A familiar face returned to the Pima County Attorney’s Office last month, taking on the role of director of Victim Services Division. Vanessa Helms returned to the office Oct. 16, after more than a decade of experience working with victims of crime.
In 2016, Helms was named the executive director of Homicide Survivors, a nonprofit organization meeting the needs of families of murder victims. She previously worked at the County Attorney’s Office for 12 years.
The Star spoke to Helms about why she made the switch back to the County Attorney’s Office and her plans for the Victim Services Division.
Q: How did your role as executive director of Homicide Survivors prepare you for your role as director of Victim Services?
A: “My story is kind of a circular journey. When I first started in the victim services field 13 years ago, I actually started at the County Attorney’s Office. I coordinated the volunteer program, worked as an advocate, coordinated the Victim Compensation Program and worked with Homicide Survivors through that time.
“Then, about 1½ years ago, the former director left, so I moved over to Homicide Survivors. I had been working in the victim services field all of that time and then working as the director of Homicide Survivors gave me the insight to the administrative role I now have at Victim Services.
“It’s really a combination of the work that I’d previously done at the Pima County Attorney’s Office compiled with the director position at Homicide Survivors that gave me all of the skills, information and experience that I need to now work as director of the Victim Services Division.”
Q: What got you into the victim services field?
A: “When I graduated from the University of Arizona, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do like a lot of college graduates. My first job outside of college was working at Child and Family Resources as a case manager. I worked with families who were having a tough time and who needed resources.
“I really loved it. I just found that being able to offer help was really fulfilling to me and I felt like because I was able to, I should. That was really important. It was so nice to see growth and change when people got information that maybe they didn’t have before. It was just so fulfilling to see that change in people and know that I could help.
“I then got my master’s in counseling because my supervisor at the time had a master’s in counseling. I knew that was sort of the direction I wanted to go. Through that program at the University of Phoenix, I realized that the direct therapeutic services, sort of sitting down one-on-one on a couch, wasn’t really as fulfilling to me.
“I was still in the social services field and when the position opened up at the County Attorney’s Office I thought that it sounded really interesting, especially with the volunteer program and crisis response. I got the job there and that was my first exposure to crime victims, which was really powerful. I’ve been working with crime victims ever since.”
Q: What are you most excited about moving forward as director of the Victim Services Division?
A: “The Victim Services Division has an amazing reputation not only in the state, but also around the country and even the world. For over 40 years now, the Victim Services Division has responded all over the world to provide services or training for other advocates. For example, we just had a team of staff and volunteers who responded to Las Vegas after the shooting.
“To be a director of an organization that has that stellar reputation is a lot of responsibility, but I think it’s also an opportunity to continue to uphold that reputation, to work with some of the best of the best. We’re so fortunate in Pima County that we have such an extensive program for crime victims and to be able to work in collaboration with all of the advocates and other community organizations in Tucson.
“It’s such an amazing network of victim services providers and I’m really looking forward to being able to continue to build those collaborations to provide the best services to victims and maintain that reputation.”
Q: As director, what projects do you hope to work on in the future?
A: “Victim Services has traditionally been and is currently involved in a lot of initiatives that I’m excited to be able to continue to work on and expand upon.
“One is a lethality assessment that currently some law enforcement jurisdictions utilize at the scene of a crime, asking questions of domestic violence victims to determine how lethal their situation is. Victim Services is currently involved in a collaboration to enhance and expand that. Arizona Supreme Court right now is determining whether or not this is a form that can be utilized all over Arizona statewide, so I’m really excited about that possibility because it’s going to save lives. The County Attorney’s Office years ago worked with a small number of law enforcement agencies to implement this project working with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence and brought it here to Pima County. It’s also a collaboration with Emerge Center Against Domestic Abuse.
“It has saved lives and I think it could save even more, so I’m really excited about the possibilities of that collaboration and that initiative.”
Q: Is there anything the general public should know about Victim Services?
A: “I think that for those of us who have been fortunate enough to not have experienced a victimization, it’s nice to know that there’s something out there that’s making our community stronger. And to know that if, God forbid, anything did happen, that there’s something there for you. That there are people that can be supportive right after the moment that it’s occurred and can walk with you through the criminal justice system and to know that you’re not alone. We have a strong team of advocates willing and ready to provide that emotional support and information that’s going to get you through.
Q: Does it ever take an emotional toll working with victims and survivors?
A: “It absolutely does. Everybody has a different way to do the work to make sure that they’re not going to take on what we call vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. It’s important to be able to have a level of self-awareness to know when you’re feeling like you’re taking on those emotions.
“Fortunately, one of the benefits of working with a team of advocates, is that you always have someone that you can talk to and say ‘I’m having a really rough time,’ and have people there to support you. It’s important to have that level of awareness, and after doing it for so many years, having an understanding of what your boundaries are — to know when you’re starting to take it on and knowing how to take care of yourself. We really encourage our advocates to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.
“In Pima County, there’s an awesome wellness program that really offers a lot for employees to take advantage of, so they can take care of themselves when they’re taking care of so many other people.”