Some years ago our house was burgled as we lay in our beds.
It was around 5.30am and being a light sleeper I heard the intruders attempting to force open a window to make off with their ill-gotten gains. They’d found their way in by shinning up a drainpipe and climbing through a tiny open window on the first floor (it was a hot night), but needed a better escape route.
‘There’s someone in the house’, I whispered to my husband. He didn’t believe me, but put his dressing gown on anyway only to discover that the birds had flown, along with a video camera, his watch and some cash.
For many weeks afterwards I had trouble sleeping. Even though none of us had been physically injured and the burglars had left little in the way of mess, I was disturbed by the thought that someone had entered our home while we slept. I also rued the fact we’d left the window open.
According to the charity Victim Support, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, my story is not untypical. One in four victims of burglary say they experience mental health issues after a break-in – and this can range from extreme symptoms such as agoraphobia to short-term insomnia.
Katie Branck, service manager for Victim Support in Kirklees, knows this to be true. She organises a team of volunteers who visit victims of all crimes, offering support and practical help. “Some people feel violated by burglary,” she says, “and it stops them from sleeping. They may even blame themselves.”
Victim Support, the charity for victims and witnesses of crime in England and Wales, is the oldest and largest of its kind in the world. In recent months it has supported witnesses in the infamous Rolf Harris trial and it aims to help everyone from those stricken by the homicide of a family member to those suffering from a relatively minor attempted burglary.
Anyone who reports a crime that is investigated is offered assistance by Victim Support. At any one time in Kirklees, the service is working with around 30 victims.
Currently funded by the Ministry of Justice, Victim Support relies on volunteers and is using the 40th anniversary to launch a call for more.
Katie has 15 volunteers who have all been trained to support victims of crime. She said: “We have students who are doing related courses, such as law or criminology, single parents with some spare time while their children are at school, people who work full time and retired people. They need to do a minimum of two hours a week but some do as much as 10 or 12 hours.” She herself is a justice and criminology graduate who found full time paid work with the charity after volunteering as a student.
Volunteers, who are all criminal records checked, may visit victims in their own homes or simply offer help and advice over the telephone. They can see a victim for several months or just on a single occasion. The service hands out equipment such as window and door handle alarms, personal alarms, light timers and purse belts.
“We always look for people with empathy and good listening skills,” explained Katie. “They are fully trained, with modules covering the impact of crime, court processes and witnesses, and the training covers all the core crimes of burglary, robbery and assaults.
“We also support people who have suffered a crime but haven’t had any action taken. Anyone can approach us who has been a victim.”
In fact, Victim Support nationally says that one in five crimes go unreported to the police and half of 1,000 victims surveyed by the organisation said they never heard back from the police after reporting a crime.
The HMIC (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary) revealed earlier this year, after sampling data from 14 police forces, that some crimes aren’t being recorded at all and offenders are freed when they could have been prosecuted.
However, when they are Stephen Blower, delivery manager for the charity’s witness service, based in Kirklees and Dewsbury magistrates’ courts, sees another side of the emotional fall-out from crime. He and his team support those giving evidence in court – sometimes such people are both victims and witnesses – and says that appearing at a trial can be intimidating and stressful.
He is also a former volunteer who joined the service as a paid employee. It is, he says, the best job he has ever done. “It is so rewarding, you feel you are really making a difference,” said Stephen, who previously worked in finance.
He explained how the service operates: “If someone reports a crime to the police and they investigate and send files to the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service), who decide if they want to take an offender to court or not, then we get a list of witnesses from Witness Care and approach them to see if they would like support. Around one third of witnesses ask for assistance before a hearing, but we support all witnesses in court.
“A lot of people are nervous because they might never have been in a court before so we can arrange for them to visit before the trial. Sometimes we arrange special measures so they can give evidence from behind a screen or by video link from a separate room. We also have a separate entrance into the court building for vulnerable witnesses and children.”
The witness service has a team of six volunteers and Stephen is looking for another two. Around 25 to 30 witnesses every week are assisted by the service.
Anyone interested in volunteering can apply via the website www.victimsupport.org.uk
Kirklees supporters are currently running a 40-4-40 fundraising campaign for the 40th anniversary – the organisation has to raise a small percentage of its running costs – and will be hosting a Halloween event at Canalside, Leeds Road. Ticket details are available from firstname.lastname@example.org