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Principal Deputy Director Katharine Sullivan of the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women Remarks at Roper Victim Assistance Academy of Maryland Commencement Keynote


Baltimore, MD
United States


It is so exciting to be here today with the next generation of leaders in the field of victim services!  I know you will be changing lives and preventing future crimes as you start your new jobs or grow your current careers.  Thank you Deb Stanley for inviting me to address your graduating class. 

I came to Washington, DC a few months ago, so I share your enthusiasm to tackle new challenges and seize new opportunities.  I left the beautiful mountains of Colorado to serve my country, and I am proud to lead the Office on Violence Against Women at the United States Department of Justice.  The Office’s mission is to provide federal leadership in developing the nation’s capacity to reduce violence against women and administer justice for and strengthen services to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

Every day the Office on Violence Against Women staff work collaboratively to fulfil this mission, and we work with you to create and implement coordinated community responses to sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

The efficacy of the coordinated community response was recently demonstrated in Michigan’s Sexual Assault Unit, based in the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, successfully prosecuted Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics who sexually assaulted over 150 young women and girls. The OVW grant also assisted in providing access to services for Nassar’s victims.    

The Roper Victim Assistance Academy of Maryland has done remarkable work for the last 15 years.  Since 2003, the Academy has graduated 642 basic level participants and over 2,700 advanced training participants.  Those participants represent more than 200 organizations and agencies, and came from seven states, Washington, DC and China. 

And now you will take everything you have learned and apply it in your work serving victims and meeting the needs in your communities.  You will save lives with this knowledge. 

The field of victim services is still growing, and you have so many remarkable opportunities to make your mark, to change for the better how the entire field responds when a child discloses sexual abuse, a woman needs emergency domestic violence shelter, or man seeks trauma-informed help from the police.  You will tackle complex issues, like the intersection of opioid abuse, domestic violence, and human trafficking. 

One particular strength you will bring is a professional approach to victim assistance.  Professionalizing victim assistance is the wave of the future – you are all at the forefront of this field as a result of your degrees and certifications from the Academy.

Professionalizing the field is important for many reasons.  Trained service providers can facilitate access to services and assist victims to exercise their rights, while untrained professionals sometimes make complex issues overwhelming and compound a victim's confusion, frustration, and fear.  Degrees and certifications like those from the Academy help to raise the professional standards, which in turn raises the quality of services.  Certification of professionals also reduces the likelihood of re-victimizing crime victims and helps to ensure that victims' rights are honored. 

I know all of you care deeply or you would not be called to work with survivors. As I talk to people in the field across this nation, I hear so many say, “It’s not enough! There are still so many being abused and assaulted!” I have felt this way myself many times.

But today, I urge you to think about the tremendous opportunities before you, to change balance from injustice to justice, from despair to hope.

I know this is possible because I have seen it in my own life.  I had the great privilege of being on the front lines to see the impact of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), particularly in the criminal justice system. I was in Washington, DC when VAWA first passed in 1994. As a prosecutor in 2000, I handled the very first cases prosecuted under new, much stronger, domestic violence laws in Colorado. I helped educate our law enforcement officers on proper investigation techniques.

We developed effective advocacy and services for victims of crime, and we worked tirelessly to hold offenders accountable. As a private practitioner, I assisted survivors in pursuing restraining orders and divorces.  I served on the Victim Compensation Board to ensure that victims received the support they needed.

In my last 11 years serving as a state trial court judge, I developed protocols in the courtroom to protect victims. I presided over thousands of domestic violence and restraining order cases, and I experienced firsthand an effective coordinated community response.

Think about this: In my 17 years working in the criminal justice system, we have gone from initial implementation of domestic violence laws to offering nuanced wrap-around services that meet survivors where they are.  Offenders are held accountable.  Service providers meet the complex and diverse needs of adult and child survivors of many types of crime.

There is no doubt a multidisciplinary team approach to combatting violence is the approach that works. I created and presided over two problem-solving courts in my time as a judge, and I know that there is magic in the team. It is very powerful to bring together committed, caring representatives from law enforcement, the District Attorney’s office, and victim service providers to share ideas and develop solutions unique to each community.

The future of our work must be better collaboration, closer working relationships, and partnering across every agency that touches the lives of victims. The future will be integrated models that produce greater accountability for offenders and safety, hope, and healing for adult and child survivors. I look forward to working with all of you to achieve that future.  By professionalizing the field and stressing the importance of a coordinated community response, we can get people out of their silos and working together for the most important person, the survivor. 

As you go on to the next step in your career, I encourage you to coordinate with Project Safe Neighborhoods. This initiative is a high priority for Attorney General Jeff Sessions as we strive to reduce violent crime and make our communities safe for all.   Project Safe Neighborhood is another example of the strength in community collaboration in combatting violent crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence.   

And I encourage you to embrace your roles as agents of changes, whatever job you do.  Do your work well, with passion and conviction.  Hold yourselves and others to the high standards you have learned here at the academy.  Speak up on behalf of victims.  Boldly share your ideas.  Actions that seem small can generate tremendous change, like the ripples spreading across the lake from just one small stone.    

All the change I have witnessed has been done by individuals just like you, in small steps over time.  And we have changed the way this nation responds to domestic and sexual violence in just 20 years.  How many more wonderful things can you do in the next 20?  I can’t wait to find out. 

Congratulations and best wishes in everything you do.

Updated June 8, 2018