Working with Survivors of Homicide Victims
It has been said that survivors of homicide victims are needier than other victims of crime, more demanding than other victims of crime, and angrier than other victims of crime.
Most crime victims have one thing in common; the need to know "why". For survivors of homicide victims, in addition to why, which can never be answered, they also need to know the who, what, where, when, and how. To get the answers to these and other questions, they must turn to the professionals who are handling their loved one's case. Too often, professionals don't perceive family members as victims of crime.
Ways to Help
Try to imagine what it would be like if your loved one was murdered.
Consider that most family members need information surrounding the murder of their loved one.
Realize that accurate information, delivered with extreme sensitivity, is vital. Not all details should be given at once. Provide the family members with the basic facts, and then be available to answer their questions as they arise. Remember, extreme sensitivity is necessary. No information should be withheld, regardless of the professional's feelings, if asked by the family. Think of information as medicine, in the long run, it helps with the grieving process.
If, for some reason, a question can't be answered, say so. But let the families know why you can't answer that particular question, i.e. it will jeopardize the case, you don't know the answer, etc.
Procedures must be established for:
- Crime scene investigation
- Who provides information
- What information can be provided (when more than one person is providing information, it needs to be consistent)
Listening to their needs:
- The need to know what happened
- The need to see the body or touch the body bag
- The need to know how much their loved one suffered (be honest, they will eventually find out). If you are not sure, refer them to POMC's "Ask The Expert"section on the organization's website at www.pomc.org .
- The need to see crime scene photos. Many professionals, in fear of causing more trauma, are reluctant to show families the crime scene photos, even after the trial is over. If this is one of the needs of the family, you might want to put the photos, one at a time, in a manila envelope. Mark each envelope with a number 1 through whatever number, number one being the least graphic and the last number being the most graphic. Explain to the family what they are going to see as they open each envelope (starting with one). Allow the family the control of going as far as they need to go. Remember that information is like medicine - it may be difficult at first, but it helps in the long term grieving process.
Permitting family members to talk allows them to slow down the process and gain a better sense of control. Moreover, verbalization can assist the survivor in working through the horror of the tragedy. It also helps to develop a sense of rapport with the professional.
Refer the family to a Parents Of Murdered Children Chapter in their area. For information call 1-888-818-POMC.
Things that Hinder
1. Trying to make the family feel better by using cliché's:
- It'll be all right (how can it be all right, their loved one is dead)
- It'll get better (things do get easier, but it takes many months, years - too far in the future for families to get comfort from these words)
- It was God's will (what does that make the murderer, God's little helper?)
- He/she was just in the wrong place, at the wrong time (this statement places blame on the victim) - one mother stated, "My daughter was home in bed at 2:00 am when the murderer broke in and raped and murdered her. Where was she supposed to be at that time?"
- Time heals all wounds (time doesn't heal anything - it's what you do with that time)
2. It is very common to be uncomfortable with the pain that families experience. The pain is overwhelming, but be careful not to reinforce their theories that have no basis, i.e. surmising exactly what took place, who is guilty, or that there is a conspiracy. Too often, these theories are based on the family's inability to obtain information, or to get answers to their many questions.
3. Making promises you can't keep, e.g., "Don't worry, we'll catch the person who did this." What happens if you don't? "Don't worry, if they lie on the stand, we'll charge them with perjury." Remember that families are going to hold you to those promises.
4. Making promises on behalf of others, e.g., "Don't worry. The prosecutor will see to it that he gets life." You don't have the knowledge or authority to make promises on behalf of others. Often this is done because the professional is uncomfortable with the family's pain and is trying to make them feel better.
5. Professionals that are not adequately trained.
6. When we assume that the family has been provided necessary information, and understands or has a road map for:
- The charges
- The possible outcomes - death penalty, life, possibility of parole
- The procedures - whether or not they can be in the courtroom, etc.
- The possibility of continuances
7. When the professional is suffering from burnout:
- The job becomes routine
- It will affect his/her patience
- it will modify his/her attitude
Burnout can cause one to be more edgy and defensive, indifferent and apathetic. Questions from family members may be viewed by the professional with anger, which results in friction between the professional and the family.
8. When professionals become angry, or irritated with the family, they usually begin to:
- Avoid any contact, i.e. refusing to return calls.
- Make excuses, "I have ten other cases I'm working on." Remember that the victim's family only has one case in which they're interested. The family is not responsible for the fact that the professional has other cases, or that he/she is suffering from burnout and possibly needs a vacation. Can you imagine going to a cancer specialist, only to be told, "I have ten other cases I'm working on."
9. Prejudices and stereotypes mandate how a case is handled.
- "good vs. bad victim"
- "good vs. bad family"
- "poor vs. rich families"
- If the victim's life style put them at greater risk (prostitution, homosexuality, drug involvement, etc.)
The professional's attitude or feelings about the victim will invariably come across to the family. Prejudices and stereotypes only intensify the anger, guilt, and grief already experienced by the family, causing them to isolate themselves. Guilt and shame may keep survivors from seeking help or support.
10. Family, professionals, and society place unrealistic " shoulds " on surviving survivors:
- You should be over that by now
- You should get out and have some fun
- You should be feeling better
- You should be able to forgive
- You should put it behind you and get on with your life
NOTE: Survivors of homicide victims do not have a roadmap on their journey through the aftermath of murder. Professionals are in the delicate position to help or hinder. In fact, the professional holds the key to most of the information that the family will seek in their travels. Survivors need patience with themselves and others, sensitivity, and above all, honesty. Expect that families may be needier, more demanding, and angrier than other victims of crime. Their needs and intense feelings are normal under the circumstances and must be validated. Please try to understand that total resolution or closure for survivors cannot be expected. They integrate the tragedy into their lives, they painfully reconstruct their very being, and they strive for a "new normal" way of life.
For more information on working with survivors of homicide victims, or to schedule a training session in your area, contact POMC at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1.888.818.POMC.
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