Philadelphia’s newly appointed victim advocate will begin next week, providing support services to crime victims and championing policy on their behalf, work that officials say is vital as the city weathers a historic surge in shootings.
Adara L. Combs, a former prosecutor who spent more than a decade in the District Attorney’s Office, will lead the Office of the Victim Advocate, which was created by legislation passed in 2020 and approved by voters through a ballot question. Mayor Jim Kenney appointed Combs to a six-year term, and she was confirmed by City Council last week.
Combs said Monday the office will be a hub for victims of crime and their families to seek help and be connected with service providers who offer financial assistance, trauma counseling, or advocacy during the criminal justice process. The office is modeled after a similar state agency created in 1995.
While Combs said the new Philadelphia office was “birthed out of necessity due to the amount of gun violence the city has seen,” it will serve all types of victims.
“Victims don’t only exist due to gun crimes,” she said. “But right now, we are facing a serious epidemic of gun violence, so that will be our initial focus.”
She said she will also advocate on behalf of crime victims as a group, including lobbying for legislation at the local and state level. The state office has led campaigns in support of a variety of legislative proposals, most notably Marsy’s Law, a controversial amendment to the state constitution that would have codified enforceable rights for crime victims. The state Supreme Court struck down the amendment in December on technical grounds.
The size of the Philadelphia office and its annual budget is yet to be determined. Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who chairs Council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention, said he will push for the city to allocate money “reflective of the need,” but would not specify a dollar figure.
Combs said she is clear-eyed that her office will not be able to advocate for every crime victim in the city. More than 1,000 people were killed in Philadelphia over the last two years. Thousands more survived being shot and many live with life-altering injuries or have been victims of robberies, assaults, or sexual violence.
She said the office will connect victims with existing services, whether they’re embedded in law enforcement, city agencies, or community-based nonprofits.
The District Attorney’s Office operates a unit dedicated to victim and witness services, but the majority of nonfatal shootings in the city do not result in an arrest, meaning many people who have been shot aren’t referred to the office.
Antiviolence activists say they hope the new office will bridge that gap and others. Aleida Garcia, the mother of a homicide victim and the president of the National Homicide Justice Alliance, said she has for years lobbied city officials to create an office dedicated to advocating for crime victims, to no avail — until now.
“Today is the beginning of a new era,” she said, “[and] a new way of thought about survivors of crime.”
Combs, a Philadelphia native, most recently led the juvenile unit in the District Attorney’s Office. She said she’s well-versed in the challenges crime victims and their families face — she said she has lost loved ones to violence, including a younger cousin killed this month.
“I don’t sit on a pedestal looking at all the trauma that happens,” she said. “The trauma that this city has endured touches each and every one of us.”