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Direct Victim Services

OVC makes annual VOCA crime victim assistance formula grants to all 50 states to support the provision of direct services to victims of crime. The state VOCA administrators, in turn, subgrant the funds to victim service providers. Ten percent of each VOCA state grant must be allocated to victims of violent crime who have been previously underserved in that state. Underserved victims include, but are not limited to, victims of federal crimes, survivors of homicide victims, and victims of assault, robbery, gang violence, hate and bias crimes, intoxicated drivers, and elder abuse. States also may define underserved victims according to their status as senior citizens, persons with disabilities, racial or ethnic minorities, and residents of rural areas or inner cities. Eligible direct services include programs that 1) respond to the emotional and physical needs of crime victims, 2) assist primary and secondary victims of crime to stabilize their lives after a victimization, 3) assist victims to understand and participate in the criminal justice system, and 4) provide victims of crime with a measure of safety and security, such as boarding up broken windows and replacing or repairing locks.

Many of the current VOCA subgrantees may provide services that are used by victims of gun violence, such as homicide support groups and victim advocates in prosecutors’ offices. Because there are no data on how many existing programs serve gun victims and no service directory of gun victim programs, the roundtable participants identified a few promising practices and discussed the types of programs they would like to see funded under VOCA to benefit gun victims. Clearly, many innovative programs are not known outside their limited geographical area.

RECOMMENDATION: Participants recommended that a database of providers serving gun victims be established and that OVC increase efforts to publicize promising programs and encourage states to fund them.

RECOMMENDATION: If gun violence victims have been underserved, states should be encouraged to fund programs that serve gun victims as part of their required 10-percent minimum allocation of VOCA subgrants for underserved victim populations.

1. Holistic Care for Families of Homicide Victims

Participants who counsel surviving family members spoke of the need to assist with day-to-day problems to reduce the immediate, ongoing, and long-term effects of traumatic loss. Programs that operate at the community level and provide a range of free services and referrals are preferred. They might be administered by the law enforcement or prosecutor’s office, a hospital, a church, or an independent private agency. Three multiservice programs were discussed in detail at the roundtable.

The Recover program in Washington, D.C., has a professional grief counselor in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to offer emotional support before, during, and after the process of identification of a loved one. Recover staff do an early assessment of needs, including inquiring about children who may be affected, and set up case management services. Staff or trained volunteers are available for practical and emotional support, including planning a funeral, explaining the grieving process, talking to children about death, driving the family to the store, helping with paperwork, or simply listening. Recover also makes referrals to mental health counseling and other services but recognizes that these may be premature and/or insufficient for victims having trouble getting out of the house, getting food on the table, and dealing with funeral homes and police investigators.

The Family Bereavement Center in Baltimore, Maryland, is funded by a VOCA subgrant and administered by the state’s attorney’s office. The center reaches out to every homicide victim’s family by sending a letter encouraging them to call for services. Center staff provide liaison services with the police department, the medical examiner, and the state’s attorney’s office. They offer crime scene cleanup services, court support and escort services, notification of case status and victims’ rights, assistance in applying for victim compensation, and individual and group grief counseling sessions. They also sponsor educational and support activities such as memorial services, weekend camps for adolescents and younger children who have lost family and friends to violence, and a quarterly newsletter.

The Family Advocacy Program at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., also provides coordinated services for family members of gun homicide victims. Program staff are available to assist families of all emergency patients at the hospital. If the patient dies, the program advocates help the decedent’s family navigate the next steps—decisions about organ transplant, hospital procedures, meeting with police officers, answering media inquiries, and referrals to counseling or pastoral services. This program is staffed primarily with retired D.C. homicide detectives.

RECOMMENDATION: OVC should support the development of promising multiservice programs that reach families of gun victims within 24 hours after the shooting and remain available to assist with longer term needs. State VOCA administrators should be encouraged to fund programs like Recover, the Family Bereavement Center, and the Family Advocacy Program. Evaluation studies for these and similar programs should be encouraged and funded by OJP.

Recover, a program of the William Wendt Center for Loss and Healing
4880–A MacArthur Boulevard NW., Washington, DC 20007–1557
202–333–4880, www.lossandhealing.org

Family Bereavement Center, a program of the
State’s Attorney’s Office for Baltimore City
10 South Street, Suite 502, Baltimore, MD 21202

Family Advocacy Program
Office of Decedent Affairs, Washington Hospital Center
110 Irving Street NW., Washington, DC 20010

2. Support Groups for Nonfatal Gunshot Victims

Victims who had been shot and survived their wounds spoke of the need to tell their stories many times. They stressed the importance of peer support groups. But unlike for rape victims, victims of domestic abuse, victims with severe SCIs, and parents/friends of murdered children, there are few, if any, specialized services or organized support groups for “plain, old-fashioned assault.” These victims, who are shot, one by one, day in and day out, have bullets removed in emergency rooms and then are released to carry on with their lives.

Participants recommended developing gun violence assistance centers modeled on the Thurston High Assistance Center in Springfield. This center was established in the aftermath of the Thurston High shootings and functions as a clearinghouse for services, activities, and resources related to healing individuals and the community. The proposed centers could be located within a YMCA or recreation center already functioning in the community and should be available to secondary victims like friends, neighbors, and family. They would be safe-haven drop-in sites where victims could meet with each other and with a multidisciplinary support team. Ideally, the centers would coordinate all services for gun victims in the community, such as medical and mental health evaluations, counseling services, family assistance, help with schoolwork or job applications, referrals to other programs, applications for victim compensation, emergency housing, and victim/witness protection. The centers also could be integrated with prevention efforts, such as community policing and afterschool programs.

Participants who worked with young gun violence victims felt that the support of other victims would help reduce the stigma associated with talking to the police and testifying against an accused shooter. The centers could encourage cooperation with the criminal justice system and nonviolent ways of solving disputes.

RECOMMENDATION: OVC should fund the development of model gun violence assistance centers that could be replicated in communities across the country.

3. Multidisciplinary Hospital-Based Programs for Adolescent Gun Victims

Although virtually all U.S. trauma centers have some sort of counseling and referral services for victims of violence and violence prevention clubs exist in a majority of SCI units, there are fewer than a dozen hospital centers nationwide that offer comprehensive counseling, intervention, and inpatient treatment programs to victims of gun violence. Participants agreed that this should be a high priority for DOJ funding. Urban trauma centers have reported the recurrent nature of assaultive trauma, with hospital readmission rates as high as 44 percent in some areas and subsequent homicide rates as high as 20 percent. Medical personnel working with social workers and counselors could turn the crisis of injury into an opportunity to intervene and interrupt this pattern of violence. According to participant Dr. Caesar Ursic, Director of Trauma Services for the Alameda County Medical Center in Oakland, California, there are anecdotal evidence and some data suggesting that such programs diminish the psychological impact of the injury, prevent retaliatory violence, minimize violent injury recidivism, decrease future involvement with guns, and increase the likelihood of success in school.

The Caught in the Crossfire (CC) program in Oakland has been hailed as a model program. It maintains a hotline for the Alameda County Medical Center to call when a youth between the ages of 12 and 19 is admitted to the emergency room with a gunshot wound. CC crisis intervention specialists visit the patient at bedside and—

  • Review the violent incident.

  • Explore alternative strategies for conflict resolution.

  • Provide information on risk factors for violence.

  • Explore coping skills and safety plans.

  • Arrange for followup contacts.

The recovery period in a hospital and rehabilitation center offers victims an opportunity to be exposed to supportive services. After victims have been discharged, followup visits are scheduled for a minimum of 12 months. The CC program uses trained peer counselors, many in wheelchairs because they too were victims of gun violence.

RECOMMENDATION: OVC should continue to recommend that VOCA subgrants be awarded to hospital-based gun victim programs.49 The elements critical to a model program should be identified for replication. Where funding is not available for comprehensive programs, emergency rooms should implement protocols to assess the risk of recurrent injury and provide counseling services for young gunshot victims and their families.

4. School-Based Peer Counseling for Violence Prevention

The power of peer counseling, evident in the hospital-based programs, also is an important component of school-based violence prevention programs. The Rise Above It program was launched in 1995 in direct response to an increasing number of severe SCIs and gunshot wounds in young people in the Newark, New Jersey, area. Program presenters, like Hashim Garrett, the Violence Prevention Coordinator for Rise Above It, are individuals who were paralyzed as a result of violent acts. They are teamed with able-bodied peer educators to let the students see the long-lasting effects of gunshot wounds and to teach them skills to deal with anger and prevent fights. The classes are part of the public school health sciences curriculum and have reached more than 10,000 students. The program has been posttested—meaning that the program surveyed students before and after they participated in the program, asking questions about their behavior and their beliefs about the consequences of fighting—and shows positive results as both students and teachers report a decrease in arguments and violent incidents.

School-based peer counseling programs like Rise Above It are designed as violence prevention initiatives. But roundtable participants found it difficult to draw a line between the victim services provided and the prevention aspects of the programs. The victim presenters are empowered by their ability to speak in front of an audience and become whole again by sharing their stories and acting as change agents for a violent school-age community. And many in the classroom are also victims, suffering physical or emotional harm from the violence they experience daily. These types of programs could be part of more comprehensive victim service initiatives, including crisis intervention, age-specific courses on victim trauma, and stress reaction training.50 As Dr. Enid Margolies with the New York City public school system observed, violence prevention and victim response issues must be folded into a school’s core curriculum, as funding for separate programs is difficult.

RECOMMENDATION: OVC should recommend that VOCA subgrants be awarded to qualifying school-based victim services programs. School boards should be encouraged to include victim services and violence prevention as part of a school’s core curriculum.

Caugh in the Crossfire
Youth Alive
3300 Elm Street
Oakland, CA 94609

Rise Above It
Kessler Anti-Violence Program
Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation
1199 Pleasant Valley Way
West Orange, NJ 07052
973–731–3600, ext. 2253

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Working With Victims of Gun Violence
July 2001
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