Tell Us About It: Victim Research Convos


In this CVR podcast series, we talk with those doing research and serving victims and learn about the work they've done together.

Tell Us About It, Episode 14: Launching the First- Ever National Survey of Victim Service Providers (NSVSP)

A convo with Heather Warnken and Jennifer O’Brien May 17Time: 25:02

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On this episode of Tell Us About It, we’re joined by Heather Warnken and Jennifer O’Brien to talk about the new National Survey for Victim Service Providers (NSVSP), which is a part of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the Office for Victims of Crime’s Victim Services Statistical Research Program. We cover the goal of the survey, how it complements the National Census of Victim Service Providers conducted in 2017, and how the results could impact the field of victim services.

Heather Warnken is a Visiting Fellow at the US Department of Justice, co-affiliated with the Office for Victims of Crime and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Her position is designed to bridge the gap between research and practice for the victim assistance field, and she has worked in the Victim Services Statistical Research Program for four years.

Jennifer O’Brien is a Senior Study Director for Westat, a professional services company that contracts with various federal agencies to provide data collection services. She is also one of the Project Directors for the NSVSP, and has been overseeing large national surveys in a similar vein for 20 years.

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Susan Howley: Welcome to Tell Us About It: Victim Research Convos, a podcast from the Center for Victim Research with support from the Office for Victims of Crime. On each episode of Tell Us About It, we talk to researchers and practitioners about their work, the tools being built for use in the field, and how we can work together to build an evidence base for victim services. Today we’re talking with Jennifer O’Brien and Heather Warnken about the National Survey of Victim Service Providers, called the NSVSP. Welcome, and can you please introduce yourselves?

Jennifer O’Brien: Hello everyone, I am Jennifer O’Brien. I work for a company called Westat. We are a professional services company that often contracts with various federal agencies to provide data collection services, among other kinds of professional services. We’ve been working on the NSVSP, in collaboration with the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Office for Victims of Crime, since 2017. I am one of the project directors for this work and I have been overseeing large national surveys like this one for almost 20 years.

Heather Warnken: And hello everyone, I’m Heather Warnken. I’m currently serving in my 4th year as Visiting Fellow at the US Department of Justice, and I’m actually co-affiliated with the Office for Victims of Crime – which as many listeners know is also known as OVC – and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in the first position designed to bridge the gap between research and practice for the victim assistance field. I am specifically focused on improving translation and dissemination of statistical data, and in that capacity I have been working on the NSVSP and related projects in the broader Victim Services Statistical Research Program since coming to the Department in January of 2016. And before that I served on the National Project Input Committee, from my previous role as a legal policy associate at the Warren Institute on Law & Social Policy, which is a research center that’s part of the law school at UC Berkeley School of Law.

Susan Howley: Thank you both. Now, tell us about this new National Survey for Victim Service Providers. What’s the “elevator speech”?

Jennifer O’Brien: Sure! The overall goal of the NSVSP is to provide a national picture of how Victim Service Providers (which I will occasionally abbreviate to “VSPs”) – how these are structured to provide services to victims of crime and abuse, it’s to collect information on available services, the number of victims that are served, gaps in services, and human resources questions that are also critical to the field. The collection of this kind of really detailed information will assist funders and policymakers in better understanding the work and the needs of VSPs.

Heather Warnken: Exactly. As mentioned, this groundbreaking survey is part of a broader initiative – BJS’ Victim Services Statistical Research Program, launched in partnership with OVC.  We have long had in the US robust statistical data on various areas of victimization collected directly from victims, but not from the diverse service providers and entities who serve them. In 2013, OVC released its Vision 21 report, and this was really the first major assessment of the field in over 15 years. This historic report provided an in-depth look into the progress made since the field’s early milestones and passage of the Victims of Crime Act in 1984, while also identifying substantial gaps that persist today. Through Vision 21, OVC issued a series of findings and recommendations; first among them: the recognition of the dearth of research and analysis on critical topics related to victim services, and really the need to support the development of a corresponding body of evidence-based knowledge, including data on victimization, trends and services to guide the field. So complementing the statistical data that we have from victims, this NSVSP is a major step in these efforts to produce what will be the most comprehensive quantitative snapshot and source of data on this field to date.

Susan Howley: How does this new effort – the NSVSP – relate to the National Census of Victim Service Providers that BJS funded two years ago?

Jennifer O’Brien: The NSVSP is a follow-up to that first-ever National Census of Victim Service Providers that ended in 2017. While that survey effort was a census of all victim service providers, the current survey is a sample of VSPs that are hopefully representative of the national landscape and it collects more detailed information that really just could not be collected on the census. But through that census we learned that there were about 12,000 VSPs in the country.

So for a census, as you can imagine, it is very expensive and it is very time-consuming to conduct, where every single member of a group is enumerated and they are asked to complete the survey, especially if we are asking detailed questions about the field. So this work was planned as a 2-phase effort: First a census to establish the universe of VSPs in the country and to gather information about their characteristics, followed by the current NSVSP survey, which collects deeper and more detailed information that could not be collected in the census.

Heather Warnken: Exactly. And really, I can’t underscore enough what a major potential contribution and opportunity this first-ever census and survey represent for the field.  And what a thoughtful process requires in building this infrastructure from the ground up. We take for granted, for example, that there is a basic body of statistical information we can turn to try to understand more about the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in this country. Building these sources took time and longstanding effort, and a dynamic partnership between the federal statistical agencies and the field. It required consistent participation from the agencies and entities surveyed. It requires timely release of data, and updates and improvements to the way it’s collected. The result is greater understanding of a key topic in our criminal justice system and society, and uses for the data that come out of it that span policy and funding planning to transparency and more. And that work on the BJS side started in the 1980s from square one.

Similarly, moving from anecdote to evidence in the victim services realm requires important building blocks as well. So, as Jennifer mentioned, it was clear that in order to create the ability to survey and understand this complex and important field – which, of course, spans criminal justice, public health, social services, the nonprofit realm and more – the first step required identifying and gathering a core body of high level and basic information from all possible entities in order to establish and organize this working frame.

So also as Jennifer described, as the first survey, the NCVSP (the census) addressed core characteristics, such as structure – and by that I mean, for example, are these entities primarily providing services to victims, such as a domestic violence shelter or rape crisis center, compared to services that might come through dedicated staff or programs within a larger structure or entity, such as a hospital-based violence intervention program or through a legal aid bureau?  Following that necessary initial step of establishing this national frame, the NSVSP will provide us an opportunity to go deeper, collecting more detailed information about services provided, demographics of victims served, human resources issues, VSP-noted barriers and gaps, and other relevant categories of information critical to understanding and improving responses to victims and this workforce.

Susan Howley: So, in a sense, each respondent’s answers here to the survey will be really important, because they were all selected to be representative of other service providers, right? Because you used the census as a frame and then selected representative services. Is that accurate?

Jennifer O’Brien: Yes, that is exactly right. And that is the nature of a sample survey, so it’s vitally important that the VSPs that were selected for this survey respond because they represent not just themselves, but also VSPs that are similar to them. So it’s terribly important that the results represent the wide array of VSPs that are out there. For example, if we don’t have enough hospital-based or campus-based VSPs respond to the survey, we will be really limited in what learn about these types of VSPs and, of course, what we can report about them.

Susan Howley: So, Jennifer, did this project involve victim service providers in developing this survey?

Jennifer O’Brien: Yes, absolutely, it did at every stage. It was so important that we engage members of the VSP community at all stages of the process, starting with the census straight through to now. There was, for example, a Project Input Committee that I believe Heather mentioned earlier. It was comprised of 50 representatives from the VSP community that weighed in prior to and during the survey development. We also held expert panel meetings with representatives from the community, as well as from OVC and the Office on Violence Against Women. In addition to that, there were over 40 cognitive testing interviews conducted on drafts of the survey with volunteers again from the VSP community, and then we also conducted usability testing on the instrument itself after it was programmed to make sure that it was clear and easy to navigate. We are so well aware of how critical it is to engage members of the field and to have input from a diverse group of representatives.

Heather Warnken: This was really a field-engaged effort from the very beginning and I’d like to talk a little bit more about what that really looks like. Beginning in January 2016, for example, that phase of the project – my fellowship position bridging these agencies for the first time further positioned us to continuously value and revisit a range of perspectives from across the department and the field. One of the points that I share frequently in my work around improving translation and dissemination of data is that this is not just about making information more accessible to the practitioners, policymakers, funders and other critical actors who might actually apply it in the field. For example, through better summary of findings; doing more to share them in a clear, concise, non-academic way; or in venues more common and useful to the many non-researcher stakeholders that might be interested, including the vast majority of us who do not have a PhD in stats.

These forms of better translation and dissemination that I just referenced are important, of course, and we certainly need to be doing much more of all of that. However, equally important if not more so is getting potential users of the data, and certainly the subjects of the data – whether they be practitioners, survivors, or others directly impacted by these issues – at the design and decision-making table of what information gets collected and why. So that in efforts like this, we’re pursuing relevant questions in a way that’s actually capable of speaking to the timely issues and challenges within the field. This isn’t just about bridging the research to practice gap that vexes so many societal issues and subject areas. It’s really bridging the research to reality gap. And the Victim Services Statistical Research Program presented an amazing opportunity to practice these values involving victim service providers at all stages, because again we were really building this infrastructure from the ground up.

So, as Jennifer referenced, whether it be identifying a broad range of expert panel or cognitive testing participants, or even partners in the field who have played and will continue to play a pivotal role in spreading the word about participating in this survey, this has really involved a lot of outreach and thinking and planning, especially with a field as diverse as the victim services field. Representation means hearing the voices of many different providers, whether they’re based in the community, the justice system, the health or social services realm, and/or who are working with specific populations of victims, such as in a tribal context, for example, or those who are disproportionately impacted by a particular type of crime. It also means hearing diversity of race, ethnicity, age, geography and otherwise from our participants, because much like much like victims and survivors, VSPs are not a monolithic group.

Especially given the range of information that policymakers and practitioners are hungry for, part of the challenge has been balancing wanting to ask all the questions of interest and importance – including specific questions that might just apply to each type of victim service provider – with the need to not overly burden this field. Survey length and ease are of course other critical factors in setting this effort up for success through high participation rates. We have seen time and time again since this work started how many competing, often crisis-driven demands exist on service providers’ time and attention. The survey design must honor that reality and fit realistically within their priorities, the first of which is serving victims in their communities and on the front lines.

Susan Howley: So it sounds like this process has been very inclusive and very thoughtful, and that you all were really trying to make sure that the right voices were at the table and that you were thinking about the constraints that would be on your potential respondents. Now, what are you hoping to learn from this survey that wasn’t part of the census?

Jennifer O’Brien: As we described earlier, there are some important differences between what was asked on the census survey and what’s asked on this sample survey. This sample survey is our only opportunity to ask for detailed information about, for example, the number of victims that are served, victim characteristics, human resources within the VSP, and barriers to providing service. In comparison to the census survey, the NSVSP is longer – we estimate it takes about 45 minutes to complete – and some VSPs will have to consult their records in order to answer some of the questions. In recognition of that, we have designed the web survey so that it can be completed in multiple sessions and answers that have been entered are saved when you come back for another session. Once the respondent has logged in to the survey, as well, there’s a PDF available so you can review all of the items on the survey before you start answering questions.

Heather Warnken: So really, every opportunity for the field to provide more detailed information is an improvement over what we had before, which, as we’ve been describing, in many cases was nothing. For example, with increased funding driving hiring increases through the field in the past couple of years, human resources related topics are an especially timely contribution to the knowledge base. This is coinciding with growing conversations regarding whether the VSP community is representative or otherwise culturally attuned to the individuals, families, and communities needing its support.  Especially given the reality that some people and populations experience crime and violence at disproportional rates, how is what we’re doing tailored to those needs?

Susan Howley: You mentioned that there will be questions or that you’re hoping to learn more about the barriers to providing victim services. What kinds of information would the survey reveal? Are there open-ended questions about barriers? Or are you looking for specific sorts of topic areas?

Jennifer O’Brien: So yes, there are both closed-ended and open-ended opportunities for our respondents to describe the kinds of barriers that they have. So, for example, we have the following question on the survey: What was the primary reason that victims seeking services could not be served by your organization or program in the past year? So we offer some responses for the respondent to check off, things like the program reached capacity, services were inappropriate for the victim, the victim’s situation or the crime type did not meet requirements (statutory or otherwise) for receiving services. But we also have “other,” in which the respondent can list other barriers that are not listed. We also asked on the survey: Are there any services that your clients need that are difficult to obtain in your area? And if they respond “yes,” then we ask for the top three services that the clients find difficult to obtain in their area.

Susan Howley: Great, so now I have a really clear picture of how this survey dives so much deeper than what you could get out of a census.

Heather Warnken: Exactly, and that question is a great example of where this is really a building block. So in practical terms in responding to a question like that and choosing one category over another, for example, that’s not necessarily going to tell us if that response applied to all types of victims. There’s a lot of nuance and a lot of follow-up then that’d we’d need to really apply that type of information. But it’s a really important indicator of the priority areas that policymakers, funders, and practitioners can focus on when they think about improvements in the field.

Jennifer O’Brien: And of course, again, this is the only opportunity for gathering this type of information. It does not exist anywhere else.

Susan Howley: How will the results of this National Survey of Victim Service Providers be used, at the national level? And then, what might the results of this survey mean for individual programs and how will they be able to use the results?

Heather Warnken: That’s such an important question, and there are just so many potential uses. There has never been a more important time to think critically about taking a data-informed approach to victim services, and persistent gaps that have long been revealed through our victimization data, given that from both a resource and policy perspective, the field has been in the past few years in a state of unprecedented growth and change. As many of the podcast listeners likely know, in 2015, Congress effectively quadrupled the amount of money available for victim services through the Victims of Crime Act (or VOCA), removing a long-standing cap on these funds. Prior to this change, funding appropriations of the Crime Victims Fund were held at $745 million, for example, in fiscal year 2014, and jumped to $2.36 billion by the following year.

So with some fluctuation, this monumental increase has persisted, jumping yet again with the Crime Victims Fund limit set at $4.4 billion in fiscal year 2018. And as some had feared in the field, the cap actually saw its first decrease since all of this in fiscal year 2019, falling to $3.35 billion. So to answer your question, Susan, one of the key uses of this data at the state, national, and local level for example is to help inform key questions surrounding, how do we ensure a meaningful return on investment of these funds?

Furthermore, within certain parameters, all states retain wide discretion on both the types of services and providers they fund, under guidance that changed significantly in 2016. So basically during the same time frame as this historic – some might even say jaw-dropping – monetary increase through VOCA for the field, OVC issued a new rule interpreting what are the allowable uses of these funds. This new rule provided the field with much greater flexibility in a number of key areas. The rule makes permissive — not mandatory — a host of new tools for the states in using their funds in areas not previously considered or invested in in many jurisdictions. This includes, for example, civil legal services, restorative justice opportunities, transitional housing, relocation, mental health and substance use treatment tailored to meet the needs of those impacted by various forms of violence and other forms of trauma.

It also includes investing in multi-system, multi-disciplinary coordinated responses. The NSVSP will provide a new context for thinking about many of these discussions, including identifying strategies for diversifying or rethinking the approach to services where the data might indicate a challenge or opportunity to better respond to victim need. When combined with our existing sources of victimization data, or other relevant sources of information on crime, violence, and harm at the systemic, community, state, or local level, users may for the first time have a quantitative basis to analyze key questions. Even starting with the census data for example, this includes for the first time a data-informed opportunity to address: How does the geographic distribution of VSP staff in a state or city compare to crime distributions and other indicators of need?

And lastly, at the programmatic level, VSPs will have a basis of comparison to understand questions such as: How does their staffing or other decisions fit within a national or regional landscape? To be clear, there are always imperfections and limitations to what quantitative data can speak to and even with full, engaged participation the NSVSP is no exception. But these unprecedented opportunities to better understand what’s actually happening out there for victims and this workforce are why participation is so critical. The value of these data is directly related to ongoing buy-in from the field.

Susan Howley: What is the timeline for the NSVSP? Has it launched?

Jennifer O’Brien: Yes, it has launched. The survey is now open and almost all the VSPs that have been selected to participate in the survey have received 2 contacts from us, either by mail or by email. Of course, the faster that we get responses to the survey, the more cost effective the effort is and the faster we can move to the next stages of the project such as cleaning the data and sharing the results. It’s hard to say how long the survey will be kept open because that will depend on the response from the field, so again we really do urge the VSPs that have been selected to respond sooner rather than later. Having said that, we do expect that a research brief and the data from the census of VSPs will be released by the end of this year.

Susan Howley: How will people be able to follow your progress or see the results?

Jennifer O’Brien: Well, of course, we’re always happy to talk about the work, so feel free to reach out to us anytime. You can email the project team at Also, if you have been invited to take the survey but you have a question about it, please don’t hesitate to email us at that address. You can also call us at 1-855-857-9454.

Susan Howley: Jennifer and Heather, thank you for your time today. It is important for all of us to stay informed about these national research efforts that directly affect the crime victims’ field.

Heather Warnken: Thank you so much, Susan.

Jennifer O’Brien: Our pleasure, Susan, thank you so much.