Q&A with Nancy Lewis | Helping victims heal — and move beyond fear
No one needs to tell Nancy Lewis what the rise in partisanship at the State Capitol has done to policy making. As Colorado’s most prominent voice for crime victims, she’ll tell you the cause to which she has devoted much of her life has been engulfed in the acrimonious political climate under the Dome.
“The distrust between the two parties has created almost insurmountable obstacles when it comes to advocating for victims and survivors at the Capitol,” Lewis says in today’s Q&A. “Criminal justice reform has become a lightning rod and crime victims have gotten caught in the middle.”
Of course, the decades-long executive director of the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance isn’t about to give up. Victim advocacy is central to her entire outlook on life — “a match with my philosophy of empowering people who were experiencing the worst day of their life. …”
She has put that philosophy to work over the years, developing expertise in restorative justice practices and in helping communities respond to mass tragedies. She has assisted with the Oklahoma City bombing trial, the Columbine High School shooting, the Sept. 11 attacks, the relocation of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors to Colorado, the Aurora theater shooting and more.
Colorado Politics: How long have you been advocating for crime victims’ rights, and what inspired you to take up the cause in the first place?
Nancy Lewis: I’ve been doing this work for 26 years. To be honest, I found this work when I answered an ad in the paper. The description of the job referenced nonprofit administration and training, both of which I have a passion for. I had worked in a number of parallel fields, but “victim advocacy” was new to me. Not long after becoming COVA’s executive director, I became a volunteer victim advocate with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, which is something I did for 12 years. I found that victim advocacy was a match with my philosophy of empowering people who were experiencing the worst day of their life, as opposed to simply giving a handout. Everyone is capable of doing great things. When you have information, whether it is about what to expect at court or common reactions to trauma, and you share that with someone who needs it, it is empowering. Taking your power back after experiencing a crime is where healing can begin.
- Executive director of the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance, since 1994. The organization seeks fairness and healing for crime victims, their families and communities through leadership, education and advocacy.
- Volunteered as a victim advocate for 12 years for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office.
- Previously was training director for an international franchise company; executive director of WomanSchool Network, and training director for the Models at Prevention Program.
CP: Describe the wide-ranging impact of crime on its victims and on those around them — including the entire community.
Lewis: When someone is the victim of a crime, it changes them for the rest of their life. It doesn’t have to define a person forever, but that experience will always be a part of them. The impact on victims and survivors of crime are vast. There’s financial, physical and emotional consequences that can devastate people. When someone is in trauma, it can be hard to accomplish tasks that were easy prior to the crime. We regularly hear from crime victims who are struggling financially because they are having a hard time working due to the trauma. Many people end up paying out of pocket for medical bills or for counseling after being a victim of a crime, especially if they chose to not report to law enforcement. Some of those costs are long term. For instance, victims of domestic violence experience traumatic brain injuries at an alarming rate and those often go unidentified for long periods of time. Those are just a few examples. There has been very little investment in research on the long-term impacts of crime victimization, especially when compared to the data that is available on the people who commit crimes.
The impact of crime on communities is rooted in the fear and mistrust it creates. We especially see this in the aftermath of mass shootings. Whole communities are traumatized after a shooting, but once the news cycle shifts, the attention goes elsewhere and people are still struggling. Anyone who has children in school sees the impact these crimes are having. Another issue is for communities of color, who experience more crime as a whole, yet have far fewer resources and might not feel safe or welcome accessing the services that are available. It’s hard for a community to thrive when living in fear.
CP: What has been the biggest stride for the victims’ advocacy movement in Colorado?
Lewis: Our Victims’ Rights Act, which was added to the Colorado Constitution in 1992, was a huge milestone in our state. The VRA essentially states that victims have the right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect by the justice system and to be informed, present and heard at critical stages in the criminal process. Prior to that, victims did not have the ability to be a part of the case against the person who harmed them or their loved one. They were considered witnesses of the state. Imagine what it would be like to not be able to give any input into the case against the person who sexually assaulted you or murdered your family member. That was par for the course just 28 years ago. Now, every branch of the criminal process ranging from law enforcement to the district attorney’s office to the department of corrections has to ensure that the rights of victims are upheld.
The thing that sets our VRA apart from what is in place in other states is that we have a compliance process. Victims can file a grievance with the Office of Victim Programs in the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice if an agency fails to meet their responsibilities under the VRA. A committee reviews each grievance and makes determinations about their merit. If someone is found to have violated the VRA, there are consequences. More than anything else, it is considered a ding on the reputation of that agency. People take the VRA grievances very seriously in our state.
Advocates based in the criminal justice system who carry out the duties outlined in the VRA complement the strong nonprofit victim advocacy organizations we also have in Colorado. While it isn’t always easy, collaboration between victim service providers is something we value in our state. What we have here is very different than what is available in other states.
CP: What is the biggest challenge for victims’ advocacy in the state?
Lewis: Talking about crime makes people uncomfortable. People would rather ignore it than address it directly. It’s a protective thing and often connected with victim blaming. The reality is that any of us can become a victim of a crime. That is terrifying to think about. A natural tendency is to either 1) shut down and ignore it; or 2) do mental gymnastics to justify why crime happens to other people, but would never happen to you. This is very challenging as we work with legislators because of term limits. We have to continually educate legislators, sheriffs, district attorneys, and other decision makers about the impact of crime and the need for services for victims of crime. Sometimes it feels like the minute an elected official “gets it,” they are termed out.
CP: How have politics and policy making changed over the years since you began your advocacy work at the Capitol?
Lewis: Wanting crime victims to have services and a role in the criminal justice process never used to be a partisan issue, and it sadly has become one. The distrust between the two parties has created almost insurmountable obstacles when it comes to advocating for victims and survivors at the Capitol. It feels like there is angst all the time. Criminal justice reform has become a lightning rod and crime victims have gotten caught in the middle. As recently as last year, we’ve heard legislators publicly refer to crime victims as “vengeful” and “vindictive.” Crime victims are as diverse as our Colorado communities and don’t all want the same thing. As an independent nonprofit coming in to represent crime victims and the people who serve them, we often feel like we are on the defensive because of legislators’ assumptions about who we are and what we want.
CP: What are you and your organization hoping to accomplish this legislative session?
Lewis: We hope to be a part of criminal justice reform efforts. It’s not true reform if a diverse range of victims’ voices are not included. There are two sides to every crime and not giving victims and survivors a seat at the table is unjust. The current conversations at the Capitol are becoming so focused on saving money that we fear public safety is being disregarded.
COVA has two proactive priorities this year:
1. We want the legislature to recognize the importance of how notification to victims of crime occurs and to allocate resources to upgrade the outdated legacy notification system that is in place in nearly all of the jails across the state. In today’s tech-driven world, an upgraded system would more adequately serve victims and better connect them to resources and treatment.
2. In some instances victims of crime are being forced to pay towing and impound fees when their vehicles have been involved in a crime. Crime victims shouldn’t be faced with this burden.
Other priorities include ensuring those who commit the most egregious crimes are held accountable. While the legislature continues to debate criminal justice reform, we will be working to ensure individuals who commit sex offenses against our children or violent crimes against their friends, family or neighbors are treated differently than those who have committed non-violent crimes and who may pose less risk to our communities.
CP: What are your long-term hopes and goals for the victims’ advocacy movement?
Lewis: I want people to quit hurting one another. We literally want to put ourselves out of business.