ST. PAUL — Nearly two dozen Minnesota victim advocates this month came together for an annual basic training course aimed at preparing those new to the field for any case that could come their way.

Victim advocates work with domestic violence centers, crisis hotlines, courts, nonprofits and other agencies to help victims heal after they experience a crime. Advocates can help people navigate the judicial process, direct a person to services, offer support to a victim and their family and otherwise lessen the impact of what someone has experienced.

In the last two years, they've seen instances of violent crime in Minnesota increase, paralleling trends across the country amid the pandemic and last year's civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd. And they've continued their efforts to help Minnesotans in crisis, even though many will never need their help.

"I kind of talk about being … people's best friends that you don't know about," said Kelly Nicholson, victim witness supervisor in the Dakota County Attorney's Office. "The tagline that we use so much is if you were a victim of crime. Help is available. We just really want people to know that you don't have to go through it yourself."

When your car is stolen, or a loved one is killed or you experience a domestic violence situation, victim advocates step in to help you process, find support and take your next steps.

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And early in their careers, hundreds of victim services providers over the last 15 years have turned to the state's Victim Assistance Academy to prep them for what they might face. In lieu of licensure or specific college degrees focused on victim advocacy, the 40-hour certification training gets early-career workers on the same page, Nicholson said.

"This is the basic training that we're getting to be able to do this difficult work," Nicholson said.

That core curriculum is crucial, Minnesota Victim Assistance Academy Director Joann Jones said. Jones facilitates the training program under the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs.

"Nobody ever wakes up in the morning thinking they're going to be a victim of crime, and you don't want people walking around thinking that," Jones said, "but you do want to be in capable hands, regardless if it's you or a loved one that is in that situation regardless of where you are in Minnesota, there are knowledgeable, extremely well-qualified advocates."

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Those qualifications can make a significant difference to the victim-survivors they serve. That's why Pethuel LeFlore-Cole decided to start sharing her story at the annual training about three years ago.

LeFlore-Cole left Chicago for the Twin Cities 18 years ago after she experienced domestic abuse. And when she sought out services in Minnesota, her advocate didn't listen to her and lacked cultural awareness to help support her.

As a result, LeFlore-Cole said she was re-traumatized and re-victimized working with the advocate and ultimately had to find a different one who better understood her.

"I had to learn to find my voice through working with an advocate and I had to begin to advocate for myself," LeFlore-Cole said. "As an advocate, you get people from all walks of life. Don't bucket anyone and treat people with dignity. Period."

Advocates in this year's academy cohort joined in St. Paul for a series of discussions about seeking justice for elders, LGBTQ victims and victims of color, understanding the criminal justice system, recognizing and responding to trauma and managing burnout on the job. And they learned from public safety, survivor assistants and nonprofit leaders from around the state.

"It's my responsibility to make sure that I'm passing on that knowledge and information to the advocates that will be here, you know, long after I've left the field," Artika Roller, executive director of Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said.

Artika Roller, executive director of Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, spoke with victim advocates at the Minnesota Victim Assistance Academy training in St. Paul. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
Artika Roller, executive director of Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, spoke with victim advocates at the Minnesota Victim Assistance Academy training in St. Paul. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Roller on Wednesday, Nov. 17, described for the group some of the ways that gender-based sexual violence can manifest and offered up strategies for advocates to help those experiencing it. And she pressed them to think about how the state's support systems could better meet the needs of all victims.

Later in the day, Farji Shaheer, Violence Intervention Specialist with Minneapolis' Next Step Program, taught how to understand people experiencing trauma and to communicate with them in a way that can help them heal. Shaheer is also a mental health associate at Regions Hospital and works in the community to empower people of color and reduce gun violence.

"My biggest goal right now is to change the lens of health care and our community to where we start viewing each other with value as opposed to viewing each other as a threat," Shaheer said.

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Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com