Goody, J. (2000). An overview of key themes. In A. Crawford and J. Goodey (Eds.), Integrating a Victim Perspective within Criminal Justice: An international perspective. Burlington, VA: Ashgate.

Rock, P. (2002). On becoming a victim. In C. Hoyle and R. Young (Eds.), New Visions of Crime Victims. Portland, OR: Hart Publishing.

Miers, D. (2000). Taking the law into their own hands: Victims as offenders. In A. Crawford and J. Goodey (Eds.), Integrating a Victim Perspective within Criminal Justice: An international perspective. Burlington, VA: Ashgate.

Strang, H. (2002) Repair and Revenge: Victims and Restorative Justice. New York: Oxford Press.

Young, M. (2000). Victim rights and services: Dare to dream. In A. Gaudreault and I. Walker (Eds.), Beyond Boundaries: Research and action for the third millennium, X International Symposium on Victimology: Selected Symposium Proceedings. Montreal, QE.

Overview of the History of Victims Rights in Canada:

BC Ministry responsible for Victims Services:

An Overview of Victim Services Across Canada:

Examples of Recent Budget Cuts to Victims Services:

Vancouver 24 Hours, Tuesday, May 19, 2009, Vol 5., No. 32

Edmonton Sun, May 21, 2009,

CTV BC News May 19, 2009 - Accessed at: