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Victim Services Division

In its 20 years of existence, the Austin program has grown to include 35 full- or part-time staff and 300 volunteers. The Victim Services Division sees about 14,000 victims or witnesses a year with an average of two contacts per victim, according to Ann Hutchison, founder and former director of the Austin program. The Division has four units:

  • Crisis Response Unit.
  • Major Crimes Unit.
  • Child and Family Violence Protection Unit.
  • District Representative Unit.

In addition, an intake specialist takes care of walk-ins and cases that do not fit neatly into the four units mentioned above. The Victim Services Division also houses ALERT (Austin’s Linking of Emergency Response Teams), a mass disaster critical response team set up to respond to incidents with multiple casualties. ALERT often receives calls from other cities, states, or national agencies to send staff and volunteers to help cities experiencing a crisis such as a school shooting. Using the following actual homicide case, each unit is discussed to exemplify how it functions within a law enforcement agency.

Around 2 a.m. on September 11, 1998, a frantic maintenance worker, Tom, called the Austin (Texas) Police Department. He told them that for several hours, he had not been able to reach his girlfriend by phone or pager. When he got off work, he drove to her house. Finding his girlfriend’s car parked outside, he knocked on the door but received no answer. He told the police that this was not normal. He was always able to get in touch with Cinda. A short time after Tom called 911, responding officers discovered the bodies of his girlfriend, Cinda Rae Barz, her 9-year-old daughter, Staci Mitchell, and Cinda’s roommate, Frances Michelle Fulwiller. Cinda’s 9-year-old daughter had been strangled, and the two women had been bludgeoned to death. Both women worked as juvenile probation officers and were well known in their community. As a matter of procedure, the officers did not give Tom the details of what they had seen; however, Tom knew that something was terribly wrong. The officers took Tom to the police station and interviewed him.

The two young women and the little girl had been killed and had left behind grieving family members, coworkers, and classmates. The difficult task of notifying relatives, friends, and neighbors about the deaths and of helping the survivors with their grief fell to the Victim Services Division, which has been part of the Austin (Texas) Police Department for 20 years.

Crisis Response Unit

The primary goal of the Crisis Response Unit (herein referred to as “Crisis Unit”) is to provide on-the-scene crisis intervention for victims of crime and other trauma and to refer those individuals to the Victim Services Division’s other units or outside social service agencies for followup services. The Austin Crisis Unit, which operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in 8-hour shifts, can respond to all calls of victims, including victims of sexual assault, robbery, assault, suicide attempts or threats, family violence and domestic disturbances, and child abuse and neglect, as well as survivors of homicide victims.

The Austin Crisis Unit teams are equipped with an unmarked car, a police radio, a “handi-talkie,” and a Mobile Data Terminal, which is a computer network that allows officers to communicate with each other through typed messages. Each team consists of a team leader (usually an employee of the Victim Services Division, although there are about 16 volunteers who are also trained as team leaders) and a community volunteer. Each team is assigned to a sector of the city. Between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m., six teams work throughout Austin. When a team arrives at a scene, they ask the officer in charge what he or she needs them to do. That might mean stabilizing the victim, doing an assessment, providing crisis intervention, and referring the victim to other services. A crisis team can spend anywhere from 30 minutes to 10 hours with a victim, depending on the case.

On the night of the triple homicide, Gary Makelki, a licensed professional counselor and Crisis Unit team counselor, was called by Austin officers to come and talk to Tom, the person who called the police and was the boyfriend of victim Cinda Rae Barz. Makelki noted that Tom was in shock—very worried, upset, frustrated, and angry. “He wanted to know what [was] going on at the scene. He was very, very angry and pacing. He was crying and then hitting the wall. He wanted to call his mother. He was not getting any information.” Although Tom felt entitled to more information, policy required that officers keep most of the information confidential until the killer or killers were found.

To calm Tom down, Makelki explained to him the police procedures and why the police were asking him so many questions. Makelki stayed with him and, through listening and reframing, helped him with his perceptions of responsibility and guilt. Makelki talked with Tom to assess whether he was suicidal. After about 5 hours at the Austin Police Department, investigators released him. Tom had brought along a friend who Makelki also spent time talking with.

Makelki provided several important Crisis Unit functions to Tom. He made sure that Tom was not alone while detained at the police station for questioning. He reassured Tom that someone would be in touch with him the next day with resources and information about the case. Makelki also helped Tom calm down with exercises like breathing and internal dialogue. He also warned Tom that he might have other potential reactions including self-blame—that he should have gotten to his girlfriend’s house earlier. Makelki said, “Sometimes when you educate victims in advance about potential thoughts and reactions that they might experience, it can normalize the reactions when they do come, which improves a victim’s ability to cope.”

Major Crimes Unit

The following day, Dolores Litton, a licensed psychologist and homicide counselor in the Austin homicide unit, followed up on Makelki’s promise, checking in with Tom on how he was coping and giving him updated information on the investigation. The Major Crimes Unit has counselors in the homicide, robbery, sex crimes, and traffic fatality units of the department. The Unit’s primary goal is to provide counseling, advocacy, information, and referral to all victims, witnesses, and survivors of crime. These counselors provide followup services to cases that the Crisis Unit team has responded to the night before. They also assist victims who have not been seen by a Crisis Unit team. Counselors in the Major Crimes Unit work closely with detectives in relaying information to victims about a case, explaining procedures, and helping with details like funeral planning. The counselors can also get expedited approval for state crime victims’ compensation to help victims pay for sudden expenses like funerals or cleanup services when a violent crime has taken place in their home. Counselors can assist when a detective’s questioning might make a victim distraught and unable to continue the inquiry. The Major Crimes Unit work takes place over a longer period of time than that of the Crisis Unit. Counselors contact victims at least four times after the initial contact. In unsolved cases, counselors may stay in touch with victims once a month for years.

When Litton received the call about the triple homicide, she began working on one of the most time-consuming cases of her career. Litton accompanied a detective to the home of Frances Fulwiller’s mother, who lived in the same neighborhood as her daughter. Litton had the difficult job of notifying the mother about her daughter’s death and of preparing the way for the detective to request a positive identification of the daughter. Litton recalled the mother’s initial response to the news: “This is a bad joke. Get out of my house.”

After the detective asked the mother questions for his investigation, Litton stayed behind to offer support and comfort. The mother, who was a grief counselor, told Litton that her husband had died just a year earlier. She owned the house where her daughter lived. Litton also helped shield the mother from reporters who were soon camped outside her house.

Litton then began notifying the family of the two other victims (Cinda Rae Barz and her daughter). Some time that afternoon, a detective in the victim’s house found an Iowa address that turned out to be where the woman’s parents lived. Litton enlisted the assistance of local law enforcement agencies in Iowa to ensure that Cinda’s parents were told of their daughter’s and granddaughter’s deaths.

Later, the family called Litton. “When they called me, they couldn’t even talk,” Litton said. “They finally said, ‘Is this true?’ I said, ‘Unfortunately, yes, this is true. This is what the detectives know.’ I told them the little things that we knew, that they were killed in the house and that officers were looking for the boyfriend of the other victim, who was a suspect.”

The following day, Litton met with Frances’ mother to assist her in contacting the funeral home and medical examiner. She also assisted in filling out crime victim compensation forms for funeral expenses and costs related to cleaning the house where her daughter had been killed. Litton also helped Frances’ mother look for one of her daughter’s cats that was missing after the killings. While the missing cat never returned, the mother located the other cat, which was still in the house. Litton also assisted Cinda’s ex-husband, who could not afford to travel to Iowa for the funeral of his ex-wife and daughter. Litton helped arrange a viewing of the bodies in Austin.

In the months following the killings, Litton stayed in close touch with the victims’ families, giving them updated information before it appeared in the media. A day after the killings, an arrest was made. The suspect was a friend of Frances’. He killed her, and then he waited for Staci and Cinda to return home and killed them.

Litton also frequently talked with Cinda’s sister-in-law, who had children who were close to Staci. They were having a difficult time in school and had been depressed since Staci’s killing. Litton told the mother not to be afraid to talk to her children about Staci’s death, to be as honest as possible with them, and to get them into counseling.

At one point, Litton mediated a conflict between the two families. Frances’ mother, who owned the house where the victims had lived, wanted to sell it but the family in Iowa had not yet come to Austin to collect Cinda’s belongings. Litton encouraged the family in Iowa to pick up their daughter’s things quickly. When they came, she helped them fill out a victim’s compensation form and put them in touch with a support group for parents of murdered children in Iowa.

The needs of the families and friends of the victims resulting from this crime were tremendous, Litton said. “All of them wanted information. All of them were obviously very emotionally affected by it.” The detectives would have experienced great difficulty with this case had Victim Services not been involved.

Child and Family Violence Protection Unit

The little girl who was killed, Staci Mitchell, had recently moved to a new school. The day after the murders, Victim Services counselors from the Child and Family Violence Protection Unit went to Staci’s old school to talk with her classmates before they heard about the news on television. Staci’s cousin also attended the school and was well known by her classmates. The Child and Family Violence Protection Unit provides family counseling, school counseling, and out-reach services to children and families in violent homes and to children exposed to any violence. The Unit’s goal is to create a centralized team consisting of investigators, attorneys, and counselors to provide comprehensive services in domestic violence cases. Counselors primarily work with cases in which no arrests have been made, such as a suspected batterer fleeing the scene. They assist victims of family violence in obtaining protective orders and with other legal matters. Counselors also provide short- and long-term trauma counseling to victims of family violence and their children and help with safety planning. The counselors are the first point of contact when a victim calls or comes to this Unit. Referrals to Safeplace (a battered women’s shelter and rape crisis center) and other trauma counseling services are a normal part of the Unit’s services.

The Unit also provides counseling, advocacy, information, and referral for all child victims. The Unit is housed with investigators assigned to crimes against children and works closely with counselors from the Austin Children’s Advocacy Center and Child Protective Services caseworkers. Counselors conduct videotaped interviews in documenting testimony of child victims. In addition, counselors assess victim and family needs, and provide short-term counseling and referrals to other social service agencies. Counselors prepare victims for court and act as a liaison between the court and victims.

Because the Unit works with school children, counselors from the Unit received the call to counsel Staci’s classmates the morning after the killings. The school wanted to notify Staci’s classmates before the news of the murders was reported so that the children would hear about it “in a softer and gentler way,” said Connie Geerhart, a licensed social worker in the Child and Family Violence Protection Unit.

Geerhart, along with some coworkers, went to Staci’s former school, where children knew her best, and spoke to the school counselors. Geerhart spoke to a class of fourth graders that had some children who knew Staci quite well. Geerhart introduced herself and asked how many children remembered Staci. She said that she was there to tell them that Staci and her mother had been killed. She stopped talking, and the children immediately began asking questions. How was she killed? Does her father know? How about her cousin?

“One little boy started crying. He was just so sad. Then another little boy put his arm on this boy’s back.” Geerhart said that there was great respect in that classroom for people’s emotions. Geerhart was careful to use concrete language about the deaths with the children. She said, “A lot of people use euphemisms like ‘she passed away,’ or ‘she went to sleep,’ which is not a good thing. Saying that someone has gone to sleep can make kids afraid of going to bed.”

The counselors helped school officials write a letter about the killings for the children to take home to their parents. Geerhart encouraged the children to talk with their parents or to determine a plan to care for themselves if their parents were not home or they were not comfortable talking to their parents. One girl said that she could talk to her older sister. After talking to the class, Geerhart saw that three students were very upset about the news of Staci’s death. She pulled them out of class so that they could talk further with another counselor.

“When I talked with them briefly outside of the classroom, they were very supportive of each other,” Geerhart said. “They were hugging each other, and when they went off to see the other counselor, they held on to each other, sobbing and crying. They talked about specific memories of Staci and said what a sweet girl she was.” Talking to Staci’s classmates was an important part of their healing process, Geerhart believes.

With easy access to television, it was likely that the children were going to find out about the murders. Geerhart stated that it was so much better for them to receive the information from a counselor first. She said, “For one thing it shows a lot of respect for kids that their feelings are important. It honors them rather than [pushes] them aside.”

District Representative Unit

As the reaction of Staci’s classmates illustrates, a murder affects many more people than victims and their families. The Austin Victim Services Division established the District Representative Unit to address community needs. The idea behind the Unit is that if a crime occurs in a neighborhood, the residents of that neighborhood are also victims and may need assistance in coping. In every crime, in fact, there is a ripple effect. For example, someone who sings in a church choir with a member who is raped may find herself suddenly depressed or anxious. The same feelings can arise in a coworker or the babysitter or the family two houses down the street. The District Representative Unit casts a wide net in trying to identify these other victims to provide them services. The Unit team works closely with law enforcement officers (assigned as district representatives) who work routinely with the community. The counselors bring their problem-solving and mediating skills to delicate situations and help police assess the needs of the community. The officers can provide safety and reassurance to counselors and crime victims in volatile situations. Through the counselors’ follow-up and intervention, they hope to reduce further calls to the police department and to solve the problems that led to law enforcement involvement in the first place. The counselors also do networking, outreach with neighborhoods, and collaborating with other social service agencies.

On the night that Cinda, Frances, and Staci were murdered, several neighbors heard and saw the police cars outside the victims’ house. TV crews soon swarmed the area. Residents of the middle-class neighborhood were worried. At first, it was unclear whether the killer was a stranger preying on the neighborhood or someone the victims knew. “All of a sudden, we had people calling trying to find out, was this a random act or was it a known assailant?” said Joel Atkinson, a licensed social worker and supervisor of the District Representative Unit. “People in the neighborhood look down their street, which is usually a calm street where kids ride their bicycles, and they see 20 police cars and crime scene tape.”

Atkinson and his colleagues started contacting neighbors. Early that morning, they spoke to the immediate neighbors who had heard the commotion of the ambulances, fire department, and police. The counselors told the residents that an incident happened resulting in a death and that the Unit would get more information to the neighbors as soon as possible. The 911 operators started getting calls from neighbors around the block, and the counselors decided they needed to broaden their outreach. In the next few days, counselors and volunteers worked a 14-block surrounding area, going to each house with a prepared release from the Austin Police Department. By this time, a suspect, whom one of the victims knew, had been arrested. Neighbors no longer had to worry about a stranger terrorizing the area where they lived, but many were still affected.

The counselors from the District Representative Unit held a community support meeting at a nearby church and at a school for anyone needing more intensive, individual work with a counselor. They held at least one community support group each month for 3 months following the killings. “Some people went for information, but as you talked about it, you could tell that people were still hurting, grieving, and in shock,” Atkinson said. “We would talk to some of them individually and then, if needed, refer them for more help.” The Unit supports the belief that if those affected by a crime are counseled soon after the crime is committed, then healing can happen more quickly. Atkinson said that providing services quickly definitely reduces long-term psychological stress and anxiety.

The counselors also held counseling sessions for the women’s coworkers, who were in shock over the murders. Workers were told that they might not be able to concentrate at work for some time. Within a few days, several workers said they felt nauseated, which, according to Atkinson, most likely stemmed from their feelings of anger, grief, and loss. Coworkers’ anger was sometimes directed at the counselors because they felt inside information about the case should be given to them since they were part of law enforcement.

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Establishing Victim Services Within a Law Enforcement Agency:
The Austin Experience
March 2001
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