From school room to court room, one VSS volunteer shares her story

9 June, 2021

Joan, one of our Perth-based volunteers, describes how her teaching career has helped her support victims and witnesses of crime.

I spent 27 years working as a primary school teacher and then felt it was time for a change. After discovering VSS two years ago, I now work one day a week as part of the Witness Services team looking after and helping vulnerable witnesses in court.  I also volunteer two days a week in victim support, making calls to assist people in the community and, prior to the pandemic, meeting face to face to help victims of crime.

A chance encounter that led to a passion for criminal justice 
I found out about VSS when I went to an Open Doors’ Day, part Scotland’s largest free festival that celebrates heritage and the built environment, at Perth Sheriff Court. I was interested to hear about the work of VSS and spoke to a staff member who was at the VSS desk on the day. My interest grew from there.

The recruitment process was very relaxed. I met with a support coordinator at the VSS offices for an informal interview and to get the details of the role.  There was no pressure and the VSS team were keen to see if there was a fit between me and the volunteer position and were very supportive throughout the recruitment process.

An impressive training programme for volunteers 
I was impressed by the three-day training at VSS’ Glasgow offices although it was harder than I expected. Even following the induction training, volunteers receive constant training updates and are kept updated on changes to the law and processes which affect victims of crime and how we can help them. I was also able to shadow existing staff members and volunteers as part of the process both in court and in the community which was intensive but invaluable.

Understanding the full criminal justice journey 
Domestic abuse and sexual violence are the most common types of crime I have come across. I see victims through the process of contacting the police, preparing for court, reassuring them as necessary and showing them around the court environment.  I also sit with victims in the Witness room or CCTV room if necessary and answer any questions they may have on the process.

I feel working across court and community volunteering for VSS helps inform my understanding of both sides of the role. Helping victims prepare for the court process ahead of trial helps me better assist them on the day and understand their experience – it gives me a step by step understanding of their experience, seeing the full journey they undertake.

The pandemic effect on the justice system 
Since the pandemic started, I’ve found the number of referrals and subsequently my workload has increased. However, while it’s not been easy, it has given, in some instances, more time to prepare for difficult cases.  On another positive, while delays have not been ideal, the fact there is no one in the public gallery has benefitted some witnesses who feel happier and safer testifying in court. The staggered entrances have also benefitted some vulnerable witnesses who are nervous of testifying.

From educator to volunteer 
My experience of teaching has proved helpful in my role. I’m used to working with parents and families, listening without jumping in or judgement. I do my best to always be approachable and have also had to develop good communication skills throughout my career. I’d also say I had good management skills and the ability to multi-task, both of which are invaluable at VSS.

I am developing my knowledge of the criminal justice system and how it operates and impacts on victims of crime. I also understand how to be a good listener and that I can’t always ‘problem solve’ as I would wish to but need to be there to win people’s trust to support them through the criminal justice system in the best way possible.

I enjoy helping people. I get to see people through horrendous situations, walking them through their struggles and recover. It’s great to see them come out the other side and say, “I don’t need you now, I’m ready to do this on my own”. I also think it’s an incredibly well-run organisation. The staff are knowledgeable, approachable, trustworthy and supportive of all the volunteers.

The training is excellent and comprehensive and there is good management support for the role. It’s not for everyone, as you need to have the right outlook and skillset. It’s not always easy to maintain an empathetic outlook and it can be difficult to hear the kind of situations you come across in the realm of criminal justice, some stories can be hard to hear.  However, it is very rewarding for the right volunteer candidate.

The role is rewarding, challenging and worthwhile and I wanted an interesting, challenging role which helped me use my skills to help others – which I’ve found at VSS.

Victim Support Scotland is recruiting for support volunteers across the country. To find out more about our volunteering opportunities and application process, visit our volunteering pages