How to Become a Victim Advocate

Victim advocates have the unique opportunity to restore agency to people who have suffered unjustly. But with that opportunity comes a responsibility to center the choices and needs of the client, lead with compassion and work toward a more just society. 

This guide covers information about what it takes to become a victim advocate, potential careers for individuals interested in this path and the skills demonstrated by effective victim advocates. Read on to learn more about how victim advocates make a difference in their clients’ lives and shape communities for the better.

What Is a Victim Advocate?

What is a victim advocate, and what does a victim advocate do? Victim advocates are a type of social worker providing support and services to people who have been the victim of a crime. While they do not provide counseling like a therapist, victim advocates are trained to listen, solve problems and connect individuals to resources such as counseling, financial tools, academic support and legal services. Survivor advocacy groups like the Global Survivor Network, Rape Crisis Center, National Safety Council and the International Justice Mission offer similar services to a variety of clients.

Stacy Kolcum, an advocate at the Health & Counseling Center at the University of Denver, says that victim advocates are similar to case managers in that they work with individuals one on one and offer a variety of services. “We’re really playing whatever role the victim or survivor needs us to be, as long as it’s within our scope,” she said. 
In a 2021 report on elevating victims’ voices in critical times [PDF, 754 KB], the National District Attorneys Association described the role and work of victim advocates:

What Does a Victim Advocate Do?

  • Individual case management
  • Counselor referrals
  • Legal system navigation
  • Academic support advocacy
  • Child and welfare support
  • Housing and shelter connections

How Does a Victim Advocate Approach Clients?

  • Trauma-informed healing 
  • Healing-centered engagement
  • Person-centered care
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Social responsibility
  • Consent and autonomy

“We try to emphasize ways to restore autonomy in the process for the victim to make sure that they are not revictimized,” said Kolcum, who has worked in the field for seven years. “Most of them have experienced violence directly related to power and control, so giving back power and choice to that survivor is the most fundamental piece of the healing process.” 

Victim vs. Survivor

Additionally, a key way for victim advocates to approach clients with consent is to ask them how they’d like to be identified because people may react differently to the use of the terms “victim” or “survivor.” Kolcum explained the difference between the two and how to engage with a client about empowering language: 

A victim is a legal term historically used by the criminal justice system for people who have been affected by a crime. A survivor is an empowering term signaling that a person has exhibited resilience and begun the healing process. How to know which term to use: Always ask individuals how they’d like to be identified. Examples of questions include: How do you feel about these terms? Do you want me to use either of these for you? Do you feel more comfortable with one than the other?

“Somebody who has been victimized might not identify as either of those things. They might not feel like they are empowered or at a place where they can identify with a survivor label yet—or maybe ever,” Kolcum said.

For more insight into the two terms and how they are to be used, explore Victim or Survivor: Terminology From Investigation Through Prosecution [PDF, 70 KB], put together by the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) and RTI International, and related resources online. 

Education Requirements for Victim Advocacy

The path to becoming a victim advocate may differ by person. Victim advocates may hold a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field such as psychology or criminal justice. However, some professionals pursue a graduate degree such as a master’s in social work because of the field hours and certifications included within higher education programs.  

The following organizations offer recommended but voluntary victim advocate certification and victim advocate training for individuals seeking to work in the field or enhance their professional development:

Kolcum said that some of the crucial learning comes from experiences in the field, which is why it can be beneficial to start out as a volunteer to understand the day-to-day and career expectations. 

“I’ve always felt drawn to issues that need a lot of support,” she said. “When I started by volunteering, I learned about the impacts of trauma and just how many wide scale issues that exist can be connected directly to the effects of trauma,” such as health outcomes, parenting styles, career management and more.

Victim Advocate Careers

A 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report on victim service providers [PDF, 1.3MB] said that the largest sector for employment is nonprofit and faith-based organizations (45%), followed by government agencies (43%). The adaptability of victim advocate jobs means they can be found in a range of fields and social work settings

  • Criminal justice system 
  • Local government offices 
  • Counseling centers 
  • Universities and colleges 
  • Medical facilities
  • Social services programs 
  • Nonprofit organizations

Even when working in one field, victim advocates may collaborate with professionals who work in related, surrounding fields. “I went into the field at a very micro level, working directly with folks on a one-on-one basis,” Kolcum explained. “And now I see more opportunities to intervene at a systems level, whether it be at the university or through legislation, providing information to folks to try to shift attitudes around these issues.”

Individual careers may vary depending on the specific population served by the organization, such as fields that focus on sexual violence, elder abuse, financial crimes or domestic violence.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center curates and frequently updates a comprehensive list of organizations that have victim advocate jobs for a variety of populations and other types of social workers who support them. 

Suggested Skills Needed for Victim Advocacy

Victim advocates offer many services to different types of clients and need to be well versed in fulfilling a variety of needs. According to the U.S. Department of Justice report on basic skills for serving victims and at-risk individuals [PDF, 1.1MB], an effective advocate will spend their career building the following skills: 

– Empathy 
– Flexibility
– Adaptability
– Communication 
– Compassion
– Boundary-setting 

– Self-care 
– Problem-solving
– Accountability
– Trustworthiness
– Teamwork
– Advocacy

“Survivors can show up in all different ways, and a lot of the time, advocates kind of have to be the person who absorbs whatever they’re feeling,” Kolcum said. “You have to hold space for that and have empathy for the ways that other folks might not have the same priorities as we do.”

An appetite for learning is important for advocates who may work in different settings and need to learn the complexities of the legal system, healthcare field and/or academic institutions. 

Victim Advocacy FAQs

The work of victim advocates can be misunderstood because advocates often wear many hats and work differently with each client. The common questions below may help aspiring advocates understand the parameters of the field and what education they need first.

How much does a victim advocate make?

Victim advocate salary will vary by employer, job location and years of experience among other factors. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that advocacy is an important part of social work and provides the following information about median annual salary as of May 2020, based on the specific settings where social work professionals may find work:

$57,660: Local government, excluding education and hospitals
$52,850: Ambulatory healthcare services
$49,860: State government, excluding education and hospitals
$43,820: Individual and family services

Is a career in victim advocacy worth it?

Victim advocacy can be a demanding career, but professionals may find the impact to be rewarding, especially if they enjoy helping others. 

“I still love and enjoy and get so much meaning out of this work,” Kolcum said.

She encouraged aspiring advocates to be intentional about self-care and work-life balance. “You can’t show up for other people unless you’re showing up for yourself,” she said. 

Do victim advocates need special licensing?

Victim advocates do not need to be a licensed clinical social worker, nor do they need a victim advocate license to be employed. 

Though it is not required, aspiring advocates may find it beneficial to pursue higher education in the field of social work because they will learn about the fundamentals and complexities of macro-level systems that affect victim advocacy, as well as strategies for counseling and other services that can help survivors. 

Do any schools offer a concentration in victim advocacy services? 

Yes, some colleges and universities offer a concentration in victim advocacy services that covers specialized courses for learning how to provide services to crime victims, survivors of domestic violence and clients with a history of trauma. 

Some universities also offer certificates designed for professionals who are already working in the fields of social work or criminal justice and are seeking more information about how to support victims or provide advocacy. 

Last updated January 2022.