January-February 2008

Help, hope, and healing

Aaron Setliff

Chief Prosecutor of the Domestic Violence Unit in the El Paso District Attorney’s Office

Chief Prosecutor of the Domestic Violence Unit in the El Paso District Attorney’s Office

Amy Lujan, executive assistant to Jaime Esparza, the District Attorney in El Paso County, came up with the idea to offer a conference for crime victims two years ago. We often think of conferences as a chance for people in an industry to come together to learn about the latest trends. We realized that crime victims deserve the same kind of forum to learn about various aspects of the criminal and civil justice systems, to find out they are not alone, to find out about their rights, and to receive information they can use to make themselves monetarily, physically, and emotionally whole. Giving victims a voice in our community brings attention and activism to the plight of often forgotten crime victims.

Starting from scratch in 2006, we slowly developed our purpose, message, and plans. Mr. Esparza brought together a coalition of crime victims and their service agencies to discuss the idea of having a conference. In the end, the value of the project became clear, especially if we presented the conference in a careful and compassionate manner.

The words “help, hope, and healing” kept coming to the forefront of our intentions. Offering help to crime victims in the form of information and support has certainly been a key goal for our office in general. Fostering hope must be a key component. And of course, while final healing cannot always occur, we think the goal of starting on a path toward healing offers the greatest chance for crime victims to pick up the pieces. That’s how we came up with the title of our event: The Help Hope Healing Victims Conference.

And somewhere along the way, some idiot—OK, it was me—thought up the idea that we should walk a really long way in solidarity with crime victims. When we first started talking about the conference, we worried we would hold this big event and no one would attend it. To combat that possibility, I thought we could combine the conference with a walk across the entire city of El Paso, about 22 miles. And Jaime is the kind of leader who listens to good ideas and runs with them—or, in this case, walk with them. So he agreed to walk. That first year, we organized the Help Hope Healing Victims Walk Across El Paso the week before the conference. We invited victim service agencies to participate also; they walked two-mile increments along the way.

Overall, we were very pleased about the success of the 2006 Help Hope Healing Conference and Walk. We organized mercilessly and were extremely impressed when the events went off without a hitch. Among other great speakers, our keynote speaker, Carolyn Thomas, recounted her experiences as a victim of domestic violence at the hand of her ex-boyfriend. After getting out of prison, her ex-boyfriend went to her house, shot Carolyn in the face, then killed her mother. You may have seen Carolyn tell her story on “Larry King Live,” the Discovery Channel, or “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” This powerful story galvanized the conference attendees as well as the community.

2007’s walk and conference

The week before the conference, we completed the Second Annual Walk Across El Paso. In preparation for this year’s 22-mile walk, we knew we would need to train. A “core group” of walkers that intended to walk the whole way began weekly practice sessions in September. These practices progressed from a leisurely 9-mile jaunt to less leisurely 15-mile journeys. Although we might have complained a little about mosquitoes, sunburn, aching feet, and a little too much togetherness, the Core Walkers enjoyed these practices.

On October 28, we left bright and early at 8 a.m. from Franklin High School. We made our way across the west side of El Paso stopping along the way at a 7-Eleven, JB’s Restaurant, Smith Barney, and Kinley’s House to pick up and drop off victims service agencies walkers along the way. As many as 89 walkers joined in one segment.

At the 9-mile point, we stopped at the courthouse for an exciting victims rally. Victims joined service agencies and members of the public to hear the stories of three victims of crime. These included Tish Times, herself a victim of domestic violence and a recipient of this year’s Help Hope Healing Award; Manny Corral, brother of Mary Corral who was murdered by her partner; and Richard Barraza, cousin to Andrew Barcena, a police officer slain in the line of duty. The District Attorney from Las Cruces, Susana Martinez, joined Jaime, El Paso Police Department Chief Richard Wiles, and the Center Against Family Violence’s Gloria Terry to address the large crowd.

From the courthouse, we made our way up Paisano, Alameda, and North Loop to Bowie High School, a Circle K, a Big 8, a Family Dollar, the Catholic Diocese, and finally to the El Paso Police Department’s Mission Valley Regional Command Center. At each stop, we dropped off tired walkers and picked up new ones, and of course the Core Walkers made the whole journey.

On November 3, 2007, we held the Second Annual Help Hope Healing Conference. Victims learned about the criminal justice system from our DA, Jaime Esparza. They learned about protective orders from Assistant County Attorney Gabriella Edward. Victims heard techniques for managing their money from Alex Rascon from Greater El Paso Credit Union. Grieving, especially for children, was addressed by Dr. Dee Esparza; the Center Against Family Violence’s Jodi Chestnut discussed helping child victims using play therapy. Representatives from the Texas Attorney General’s Office, Doris Contreras and Robert Rodriguez, informed victims about Crime Victims Compensation. Raul Martinez of the DA’s office gave victims computer-related information so they can track cases online. Dr. Martha Duffer offered victims upbeat methods for staying physically healthy. We showed a Help Hope Healing video which included the stories of victims of violent crime; they explained their experiences, offered advice, and gave examples of hope for healing.

In the afternoon, we bestowed this year’s Help Hope Healing Award to three extremely worthy recipients. Jaime assembled a blue-ribbon committee of community leaders; they gathered prior to the conference to vet a list of potential recipients. Esther Chavez Cano, perhaps the premier domestic violence activist in Juarez, Mexico, received the award. Marcia Wheatley, whose daughter, Desiree, was brutally murdered by a serial killer, and who blazed a trail for changes to the way crime victims are treated in the El Paso area, also received the award. Finally, Tish Times received her award. Bestowing these awards to such worthy women was as great an honor for us as for these ladies.

And of course our keynote speaker, Robin Givens, addressed a rapt audience with her stories of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, boxer Mike Tyson. She said her time helping and offering hope at the conference underscored her journey toward her own healing, as well as that of the attendees. Hearing that a successful, talented, and beautiful woman could suffer abuse at the hands of a man she loved made a valuable connection with the victims at the conference. Robin’s earnest words left many in tears—precisely the reason we provided counselors to all who needed them.

Our overall effort

For the last two years, we have seen that this project garners attention to the cause, invigorates those of us in the day-to-day fight, and offers a voice for crime victims. We seek to address victims’ needs and rights in new, innovative, and heartfelt manners. Bringing victims of crime together to learn about the resources available, encouraging them to interact, and developing a coalition for the rights of victims have been high priorities for our efforts.