2023 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Carolyn Hightower

Empowered victims of crime, mass violence and terrorism by developing, implementing and overseeing landmark victim support programs and professionalizing the field of victim assistance.

The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City—the deadliest domestic terror attack in U.S. history—posed extraordinary challenges for our federal government, which at the time lacked a coherent model to support victims of terrorism and mass violence.  

Today, this model exists thanks largely to Carolyn Hightower, deputy director of the Administration for Children and Families’ Office on Trafficking in Persons. Over the course of a nearly 40-year career, Hightower has transformed America’s ability to meet the needs of victims of crime and terrorism, implementing critical programs in Oklahoma City and across the nation and professionalizing the field of victim assistance. 

“Carolyn has been instrumental in the establishment of rights and services for victimized groups and people in this country,” said Katherine Chon, director of the Office on Trafficking in Persons. 

Responding to the Oklahoma City bombing 

Hightower’s career began in the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime in 1984. She served there for 23 years, rising from fellow to principal deputy director, and led the implementation of the Victims of Crime Act, developing and overseeing programs that touched every state and more than 6,400 direct service organizations nationwide.  

According to Steve Derene, former executive director of the National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators, these programs “continue to directly help millions of crime victims throughout the nation.”   

Her work at the state level proved crucial after the Oklahoma City attack. According to Steve Siegel, a former director at Denver’s district attorney’s office, Hightower served as the point person for a massive federal-local and cross-sector effort to support the survivors and members of their families, who came to Colorado after a federal judge moved the bombing suspects’ criminal trials out of Oklahoma.  

A major achievement was developing the Colorado-Oklahoma Resource Council, which brought together 18 organizations to coordinate local services for survivors, including mental and medical health assistance, transportation, hotel and food vouchers, and a closed-circuit TV broadcast of the trial for those who remained in Oklahoma City.  

Siegel said that these efforts “gave birth to a new standard” for how the U.S. responded to mass-casualty attacks such as the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.  

An especially proud moment for Hightower was contributing to the initial drafting of the first set of policy guidance for the International Terrorism Victim Expense Reimbursement Program, which supports U.S. citizens and government employees affected by acts of terrorism that occur outside the U.S. 

“The relationships and protocols Carolyn helped build set a precedent for our emergency response and led to a better understanding of the resources we need to support victims,” Siegel said.  

Setting new standards in the field of victim support 

Numerous nationwide professional training organizations also sprang from Hightower’s vision and influence, including the National Association of VOCA Assistant Administrators, a central training hub for victim assistance professionals, and the National Victim Assistance Academy, an initiative she termed “a police academy for victim advocates.” An outgrowth of this effort was the establishment of a program to support State Victim Assistance Academies, modeled after the national academy. 

“In her current role, she has advocated for the geographic expansion of programs and services for victims of human trafficking, 

“She has been a forerunner in building out the field and shown lots of foresight and vision in helping it grow,” Derene said.  

Even after more than three decades of accomplished service, Hightower remains laser-focused on expanding her impact.  

“We help people who are at the lowest point in their life,” she said. “Government is a verb that requires you to get things done every day—and I always try to remember that I’ve been given the privilege to work for and serve the public.”