Survivor-led, trauma-informed Victim and Survivor Services Unit provides critical services during COVID-19 pandemic

May 26, 2021

The Victim and Survivor Services Unit within the County's Department of Community Justice provides direct support to victims who have been harmed by a justice-involved individual, helping them navigate the justice system and access resources.
For Saron Nehf, the issue of domestic violence is close to her heart because she is a survivor herself. 

“I really understood it,” she says.

In 2015, Nehf began working for Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice as an advocate in the Victim and Survivor Services Unit which, last year, provided direct support to 485 victims who have been harmed by a justice-involved individual. The seven-person team also provides services to survivors and victims on parole and probation. Nehf serves as one of the unit’s two culturally specific advocates, assisting victims from the Latino/a/x community. 

Nehf keeps in touch with every single one of her more-than-200 clients, making sure to have meaningful check-in conversations with each at least every other month, as she helps them to navigate the justice system and access the variety of resources Multnomah County provides. Her team connects them with therapy, child care services, and even funding to increase safety or for groceries, phone or utility bills. 

Often, the highest priority for someone experiencing domestic violence is finding a specific safety plan to work around the threat of continued violence. 

“Statistically, on average, a survivor leaves an abusive situation seven times before they decide to leave for good,” Nehf says. “If there’s something going on that’s super scary... survivors are reaching out to me. I reach out to the parole and probation officer, do a consult, and decide how to move forward to keep the survivor safe.”

Though the unit is part of a broader criminal legal system, Victim and Survivor Services Manager Rhea DuMont says that the way her team operates differentiates it from many other system-based survivor services around the country. Unlike many other victim assistance programs, Multnomah County’s Victim and Survivor Services is survivor-led and trauma-informed.

By and large, support for survivors has been a low priority for criminal justice functions, DuMont says. 

“Our system wasn’t built to serve victims and survivors. A lot of system-based victim and survivor programs, their job is to support whatever the goals of the system are. We don’t do that,” she says. "Our job is to support the survivors and be responsive to their needs as they identify them."

Since the beginning of the year, the team has taken steps to be more culturally responsive, incorporating two culturally specific advocates to serve Black, African American, and Latinx survivors. The unit also added a new bilingual advocate who works with clients who speak Spanish. 

DuMont says that these additions stem from trying to best meet the needs of those most impacted. But they’re also a first step toward repairing relationships with communities of color, which make up more than 50 percent of victims and have been disproportionately and negatively affected by the criminal legal system.

“Every interaction we have with a survivor has the power to heal or to harm. For some, the interaction they have with us does restore or create a kernel of trust that didn’t exist before when we’re talking about the BIPOC community in our systems,” DuMont says.

Nehf says the added value of culturally specific services is “huge.”

“I see the barriers that my community comes up against, and they don’t know the laws, and don’t know their rights or what’s available to them. And so for me, I feel super passionate about making sure my community has the services they need and the support that they need,” Nehf says. “Because we are part of those communities, we’re speaking the same language.”

DuMont and her team don’t just provide service to someone directly harmed by domestic violence, but anyone directly impacted by someone on supervision or involved with the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice. 

“We understand that crime impacts us all in different ways and victims are well beyond what is listed on a police report, and so we serve anyone that is seeking services,” she says. “You could be on supervision yourself and you could experience complex trauma and abuse. We’ll serve you too.”

The pandemic has spurred many system changes, including earlier releases from detention to reduce the risk of COVID-19, and changes in the use of electronic monitoring systems. Law enforcement responses to reports of assaults and processes have also slowed.  

Nehf describes the situation as a “mad scramble” as she tries to keep her clients away from harm as justice functions continue to be stretched thin.

DuMont says that the last year has underscored the necessity of their work. 

“Not only has the pandemic created additional barriers for folks we’re working with in general, it has had a severe impact on those experiencing domestic violence, and made parts of our systems less responsive,” she says. 

“Safety is the number-one issue.”

DuMont’s team has also been able to help financially support victims who feel it is safest to move out of their home. They have provided one-time payments for rental, utility, and grocery bills to address victims’ immediate needs.

Though the work is critical, DuMont adds that victim service units are almost always severely underfunded, pointing to a 2020 Oregon Department of Justice statistic.

“For every $100 spent on incarceration, our state spends about a penny on survivor services,” she says. 

Despite facing an uphill battle during the pandemic, the Victim and Survivor Services Unit has maintained a 24-hour response rate of 98 percent to all new advocacy referrals. The team, which used to work in the Multnomah Building, now operates virtually, with drop-in offices at the Mead, Juvenile Services Division and East Campus.

The unit has identified gaps in the system caused by the pandemic and pushed for greater changes within the Department of Community Justice. They have expanded an emergency fund to further support survivors of domestic violence by addressing immediate safety needs, such as housing, transportation, and household utilities. DuMont’s team also just finished conducting a strengths and needs assessment on the juvenile side of the justice system, and is currently working on an assessment for the adult side as well.

“We’re in the business of system change and trying to figure out how we can do better,” she says.

DuMont knows that none of what her team has achieved within the last year would be possible without the tremendous work ethic and dedication of her team. One of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic is that everyone on the team goes above and beyond to serve the community.

“I have witnessed and experienced a lot of great change and learning and transformation within the team, and that then ripples out into what we’re able to do with the people we work with,” she says. 

Nehf agrees.

“The Victim and Survivors Services Unit has now become my new family because every single person on that unit goes above and beyond to do the work,” she says. “I would love for the community to know that we’re here and we’re available, and we all have big hearts wanting to support the community in any way we can.”

Contact Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ) Victim and Survivor Services at 503-988-7606.