Focus on West Yorkshire Probation Trust's Victim Services

The Probation Service may be best known for its work with offenders, but it also provides vital help for their victims. Grant Woodward reports.

MORE than two decades have passed since Ann Huskins's daughter was murdered, but time has not healed the wounds.

"You never forget," says the 61-year-old sadly, but with a noticeable tinge of anger lacing her words. "You just learn to shove it to the back of your mind and carry on.

"There are days even now when I can be doing something and I'll think of her. When we decorated our old house I used to dread doing the front bedroom because she had written 'Samantha Huskins lived here' under the wallpaper.

"It was five weeks before we could bury her. It was only on the day of the funeral that the penny dropped that she wouldn't be coming home any more."

Samantha was just 16 when she was murdered by her boyfriend in 1988. Her dad was so distraught it took him 15 years before he could even bring himself to visit her grave.

"When the anniversary comes round he goes very quiet," says Ann. "You look at him and think, 'I know, old flower.' After a couple of days he's okay again, but we often wonder what she'd be like and whether she'd have any kids."

Ann couldn't go to the trial because she was scared what she might try and do to the man who took her daughter's life.

The police later told her he could be free in just nine years, despite receiving a life sentence, a thought which horrified her.

It was only when she received a visit from Ruth Kerry, a member of West

Yorkshire Probation Trust's Victim Services team, that her shock and anger started to subside.

"At the time I didn't know the support was there," says Ann, from Wakefield.

"I wondered why she was coming to be honest, but she explained how the law had been altered and that from now on she would be keeping us

updated on what was happening."

It was the 1990 Victims' Charter that set out for the first time what sort of service victims of crime should expect once an offence has been reported to police.

Rather than just concerning themselves with offenders, the Probation Service, together with the courts, police, Crown Prosecution Service and prisons, started to work together to pay more attention to the needs of victims.

Once sentences have been passed in cases of serious crime someone like Ruth is appointed to get in touch and arrange a face-to-face chat about what is happening to the person responsible, keeping them informed throughout the offender's sentence.

"When Ruth came I said what the police had told me and she said, 'No, I'll explain it all to you,'" recalls Ann.

"And once she'd explained how the system worked I felt a lot better knowing that he couldn't walk out just like that."

The same reassurance was on hand some years later when Ann heard a rumour that Samantha's killer was already back on the streets, a phone call to Ruth confirming it was just wild speculation.

She was also able, with Ruth's help, to make a victim impact statement when he was applying for a move to an open prison. What worries Ann most is the thought of him moving back to Wakefield.

"I couldn't demand anything, because if it was up to me I would throw away the key, but I could put down what I thought which made me feel I

was a person and not a number.

"I was at least able to put down the concerns of the family, to have my say and know that someone would listen."

Although Victim Services is not a counselling service, a role that's filled by charities such as Victim Support, it's clear speaking to Ann and Ruth that a bond has grown between them.

"With Ruth if I wasn't sure about something all I had to do was pick up the phone," says Ann.

"She would come and explain what was what. I found I had someone I could talk to who knew what I was going through. She doesn't know exactly how I feel but she sits and listens.

"Ruth used to come every 12 months but eventually my husband said, 'Look love, I'm not being funny but do you have to come?' because it would bring back what had happened.

"She said she wouldn't come unless she had something to tell us. Two or three years later she came and told us they were considering changing his category.

"We know that eventually he will come out and this is just one more step along that path, but she said there is nothing to panic over.

"I will twitter away to her when she comes and then afterwards I think, Should I have said all that? But, as she says, it helps to talk to somebody. And not just as a probation worker, I class her as a friend. I know for a fact that if I need her I can ring her and she will come."

Each year West Yorkshire Probation Trust offers contact to around 1,050 new victims of sexual or violent crimes and over 900 new victims of domestic abuse.

Some cases are held for several years, being tracked as the sentences progress and acted upon at significant stages.

Depending on the victim's wishes, the least that's offered is annual contact to keep in touch where there is nothing to report.

Where victims have specific concerns about the release of an offender, the service can ask for safeguards to be put in place.

These include exclusion zones which ban offenders from visiting certain places, as well as no-contact conditions which forbid contact with named individuals.

"There are a whole range of emotions when you first make contact with someone," says Debbie Baker, a Victim Services officer based in Leeds.

"Anger is often the first emotion, we are the first port of call with victims so we take the flak.

"They are nearly always angry because they have felt let down at various stages or because they feel they have not had their say.

"In the first place they're angry that the offence has been committed against them and also at a perceived lack of justice. Then they become more angry when they realise how the sentence might be served.

"Some people are desperately emotional. If you go to a case of death by dangerous driving then somebody's loved one has gone out of the door one morning and never come back and it is just so random."

Debbie, who has done the job for around 15 years, has a rolling caseload of about 200 cases at a time.

She feels that when a crime is committed the balance of power can shift from the victim to the offender.

Part of Victim Services' work is to empower those who are on the receiving end of serious offences and ensure the victim is not forgotten in the judicial process.

An important element of this is making sure the perspective of victims is considered by parole boards when they make decisions about releasing prisoners.

"We're not counsellors, we're very clear about that," says Debbie. "But you can't have an eye on your own work to the exclusion of how the

victim is feeling.

"You can't assume they are just going to engage with you, the emotion has to come and you have to be prepared to sit and listen to someone's thoughts and feelings, because that's what you need to bear in mind and fairly represent.

"My own heart is with victims to erode the perception that they're a forgotten voice.

"I feel very strongly that victims should be equally involved in the work of the Probation Service.

"Victims are often very strong people who want to be heard.

"Myself and my colleagues are committed to making sure those voices are heard and that the rights of victims are respected."

"Anger is often the first emotion and we're the first port of call, so we tend to take the flak."