Victims and Survivors…

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Since my appointment in September 2012 I have met many people who would describe themselves, or be described as, Victims or Survivors.

This labelling of people serves a number of useful functions, principally the ability to pigeon hole them into a particular category which leads usefully on to a number of other generalisations that help us make sense of things.

In my previous job, working with people with learning disabilities, the generalisations and stereotypes were many and various.

Kathryn Stone

 

One incident I witnessed makes me smile many years after. I was waiting to go to a meeting in a Day Centre for people with learning disabilities. I overheard two men, also waiting in the reception area. They were debating what to call “them” the people with learning disabilities.

One said they should be called “Clients”. They were active users of the day centre. The other disagreed, feeling this had overtones of the sex trade and that “Service Users” was a far better, more accurate term.

They decided they would ask the people! At that moment the minibus pulled up outside and a small group of people with learning disabilities began to come in to the centre.

Determined to make the most of this focus group, the first speaker stood up and said “Excuse me” to one of the people from the minibus. He explained that he and his colleague were debating what they should call “you”. “Do you prefer to be a Client?” he said “Or do you prefer to be a Service User?”

The young man stared straight at the questioner and said “Call me what you like mate, my name is Colin!”

Definitions here are contentious. One question I have been asked in just about every interview I have given is about definition and how do I, as Victims Commissioner define Victim?

The simple answer is, I don’t. The law does. The Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 is very clear that those who have been bereaved, those who have been injured and those who are carers for those injured are victims.

The Order also clarifies that psychological injury is also included in the definition. Questioners usually go on to ask what I think about the hierarchy of victims. The rationale being that some are guilty having brought their injuries on themselves and others are completely innocent. I am aware these are strongly held views in some communities. The law says I must work for all victims and so that is what I must do.

One interviewer got irritated with me and said I couldn’t just keep quoting the legislation. I can’t act outside legislation and it would be entirely wrong of me to make judgements about deserving or undeserving victims whatever others might think.

Back to the Colin story, I see victims as individuals, as families, as members of communities. I must focus on them, on their experience and their needs. I have made it a priority to get out and about and meet as many victims and survivors as I can.

How can I claim to speak for victims if I don’t have any understanding of what their concerns are and what their needs are?

Every single person I have met through my visits, through meetings or through the Commission’s Victims and Survivors Forum has been a determined, proud, decent individual who has suffered as a consequence of violence committed against them or their loved ones.

The impact of such events, in some cases many decades later, is profound and affects every aspect of day to day life for victims.

People who bear the physical, psychological and emotional scars of such events feel that the rest of society has forgotten them, or they just aren’t cared about.

Victims and Survivors of the Troubles deserve our very best efforts. They deserve the best services that can be provided.

The Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, Kathryn Stone OBE (centre) meets with the Ballymurphy massacre families.

 

The current debates about flags and the disturbances as a result are very worrying for victims and have the potential to re-traumatise them. The disputes also have the very real potential to create more victims.

The Belfast Good Friday agreement says:

“It is recognised that victims have a right to remember as well as to contribute to a changed society. The achievement of a peaceful and just society would be a true memorial to the victims of violence”

If peace is a process rather than an end in itself, there is some way to go before we achieve the lasting legacy for Victims and Survivors.

 


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About Author

Kathryn Stone, OBE, was appointed as the new Commissioner for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland on 24 September 2012. Prior to taking up her post with the Commission, Kathryn was the Chief Executive of VOICE UK, a national learning disability charity, promoting justice and well being for vulnerable victims as well as supporting their parents and carers. Kathryn was also the Principal Inspector for Milton Keynes Council and Head of Inspection for the London Boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham and Barking & Dagenham, responsible for the regulation of residential, nursing and day care. She also worked as an independent inspector for eight local authorities across the UK. For the past 11 years Kathryn has been involved with the Registered Intermediary Scheme sitting on the Quality Assurance Board and the Registration Board. She has also been a member of the Home Office Victims Advisory Panel (2006-2010) and a member of Derbyshire police’s independent advisory group since 2009, and chair of this group since March 2012. Kathryn was awarded an OBE in 2007 for her services to people with learning disabilities and was made a Chartered Director by the Institute of Directors in 2008 and a Fellow of the Institute of Directors in 2009.

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