homicide support group

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Starting in June, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Victim/Witness Coordinator office will host a support group for family and friends who have lost a loved one to homicide. Left to right are Stacy Louthan of the Victim/Witness Coordinator’s office, Commonwealth’s Attorney A.J. Dudley, Virginia Victim Assistance Network Homicide Support Group Coordinator Dina Blythe, Director of Youth Counseling for ReadyKids Shannon Noe, and Franklin County Victim/Witness Coordinator Megan Smith.

The Franklin County Commonwealth Attorney’s Victim/Witness Coordinator’s office has secured a grant to launch a homicide support group in June for immediate family members and close friends of homicide victims.

Franklin County is one of only eight localities in the state to offer such a group, which is coordinated through the Henrico-based nonprofit Virginia Victim Assistance Network. VVAN received program funding from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services through the Victims of Crime Act.

Dina Blythe, Homicide Support Group Coordinator for VVAN, said localities were chosen not so much for having the highest murder-per-capita rates, but according to their need for survivor support given each area’s locally available resources.

Other localities launching groups are the counties of Amelia, Albemarle (with the City of Charlottesville), Fairfax, Loudon and Rockingham plus the cities of Alexandria and Newport News. For 35 years, VVAN’s mission has been to provide training for victim-assistance professionals and advocate for victim needs with its 200 allied agency partners.

Under grant guidelines, the group can include up to 15 participants and can run as long as 10 months. Stacy Louthan of the Victim/Witness Coordinator’s Office for Franklin County will facilitate the group. Membership is free, and the first meeting is June 6 at 6:30 p.m.

Participants will be referred by Megan Smith, Franklin County’s Victim/Witness Coordinator. The group is for only adults. Blythe said VVAN hopes to roll out support groups for children and to offer Spanish-speaking groups across the state this year with the goal of “20 groups by 2020.”

Franklin County’s Victim/Witness Coordinator program was launched in 2017 and has received continued grant funding through 2021. The goal of a victim/witness coordinator is to ease trauma so that victims and witnesses can come forward and continue with prosecution. Services include case development notifications, explaining the criminal-justice process, accompaniment to court proceedings, crisis intervention and information about obtaining protective orders.

On May 17, Smith and Commonwealth’s Attorney A.J. Dudley invited local fire and public safety officials, business representatives and nonprofit group coordinators to attend a trauma-informed care training session at The Franklin Center. Shannon Noe, Director of Youth Counseling at ReadyKids in Charlottesville, specializing in trauma and grief, gave a 3-hour presentation on “Resilience and Healing after a Homicide.”

The goal of the training, Dudley explained, was to reach those who routinely witness homicide crime scenes — both in-person and through visual representations — and those who regularly work with homicide survivors and witnesses. Attendees included members of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, Rocky Mount Police Department, Franklin County Department of Public Safety, Carilion Medical Group and the Franklin County Family Resource Center.

“The training will provide guidance as to how to reduce the re-traumatization that can be triggered when interacting with those suffering from a homicide,” Dudley shared. “More specifically, we seek to raise the awareness and understanding of ‘trauma-informed care,’ which is care that emphasizes services and programs that are sensitive and directly responsive to the trauma that many survivors experience after a violent crime.

“Providing trauma-informed services for survivors highlights the closely related issue of ‘vicarious trauma,’ sometimes called ‘secondary trauma,’ experienced by many service providers, law enforcement personnel, and others who work with victims and survivors of violence,” he added.

Dudley continued that the goal is for the training session to not only help attendees communicate effectively with violent-crime survivors and witnesses, but also to raise awareness among themselves of the gradual effects of the trauma they routinely witness in their professions.

Noe’s presentation focused on defining vicarious and secondary trauma, self-care awareness and strategies, the long-term impact and treatment of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and traumatic grief.

Vicarious, or secondary trauma, is commonly referred to as the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person, Noe explained. Secondary traumatic stress symptoms can include hyper-vigilance, poor concentration, physical illness, intrusive thoughts, chronic fatigue, sadness and detachment.

When those who work with violent-crime survivors recognize these symptoms in themselves, they may want to look at self-care in both their professional and personal lives. That can include everything from peer support groups in the professional arena, to personal care such as healthy sleep and eating habits, to psychological support through journaling and spending positive time with friends and family, to the emotional realm of mindfulness and meditation.

Noe then addressed ACEs, noting recent studies show those exposed to trauma as children have higher risks for suicide, depression, lung cancer, and heart disease – not because of their high-risk behavior but due to trauma-induced physiological changes.

The good news, Noe showed during her presentation, is that the impact of ACEs is reduced through therapy that emphasizes resilience, and that with support, those who’ve experienced even multiple ACEs can pull through with better results than those who’ve experienced none.

In closing, Noe discussed traumatic grief, which is a typical grief response compounded by losing a loved one in a way that is frightening, unexpected or violent. This leaves a person dealing with the two-fold problem of both grief and trauma; which can lead to feelings of powerlessness, survivor guilt and isolation in a lack of grief support.

The advice for those who work with groups of people experiencing traumatic grief, such as the homicide survivors group, is to create a non-judgmental space for participants to share experiences, to validate feelings, encourage developing survival and coping tools, provide space for storytelling and honoring the lives of loved ones, and provide education about topics such as law-enforcement and media intrusion.

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