U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Crime Victim Legal Assistance Networks: Evaluating a New Service Model

Too often crime victims experience unmet civil legal needs. The Office for Victims of Crime set up a legal assistance network demonstration to help those victims. An NIJ evaluation of the new model returned mixed results.
Date Published
April 16, 2021

The legal needs of crime victims are as varied as crime itself.

When criminals victimize people, they can set them up for a second wave of harmful civil law entanglements that criminal justice cannot remedy. Victims often need legal help in areas as diverse as identity theft, personal injury, consumer disputes, housing conflicts, family law, and the immigration challenges facing human trafficking victims, to name a few.

But crime victims’ access to civil legal assistance remains chronically deficient.

Federal law has recognized and responded to crime victim needs for nearly four decades. One persistent challenge, however, has been creation of legal service networks capable of coordinating delivery of legal services, and other kinds of support, for the crime victims who need it.

Toward that end, two U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) entities, the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), joined forces to install, then evaluate the effectiveness of, a legal assistance network demonstration project serving crime victims.

OVC designed a five-site “wraparound” demonstration project to establish and activate networks of legal and social service providers addressing a full array of crime victim legal and other needs. The project, titled the Wraparound Victim Legal Assistance Network Demonstration Project (WVLAND), took a comprehensive, holistic approach to legal assistance, that is, one focused on the whole of an individual’s needs, rather than disconnected threads of those needs.

OVC selected five jurisdictional entities for on-site installation of network demonstrations: The State of Alaska, Los Angeles County, Texas (72 East Texas counties), Chicago (Cook County, IL), and the City of Denver.[1]

The evaluation, supported by NIJ and conducted by consultant ICF Incorporated, L.L.C. (ICF), identified a number of successes of the new legal assistance demonstration serving crime victims, notably including:

  • Fostering a sense of community among network partners.
  • Breaking down silos between those partners to formalize case referral networks, build personal connections, and coordinate services.

In total, the five demonstration networks served over 4,900 crime victims, delivering more than 6,500 legal and other services.

The evaluators identified a lack of service coordination among network partner agencies at the five sites. Another significant shortcoming was uncertainty among network partners over the sustainability of the projects over time.

The rest of this article provides a WVLAND project overview and discusses project evaluation findings, with related recommendations, under six key programmatic areas:

  • Engagement of Network Partners
  • Leadership
  • Achievable Goals and Timelines
  • Network Partner Communication and Collaboration
  • Engagement of Research Partners
  • Sustainability

The project evaluation findings suggest that the legal assistance demonstration met its goals of building network structures capable of delivering needed services for crime victims. In the end, however, the project was not adequately delivering legal services to crime victims as designed, due to constraints such as program capacity limits and a lack of information sharing. Within networks, coordination and sustainability proved challenging — a not uncommon condition for program networks initiated with grant funding, the researchers noted. The evaluation effort recommended ways to address those and other program shortcomings.

Overview of WVLAND Program Elements, Design, and Implementation

An overarching purpose of OVC’s WVLAND project was to form working networks capable of breaking through entrenched barriers to legal assistance for victims of crime, including:

  • Crime victims’ low awareness of legal remedies and services.
  • Assistance programs’ service capacity limitations.
  • Accessibility challenges.
  • Limited training and understanding of victim issues, on the part of assistance program staff.

Each site built networks comprised of 9 to 31 organizations, along with a local research partner. Member organizations included, but were not limited to, legal, criminal justice, victim services, and government entities.

Network partner entities later recommended, during their evaluation of each network, the addition of other network partners, such as shelters, specific victim population organizations, law enforcement, health organizations, and the courts.

Each of the five sites began with two years of planning, to build the networks and complete a needs assessment. Four years of implementation followed the planning phase. The sites built new service delivery models and strategized ways to sustain the networks after the WVLAND grants ended. The wraparound service networks were tailored to each community served.

Evaluation Overview

NIJ, the scientific research and evaluation arm of DOJ, then directed a comprehensive evaluation of the demonstration project by ICF. Two essential questions guided the evaluation staff as they examined six years of WVLAND design and implementation activities:

  1. Are coordinated, collaborative, and holistic approaches to legal assistance effective in meeting the needs of crime victims?
  2. What elements of these models work best and under what conditions?

The ICF research team used a series of protocols and instruments to collect data from network service providers and victims of crime. Data came from:

  • Annual site visits
  • Annual network partner surveys
  • Administrative client services data
  • A Service Provider Survey
  • A Crime Victim Survey
  • Crime victim interviews

Findings and Conclusions, With Key Implications for Future Demonstration Sites

The evaluation team reported that establishing constructive relationships and support networks can yield both tangible and emotional supports for crime victims. Victims reported mostly positive results from their network experience, and satisfaction with services. A majority reported improved well-being.

The researchers also found, however, that establishment of legal networks requires substantial and demanding coordination and collaboration. In general, each site’s approaches were found to align with OVC expectations, including:

  • Development and implementation of a needs assessment.
  • Identification of key partners.
  • Development of a referral system.
  • Provision of key wraparound services.

Unique challenges associated with creating high-functioning legal networks became apparent, however, as work on the networks advanced, ICF reported. Primary challenges were:

  • Convening and coordinating diverse partner entities.
  • Maintaining momentum over time.
  • Sustaining the networks.

Six Network Focus Areas: Key Difficulties and Top Recommendations

Key Stakeholders and Partners — Ensure Continuous Engagement

Engagement of the right partners is critical for effective legal service delivery, the ICF evaluation team observed. A vital first step is establishing clear roles for stakeholders and adjusting those roles as circumstances warrant, to ensure all feel they are part of the team.

Key difficulties observed / lessons learned:

  • A lack of in-person network meetings, leading to less engagement by team members.
  • A lack of inclusion of all representative organizations in the network; exclusion of some of the different and diverse perspectives represented.

Top recommendations:

  • Develop clear roles and expectations for stakeholders.
  • Adjust roles and expectations as situations change.
  • Meet in person — rather than electronically — whenever possible to build relationships and facilitate more interactive discussions.
Project Leadership – Weighing Management Skills and Subject Matter Expertise

The research team noted that leadership is critical to a project as complex as a legal services network. Leadership, both of the network and its constituent entities, must ensure that their organizations institutionalize change and advance shared vision. Policies should set clear expectations.

Key lessons learned:

  • Network leaders must be ready to adapt and adjust when progress is not occurring.
  • Network leaders need to be organized, focused, open-minded, detail-oriented, flexible, and dedicated.

Recommendations:

  • Choose a leader with strong project management skills.
  • Choose a leader who is flexible and can make adjustments.
  • Ensure the project leader can be dedicated to the project full time.
Goals — Establish Achievable Goals, Scope of Work, and Timelines  

Legal network sites must be realistic in their goals, objectives, and timelines, the evaluation team noted. Planning should not be rushed, and it should be thorough. An essential element is a needs assessment, informing components and strategies of the network. The research report noted concerns from some project sites that the needs assessment process was rushed, and, as a result, they had to write implementation plans without the benefit of a needs assessment.

Key difficulties / lessons learned:

  • In the view of some research partners, not all needs assessments were used effectively for planning and implementation.
  • One site moved from planning to implementation too quickly, before the network could provide services.
  • Network partners experienced capacity problems at both planning and implementation phases.
  • Victim-services agencies, in particular, lacked capacity and resources to participate on an equal level with other network partners.

Top Recommendations:

  • Develop attainable goals.
  • Share goals, roles and responsibilities, and expectations with partners.
  • Set clear timelines for completing tasks.
  • Revisit goals frequently and set action steps.
  • Use the planning phase to thoroughly, thoughtfully, and comprehensively plan service delivery.
  • Do not move to implementation too quickly.
Communications and Collaboration — Regularly Communicate Goals, Roles, and Expectations to Partners
The researchers observed that the legal services network demonstration encountered certain challenges common to initiatives to develop inter-agency collaborations. Those common challenges included:
  • Information sharing
  • Confidentiality concerns
  • Organizational differences
  • Resource inequities

Key difficulties / lessons learned:

Inter-agency collaboration is critical to network success because it helps create a shared sense of responsibility, ownership, and accountability, the ICF evaluators reported. It can also reduce duplication, promote efficient use of resources, and build a network infrastructure.

Network partners reported feeling strongly about their collaboration levels, but the study did not find sufficient coordination in service delivery. “Service delivery is very low,” the report by ICF said. “This could indicate that while the network partners were collaborating to reach a common goal, they did not coordinate services.” Services to be coordinated included:

  • Common intake forms
  • Participation in joint case reviews
  • Sharing client information
  • Sharing materials and resources
  • Providing or receiving referrals from each other Top Recommendations:
  • Discuss roles and responsibilities with each partner.
  • Start with a small group of partners in the planning phase and then expand the network during the implementation phase.
  • Use smaller subcommittees and workgroups to accomplish specific tasks.
  • Choose one point of contact for each organization.
  • Increase partner engagement.
Engagement of Research Partners

Research partners add needed project skills to legal services networks in terms of program design, monitoring, and evaluation, the ICF evaluators noted. Networks should take advantage of research partners by using their advanced skillset to assist with logic models, identify performance measures, and periodically report on results.

Key difficulties / lessons learned:

  • Research partners often did not feel well-utilized and integrated into the network.
  • Trust between research partners and network grantees was sometimes slow to develop.
  • At times, there was a lack of clarity about how much time network partners were to dedicate to data collection for research partners.

Recommendations:

  • Research previous efforts to establish similar networks in that community.
  • Clearly define the role of each research partner.
  • Integrate the research partner into planning and implementation.
  • Dedicate time to build relationships between the research partner and others.
  • Use research partners to track and measure progress.
Sustainability

Options for network sustainability should be considered early — during the planning phase, the evaluation report said. Many programs fail after the grant ends because there is no sustainability plan in place. Sustainability planning should be collaborative, with all network parties engaged.

Keys to sustainability can include:

  • Ongoing accountability.
  • An effective advocacy base.
  • Using data to make the case for sustaining the program.
  • Continuous cultivation of relationships, training, and development of political and policy-level supports.

Key difficulty / lesson learned:

  • Despite effort at some sites to plan sustainability, no site developed a formal sustainability plan. Top key recommendations:
  • Begin sustainability planning at the start of the project.
  • Include sustainability planning in development of network procedures and products.
  • Involve all stakeholders in sustainability planning.
  • Pursue additional funding opportunities.

Several sites focused on potential funding sources after the grant funding expired.

Conclusion

A vital first step to building a legal service network is having the right stakeholders at the table. The demonstration network stakeholders strongly urged selecting a multidisciplinary, diverse range of victim-serving entities and individuals as steering committee members and network partners. Partners and team members should reflect and represent their jurisdictions.

Too often crime victims are unware of available resources to help with their civil legal needs, caused or exacerbated by the crimes that caused them harm. Other times, they are forced to navigate disparate and disconnected organizations in a futile search for help. Holistic, wraparound legal assistance networks, effectively implemented, can help place victims on a path to coordinated, comprehensive solutions.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2012-VF-GX-0001, awarded to ICF Incorporated L.L.C. The article is based on the project report, “Evaluation of OVC’s Wraparound Victim Legal Assistance Network, Demonstration” (2019), by Samantha Lowry, Lisa Feeley, Jaclyn Smith, Alana Henninger, and Amy Bush.

Date Created: April 15, 2021