Photo of Muelen Bajo-Niebla
HPD Victim Advocate Muelen Bajo-Niebla helps victims of crime find a path out of their trauma. | Photo by Pete Mayes

Being a victim of a crime can be a life-altering experience. The journey back to some semblance of normal can be daunting. Victim advocates like Muelen Bajo-Niebla are crucial in helping victims start their journey. 

“It is a process. It doesn’t happen in one moment,” Bajo-Niebla explained. “There’s no one way of doing victim advocacy. You just have to meet that person where they are at.” 

Bajo-Niebla has worked for the Houston Police Department as a civilian victim advocate for almost nine years, specifically with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. As part of Victims Services, the program offers a variety of resources to help victims get to a point of healing. 

She also wants people to understand the difference between victim services and victim advocacy. 

“Victim services is a big umbrella that usually is in the system like the police department and the district attorney’s office, but we offer more than advocacy,” Bajo-Niebla said. “I see victim advocacy as someone who wants to be very engaged with a specific crime usually.” 

Bajo-Niebla started her career doing sexual assault advocacy, but also worked as a victims advocate for robberies, assault, domestic violence and even identity theft.  

“I see victim advocacy as someone who wants to be very engaged with a specific crime usually. Sometimes you want to be a liaison between the victim and the investigator,” she said. “And sometimes you’re advocating for someone to be let out of their apartment lease depending on the need of the victim.” 

HPD’s victim advocate program relies on state and federal resources to help guide victims where to go for help.  

“When someone is victimized in any type of crime, they don’t know what to do, so we try to give them those resources. With our advocates, we have some that are more involved in those specific crimes, and we work with them as well,” Bajo-Niebla said. 

Advocates also help crime victims apply for the crime compensation program, which can help with medical and counseling expenses, relocation expenses, and sometimes with lost wages. The financial assistance is not meant to be all-inclusive, she said, but rather is more about the initial expenses that victims incur as a result of a crime committed against them. 

Bajo-Niebla said victim advocates with the police department usually see victims during the initial crisis stage. They don’t always see it through to the end, but there are moments when victims may reach out to advocates later, she said. 

“AT HPD, we take care of the victim up until an arrest is made. Once that’s done, the case goes to the district attorney’s office, and they have their own victims’ services there. Some victims might still come back to us, but we’re also encouraging them to move forward so that they can get the best resources at the time of their process,” she said. 

Because it’s a stressful job, Bajo-Niebla said the job carries vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue attached to it. The advocate’s ability to shut down after work is important, she said. 

“I believe you have to have a self-care plan. When dealing with victims, that’s also what we encourage them to do,” she said. “We all have to take care of ourselves, but when you become a victim of a crime, it becomes an absolute need.” 

Bajo-Niebla said she also practices what she preaches. “I cannot just tell that to my victims; I have to do it myself. I personally like to read, be in nature, spend time with my family doing regular things, but also being mindful.  Even though there is a lot of violence in the world, you cannot live in it mentally all the time,” she said. 

Bajo-Niebla said the victims advocate program is important not only in the police department, but every system where victims come in contact, such as hospitals. 

“We need victim advocates throughout the community. Specifically in the police department they help a lot,” she said. “It’s important to have different types of expertise in the department to be able to provide a more victim-centered service to our community.”