ERIC H. HOLDER, JR.
DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL
Thank you, Robert, for your kind introduction. You and the staff and supporters of Recover are truly our city's unsung heros. How often do we all pick up our morning newspapers, or turn on the local news at home in the evening, and see reports of murders and other violent deaths? Sadly, the answer is probably "daily." We're often shocked by these reports. We may feel less faith in our community, less safe in our neighborhood, less trust in our fellow citizens. Yet, how often do we stop to consider the shock, disbelief, and pain that the families of crime victims are experiencing at that moment? Most of us don't want to think about those tragedies and the people, sometimes young children, who are left behind to grieve and pick up the pieces of their lives. It's easier for us to think of murder and other types of sudden, violent death, as something that happens in someone else's family-- not to the loved ones in our individual worlds. When we see images of grieving and angry relatives it can make us uncomfortable. We don't know how to deal with their pain. We don't want to imagine that it could happen to us or to someone we love. But it happens to people every day across this country. And death takes its toll every day in this city.
It is the remarkable, dedicated staff of Recover who will reach out where so many of us fear to tread. It is the founders and supporters of Recover who will make it possible for the wounds of grief to start to heal. On behalf of the survivors, and on behalf of the Department of Justice, I thank you for the extraordinary undertaking that you begin today. Though I would like to speak with you today primarily about the pain of homicide but my comments are equally applicable to survivors of other forms of unexpected death.
As many of you know, before serving as Deputy Attorney General, I had the honor of serving this city as the U.S. Attorney and, before that, as a Superior Court Judge. I learned a lot in those years about crime and about loss. The loss of a family member, intimate partner, or close friend under any circumstances is difficult to overcome. The violent and unexpected death of a loved one leaves survivors devastated. Grief is a common experience. But grief for families of murder victims is different. It is more intense, it lasts longer, and is more complicated. The violent and unexpected death of a loved one leaves deep emotional wounds in family members and friends. There is nothing in life that can prepare a person for the day when someone they love is murdered. No one expects such an abnormal and horrible thing to happen. The normal reactions to the trauma of homicide include a wide range of powerful feelings that may feel abnormal to the person having them or seem strange to people who have not gone through it. It may seem as if the terrible pain will never stop. Assumptions of safety and a belief in the goodness of people may be shattered. Deeply held religious beliefs may be severely challenged by traumatic loss. At a time when they need understanding and human caring most, many survivors feel isolated by the stigma of murder or by the fact that their pain makes others feel uncomfortable. Friends and co-workers may grow impatient and wonder why the survivor doesn't "get over it." Survivors may struggle with anger, depression, physical illness, and hopelessness. People who have had to deal with other types of devastating losses in the past may find it even harder to overcome this blow.
Survivors of murder victims may feel horror and anguish due to the way their loved one died and the suffering he or she may have felt before and at the time of death. The motives of the murderer and the way in which the victim was killed also affect grief. For instance, vehicular homicide -- when a driver is drunk or negligent and kills someone -- is often not considered by others to be "criminal murder." Too often, drunk driving is viewed as being a slight error in judgment, or even humorous. As a consequence, survivors may feel their loss is ignored or treated lightly.
The grief that follows the murder of a loved one cannot be measured in stages or by how others react. For some people the reactions of shock, disbelief and intense emotions may come and go for a long period of time. Grieving survivors will find some things in common, but it is important to know that most people will not have these feelings in a set schedule or order. There is no "right way" to grieve. Each individual and family grieves in their own way. A murder changes individuals and families in many ways. What used to be "normal" has changed. Each family member must adjust over time to a new reality. Because the experience of grief is so different for each person, family members need to reach out to each other and seek outside help when they need it, even when it is hard to do. That is why the services that Recover provides are so critically important.
One of the issues closest to my heart, and one of the issues I've worked hardest on while Deputy Attorney General, concerns children who are victims of, or witnesses to, abuse and violence. We must be equally concerned about children who lose a parent, sibling, or other loved one to violent death. Because children are affected by their developmental level and may grieve differently from adults, it may be tempting for adults to think that kids are unaware of, or not deeply affected by, what has happened. Children may hide their grief if they fear it will upset other family members. When a murder occurs, the adults around a child may be so shocked and upset that the needs of the child are forgotten. Children may be so overwhelmed or frightened by the intensity of emotion going on around them that they become confused or quiet. What children see and hear after the family finds out about the murder can either help them or hurt them. It is important to have someone on hand as soon as possible who can take care of the child's needs in a sensitive and careful manner. That is why the immediate intervention work that Recover provides is so important. And children will need help and attention over the long haul, since the children's feelings of loss, as well as their understanding of death and the circumstances of murder, may change according to their developmental stage. The on-going counseling and referral services that Recover offers can make a tremendous difference as time passes and a child's needs change.
Death by murder is even more difficult for children to understand. Some children may think of murder only as something they have seen on TV. It may seem unreal or temporary. For others, it may have happened in their neighborhood or to other people they know. Children who witness the violent death of a loved one will need immediate and long-term help by a professional counselor. We saw far too many of these children when I was U.S. Attorney. Sometimes we saw children within an hour or two after a murder occurred. We found that these children benefitted from being able to describe the events and have the reality of what happened validated in a sensitive and caring environment. While we had licensed clinical social workers on staff to help interview and locate assistance for these children, we worried about what would happen to them over time. Often, we would first meet children who witnessed the murder months, or even years, after an event when they had not had any help or specialized counseling. These kids were the most troubled kids, and they were not receiving the kind of services they really needed to cope. It is so good to know that grieving children have become a major focus of the Wendt Center's efforts in this community.
Regardless of the age of the survivor, recovering from the murder of a loved one will take a long time and it will not be easy. In many ways, the lives of survivors will never be the same. A father who lost his college-age daughter in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Scotland in 1988 said that losing a loved one to murder was not something one ever gets over; rather, it is more like an amputation one learns to live with. But recovery often begins by talking about what happened with trusted people who provide support without being judgmental or giving unwanted advice about what survivors should do or feel. Most people find it helpful to talk with a professional counselor who has worked with other crime survivors. Sometimes just a few sessions with a trained counselor can help resolve the anger, guilt, and despair that make it difficult for survivors to recover. Talking with other homicide survivors may help them feel better understood and less alone.
Survivors of homicide will need special assistance in dealing with the criminal justice system. Being involved in a criminal investigation and trial presents additional challenges for survivors and can prolong the healing process. There may never be an arrest in the case, leaving families to feel that justice and accountability have been denied them. It may take months or years for a case to come to trial, making it difficult for survivors to put the criminal case behind them. Going through an investigation and a trial causes survivors to re-live painful memories and feelings. They may hear and see terrible things presented during the trial. Intense media attention can be trying, and, when there is no media coverage at all, it may seem that the victim is forgotten. A not-guilty verdict can leave families devastated and disillusioned. A guilty verdict or plea may bring a sense of justice but will never bring back what has been lost. Survivors may have to cope with issues of parole and release of the offender for years to come.
As U.S. Attorney here in Washington, my staff and I came to know many families and friends of homicide victims. They honored and helped us by sharing with us their memories and their losses. Those of us who prosecuted the cases and worked with the victims could never completely understand the depth of their pain, but we saw it as our mission to do our best to be sensitive to their needs while working to ensure that the murders of their loved ones were prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We had a very active Victim Witness Assistance Unit, including at least one full-time advocate assigned to work with homicide survivors, but there never seemed to be enough professionals in the community who understood the special issues faced by victims' relatives. The St. Francis Bereavement Center, now the William Wendt Center, was one of the best sources of help we found -- but often even they didn't have enough resources to meet the needs of the large population of homicide survivors in the District. I am so glad to see these resources expanded today.
In this country, the surviving family members of homicide victims are themselves considered by the legal system to be victims. Fortunately, victims -- including survivors of homicide victims -- now have more rights and services available to them in the criminal justice system. Not too many years ago, families of murder victims were often shut out of the courtroom because defense attorneys and judges thought their presence would unfairly influence the jury. Now, in every state, victims and their families have the right to be present in court unless they have to testify in the case. Survivors can present written and sometimes oral victim impact statements at the time of sentencing -- often the only opportunity for the judge or jury to hear about the victim and the impact of his or her death on loved ones. Crime victims compensation programs assist families with funeral expenses, medical expenses, mental health counseling, and other needs. Organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Compassionate Friends, and Parents of Murdered Children have chapters all across the country and provide support and assistance to survivors. Most police agencies and prosecutors' offices have victim assistance programs. There are programs to train law enforcement, clergy, physicians, and others on how to handle death notification in a sensitive and compassionate manner designed to help the survivor, not cause additional and unnecessary pain. Across the country, survivors of homicide are reaching out to support other survivors and to educate criminal justice professionals about the needs of victims. In many instances, they are using their painful experiences to change systems, making it easier for victims' families to get the help they need, making their communities safer, and proving to us all that it is possible to overcome even the greatest tragedies and help bring about change and hope for others.
Many of these programs receive funding support from the Office for Victims of Crime in the Justice Department. This unique office was created in 1984 and is funded completely by the Victims of Crime Act Fund, which is made up of fines, special assessments, and forfeited bail paid by people who are convicted of Federal crimes. Since 1985, OVC has provided almost $5 billion dollars for victims compensation and to support victim assistance programs, such as homicide support programs, rape crisis centers, children's advocacy centers, and other valuable services that help victims cope. Since 1986, the District of Columbia has received $2.4 million dollars in VOCA funds for crime victims compensation and $6.3 million dollars for victim assistance.
A few years ago, OVC worked with the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C., the D.C. Superior Court, and representatives of private victim service organizations to re-invigorate the D.C. Crime Victims Compensation Program and to ensure that OVC victim assistance funds were available to a wide range of local victims services agencies. This partnership has resulted in improved access to compensation and services for crime victims. Between October 1, 1998, and September 30, 1999, the D.C. Crime Victims Compensation Program payed out more than $1.3 million dollars to crime victims, including funds to assist the families of 203 homicide victims. Between 1986-1990, only 1,194 victims received services with the VOCA funds provided to the District. Between 1995-1997, that number increased to 5,724 victims who received services with Federal funding support. This year, D.C. will receive $1.1 million dollars in assistance funds from the Office for Victims of Crime.
In addition to the formula grants provided by OVC to the District of Columbia, OVC funds support a number of demonstration projects around the country which are pioneering new program approaches. We are very proud that the Department of Justice, through OVC's support of a project on traumatic grief and homicide support directed by Dr. Ted Rynearson of Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, is providing training and technical assistance to Recover. In return, Recover staff have reciprocated with training of Virginia Mason therapists and staff at the six other demonstration sites on issues relating to children's grief.
Today, as we celebrate the beginning of the Wendt Center's newest program, I salute the Center for your efforts to reach out to those among us who have been devastated by the homicide of a loved one. It is a population which has too often been ignored. Speaking as the former U.S. Attorney, I can't emphasize enough how extraordinary it is to have a network of immediate and ongoing support for families of homicide victims in partnership with the Medical Examiner's Office. Families are at their most vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of the murder of a loved one. The Recover program's support during and after the identification of the deceased is essential to reducing unnecessary trauma. I am certain you will make a tremendous difference.
If we are to be a civilized society, we must do everything we can to reduce violence and victimization in our communities. If we are to be a compassionate society, we must know how to tend to the needs of those among us who experience the devastating loss and suffering caused by violence. The murder of another human being does not simply affect that victim and his or her family, it diminishes the entire community. We need specialized services and care-givers, like the William Wendt Center, because they can play a critical and integral role in healing our communities. This community needs more good programs, and we need a coordinated network of services for crime victims. With the creation of the Recover program we have taken a large, bold step toward that goal.
Thank you for inviting me to join in this ceremony. I wish you the greatest success.