Helping those who have lost loved ones to crime

By Jalayne Robinson, LMSW
TDCAA Victim Services Director

As victim assistance coordinators (VACs), assisting surviving kin of deceased victims is one of our most difficult and emotional job duties. In this article, I hope to provide information on how we can be of service to those who have recently lost someone they loved to crime.

Who are close relatives?

Art. 56.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure defines a “close relative of a deceased victim” as a spouse, parent, brother, sister, or child of the deceased victim. As such, there may be numerous survivors who are considered “close relatives” of a deceased victim, and all of them are entitled to victim services through the prosecutor office. 

Offering compassion

Providing support and assisting survivors of deceased victims involves satisfying our statutory duties (which I discuss later in this column) but most importantly should include emotional support and active listening. Compassion, understanding, and “putting yourself in their shoes” for sometimes months or years until the criminal case has been disposed is all part of our job as VACs. I realize how challenging it can be.

            VACs are not usually professional counselors so becoming familiar with the range of emotions can help you understand what someone may be going through. Not everyone processes losing a loved one in the same way, and survivors could exhibit a range of emotions: anger or rage, fear or terror, frustration, confusion, guilt and self-blame, shame and humiliation, and grief or sorrow. Many times, most of our interaction with crime victims is by telephone, and I know it is hard to determine which emotional reaction someone is having over the phone. My advice is to do as much listening as you can without talking, take notes during the conversation, and later analyze which emotion the survivor might be exhibiting. Understanding where they are in the coping and healing process will help you guide them through the criminal justice system. 

            I am here to tell you I know this is hard. So many times when I was a VAC, survivors came across as very demanding, mad, or frustrated during our very first conversation. Please, please have patience and empathy during these interactions. Try to understand what they are going through and what message they are trying to deliver, and remember that their emotions are not directed at you. Those emotions are a result of the situation, a situation they have not asked for. Also keep in mind that you are one of many people they are having to interact with because of this crime. They could be talking with law enforcement, the funeral home, and possibly the media; they could have had to arrange for cleanup at the crime scene or dealt with property destruction, and all of it is exhausting. Sometimes it is very hard for a survivor to move forward until the criminal case is finalized. 

Difficult questions

Survivors usually have many requests, such as:
•          “I would like to see the crime scene photos.”
•          “I want to know more about how the crime happened.”
•          “I want the property returned the police took as evidence.”
•          “I want to meet with the prosecutor right away.”
•          “Is there is financial assistance for help with funeral expenses?”

A survivor may also have lots of “Why?” questions that you are not prepared (nor able) to answer.

            Please tell them you realize they have many questions. Answer those questions that you can, and take notes as they talk so you can relay additional questions to the prosecution team or try and track down answers for those harder questions. Don’t feel like you have to answer everything right then and there—none of us has all the answers! Treat the survivors with respect by admitting you don’t know but saying you will do your best to find out. Don’t promise them an answer by a certain date or time, though, because in our busy offices, sometimes it may take several days to get back to someone. You don’t want to make promises you can’t keep.

Sample language

The language you use when talking with a survivor is very important. I know it is difficult to find the right words when speaking to someone who has lost a loved one. Allow them to talk about that person, cry about him or her, and maybe even laugh at a good memory of that person. If the survivor is reminiscing, don’t be afraid to use the victim’s name in your conversation. Believe it or not, survivors want to hear their loved one’s names. It reassures the survivor that you realize the deceased was a real person, not just a name in an offense report or on an indictment, and that he or she was very important person to them. 

            Here are a few examples I suggest: 
            •          “I want to introduce myself as the Victim Assistance Coordinator assigned to this case, and I will do my best to keep you up to date on upcoming events.”
            •          “I appreciate you talking with me today.”
            •          “I am so sorry for your loss.”
            •          “I cannot imagine your grief.”
           •          “It is not your fault.”
            •          “I will do my best to help you through the process. I realize it is complicated, and I will try and help you understand.”

            No two crimes are exactly alike, and the dynamics of surviving families are all different. I have seen families become divided after a crime, and I have seen families become closer. I have seen families move away and get divorced. I have seen families go straight to the media (including social media) in a crime’s aftermath, and I’ve also dealt with families who are appalled by the media and want no contact at all with reporters. My best advice is to get to know the survivors while offering victim services—the earlier, the better.

Statutory duties

VACs’ statutory duties to close relatives of deceased victim include:
            •          a cover letter stating:
                        * cause number and court to which the case is assigned;
                        * name, address and phone number of the VAC assigned their case; and
                        * a request for current contact information; plus
            •          Crime Victim’s Rights Brochure;
            •          explanation of the Crime Victims’ Compensation (CVC) program offered through the Office of the Attorney General and an offer of assistance and information on how to apply.  (A CVC quick reference guide is available at www .texasattorneygeneral.gov/sites/default/files/ files/divisions/crime-victims/CVC_QuickReferenceGuide.pdf.)

            Providing victim impact statement (VIS) forms, an explanation, and an offer of assistance in completing the VIS is also part of our jobs. Close relatives, parents, or guardians of deceased victims can submit this statement, as can others (as outlined in CCP Art. 56.01).  The most current version of the VIS is available at www.tdcj .texas.gov/publications/victim_impact_statement.html#vis.

Prepping for trial

Many prosecutors allow VACs to be present during pretrial interviews or family meetings, which are excellent opportunities for VACs to determine the survivors’ needs and emotions. With large families, prosecutors sometimes ask them to designate a single spokesperson as the contact for correspondence from the prosecutor office. Of course, every family is different; once you know some of the family dynamics, you can determine if a spokesperson is a possible way to successfully interact. 

            Preparing a survivor for trial and preparing ourselves as VACs to assist them is very important. Ideally, a VAC who is involved in trial preparation with the prosecutors and knows what to expect in the courtroom will be able to assist survivors when it is time for trial. We should not be caught off-guard during the presentation of the criminal case and emotionally fall apart in the courtroom because we didn’t know what to expect. Educate yourself beforehand, and ask questions of the prosecution team, a trusted investigator, or me (I’m at Jalayne.Robinson @tdcaa.com). I would also recommend a publication called Murder: This Could Never Happen to Me from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Victim Services Division available at www.tdcj.texas.gov/documents/Murder_Never_Happen_to_Me.pdf. It is a handbook for families of murder victims and those who assist them.

            I hope this information is helpful for VACs who assist surviving relatives who have lost someone they love to violent crime.

TDCAA Key Personnel/Victim Services Board Elections

At the Key Personnel & Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar in November, board elections were held for the South Central Area (Regions 4 and 8) and East Area (Regions 5 and 6 of the Key Personnel–Victim Services (KP–VS) Board, which prepares and develops operational procedures, standards, training, and educational programs.

            Katie Etringer Quinney, who works in the 81st Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Floresville, will be the South Central representative, and Mona Jimerson, who works in the Gregg County Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Longview, will represent the East Area. Katie and Mona were elected to serve on the KP–VS Board beginning January 1, 2020, for a term of two years.  Welcome to them both! Additionally, Stephanie Lawrence of the Burleson County DA’s Office was elected Chairperson. 

            If you are interested in training and want to give input on speakers and topics at TDCAA conferences for KP and VACs, please consider running for the board. Elections are held each November at our TDCAA Key Personnel & Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar. To be eligible, each candidate must have the permission of the elected prosecutor, attend the elections at the annual seminar or be appointed, and have paid membership dues. If you have any questions, please email me at [email protected] .com. 

KP&VAC Seminar

The Embassy Suites Hotel & Conference Center in San Marcos was the venue for a very successful seminar for key personnel and victim assistance coordinators from across Texas. More than 200 attendees gathered for the training.

            This seminar is held annually and provides key personnel and VACs from prosecutor’s offices across Texas a chance to network and get new ideas from others who do similar jobs in other counties. It is a very worthwhile experience for all. Mark your calendar for next year’s seminar to be held November 11–13 at the Sheraton Hotel & Conference Center in Georgetown.

Award winners

Suzanne McDaniel Award. Veronica Brunner, VAC in the Denton County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, was honored with the 2019 Suzanne McDaniel Award for her work on behalf of crime victims and her service to prosecution and to TDCAA. Veronica is the Chief VAC in the Denton County CDA’s Office and has spent the past 20 years helping crime victims in Denton County. 

            During her career, she has assisted prosecutorial staff on some of Denton County’s toughest, most violent, and emotionally draining cases. She works tirelessly in her daily duties as a VAC and makes additional time to organize donations to needy families, including the office’s annual Angel Tree program. She is also great at coordinating, preparing, and facilitating the county’s Crime Victims Rights Week program each year, and she has also served as secretary/treasurer and a regional representative on the KP–VS Board.

            Veronica exemplifies the qualities that were so evident in Suzanne McDaniel herself: advocacy, empathy, and a constant recognition of the rights of crime victims. Congratulations, Veronica!

Oscar Sherrell Award. The Oscar Sherrell Award for service to the association, which is awarded each year by each section of TDCAA, is given to recognize those enthusiastic folks who excel in TDCAA work. This award may recognize a specific activity that has benefited or improved TDCAA or may recognize a body of work that has improved the service that TDCAA provides to the profession. 

            This year’s recipient is Windy Swearingen, an administrative assistant in the Brazos County DA’s Office. She also currently serves on TDCAA’s KP–VS Board as a designated KP Representative and has served on the KP Board in the past as well. Congratulations, Windy, and thank you for your service to TDCAA! 

PVACs. This year’s recipients of Professional Victim Assistance Coordinator recognition are Jane Lowery and Juanita Blanchard. Jane has worked as a VAC in the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office for four years. She wears many hats in that office, including handling their courthouse facility dog, managing felony and misdemeanor caseloads for victim services, and collaborating with community agencies.

            Juanita is a VAC in the Williamson County Attorney’s Office, where she provides support to applicants for protective orders and has helped crime victims for over five years. Juanita is also bilingual and provides calm and comforting support while treating all victims with dignity and respect. Congratulations Jane and Juanita!

PVAC deadline coming up

Recognition as a Professional Victim Assistance Coordinator (PVAC) is a voluntary program for Texas prosecutor offices designed to recognize professionalism in prosecutor-based victim assistance and acknowledge a minimum standard of training in the field. Applicants must provide victim assistance through a prosecutor’s office and be or become a member of TDCAA.

            To apply, applicants must either have three years’ experience providing direct victim services for a prosecutor’s office or five years’ experience in the victim services field, one of which has to be providing prosecutor-based victim assistance. There is also a training requirement of 45 hours in victims services; training recognized for CLE, TCOLE, social work, and/or licensed professional counselor educational credits are accepted under this program. Training must include at least one workshop on the following topics:
            •          prosecutor victim assistance coordinator duties under Chapter 56 of the Code of Criminal Procedure;
            •          the rules and application process for Crime Victims’ Compensation;
            •          the impact of crime on victims and survivors; and
            •          crisis intervention and support counseling.

            For those VACs with extensive experience and whose training documentation is no longer readily available, there is a waiver. An applicant with 10 years’ experience in direct victim services (five of which must be in a prosecutor’s office) may sign an affidavit stating that the training requirement has been met in lieu of providing copies of training receipts.

            In addition, five professional references are required from individuals not related to the applicant. One must be from the elected prosecutor in the jurisdiction where the applicant has been employed, and at least one of the letters must be from someone at a local victim services agency who has worked with the applicant for a year or longer. The remaining three can be from other victim services agencies, victims, law enforcement representatives, assistant prosecutors, or other criminal justice professionals who have knowledge of the applicant’s skills and abilities in victim services.

            The deadline to apply is January 31. Detailed requirements and the Professional Victim Assistance Coordinator (PVAC) application may be found at www.tdcaa.com/wp-content/uploads/ Victim_Services/Duties_Victims/Professional- Victim-Assistance-Cerftification-Application.pdf.

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week

Each April communities throughout the country observe National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (NCVRW) by hosting events promoting victims’ rights and honoring crime victims and those who advocate on their behalf.  NCVRW will be observed April 19–25, 2020, and this year’s theme is: “Seek Justice; Ensure Victims’ Rights; Inspire Hope.” Check out the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) website at https://ovc.ncjrs.gov/ncvrw/ for additional information.   

            If your community hosts an event, we would love to publish photos and information about it in an upcoming issue of this journal  Please email me at [email protected] to notify us with photos and a description of your event. 

In-office VAC visits

TDCAA’s Victim Services Project is available to offer in-office support to victim services programs in prosecutor offices. We at TDCAA realize the majority of VACs in Texas prosecutor offices are the only people responsible for developing victim services programs and compiling information to send to crime victims as required by Chapter 56 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. VACs may not have anyone locally to turn to for advice and at times could use assistance or moral support, which is where we come in. This project is especially helpful to new VACs.

            If you are a new VAC and would like to schedule an in-office, one-one-one visit, please email me at [email protected] I am available for inquiries, support, in-office consultations, or group presentations.