Part III — Crisis, Trauma and the Justice System
This, the third article of the four-part series on homicide loss, explores in more detail the difficulties faced by co-victims and how those in their community can help them. The first area of focus — support during the legal process — deals with the justice system and how it affects homicide survivors. In the second part, I outline the financial burden that comes with homicide which co-victim families must face.
I speak from experience when I say that those who offer help should never underestimate how appreciated their act of kindness will be. Those friends and family that stood by my side were angels in jeans, rain-jackets, and trainers. They were both young and old, close friends and family, and some were strangers. Sadly, a few people whom I thought were friends fell away, but in their place came new souls who showed me — through their open-hearted kindness — that sweet friendships were possible at a time of utter desolation and despair.
As I learned to walk this new path, so did those who chose to be at my side. I guess we learned together.
So the least I can do is pass on what I know and what other co-victim parents have shared with me. Because someone, somewhere, may really need your help one day. Perhaps they need it now.
Support During the Legal Process
We all need to feel safe. We need to believe that crimes are solved, to believe in the justice system, to trust that the police and prosecutors are doing their job. We want to believe that life is like the movies, that terrible crimes end with justice prevailing. Anything that counters that, which puts into question the age-old principle that right triumphs over wrong, shocks us and so we don’t want to know.
Crime, justice, punishment.
Yet that’s just not how it is for most of us co-victims. As Judith Herman, M.D. states in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror:
“If one set out by design to devise a system for provoking intrusive post–traumatic symptoms, one could not do better than a court of law.”
The majority of families of murdered children express deep disillusionment, distress and frustration with police investigations and the judicial process. Countless families end up paying for detectives and lawyers in hope of getting justice for their children at a time when they can ill-afford additional expenses. Others write letters, petition politicians, talk to the press, mount truth campaigns, and mobilize social media so as to oblige the authorities to act. These families demonstrate super-human strength with only faith, rage and love to keep them going.
For many, the murder of their child or loved one will be the first time they are faced with police questioning and the criminal justice system. The law and legal procedures are bewildering at the best of times. If you are in shock and dealing with extreme grief, it can be utterly incomprehensible. For the vast majority, it’ll be the first time they’ve ever stepped into a criminal court. In some jurisdictions, they won’t even be allowed to do that — they’ll be excluded from the hearings or trial in case they ‘influence’ proceedings or the jury.
Sometimes the victim was killed in another state or country. This complicates matters even further. Trust me, I used to be a criminal defense attorney. Yet in the first year following my son’s homicide, I couldn’t understand what my own lawyer said. She could have been speaking in Chinese. I was simply unable to absorb or comprehend what was happening. Even two and a half years later, during the trial, I was still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and could only understand in part what was going on. How a parent without legal training is expected to follow what’s happening in their case after their child has been murdered is beyond me.
So What Can You Do?
First off, if you have any information that could help solve the crime, come forward. Do not over think this. Someone’s child or loved one has been killed, and the murderer will get away with it unless he or she is arrested, tried and found guilty. Find the courage to speak up and stand for what is right.
If you cannot help with evidence, then offer to help by driving them to the police interviews, with attending the various court hearings (if the jurisdiction where the homicide took place allows for this), with finding a lawyer or forensic expert, or with the mountain of paperwork that will be piling up on their desk. Help with anything practical that can lift the burden off their shoulders.
In the early days of the investigation, it may be that you accompany a co-victim to meetings at the police station or Court house. Later on, you might help them mount a social media campaign. Later still, you can sit with them throughout the trial if that is allowed. And even later still, you can show up during the appeal process or if you cannot attend, let them know they are in your thoughts.
It’s not uncommon for homicide survivors to have to put their emotional grief-work on hold during the investigation, trial and appeal process. It can take years for a case to work through the criminal justice system. Throughout this time, co-victims will have to repeatedly relive their story.
This prolonged suffering can have a deep and long-lasting detrimental effect on the psychological welfare of the co-victim because they’re obliged to push aside their extreme pain. This can result in life-long mental health issues.
Even when a murderer is convicted, co-victims may experience anger at the leniency of the sentence, or disbelief at public sympathy for the killer, or all manner of other debilitating emotions relating to the legal outcome. And often, there is not even an arrest, let alone a conviction. Homicide survivors are left struggling with the injustice and apathy of a system that seemingly doesn’t care.
So please, be patient. Give co-victims the time and space to express their confusion regarding the judicial process. Help where you can, and let them know that you have not forgotten them. Get together with other friends and neighbours. Take it in turns to accompany them to court hearings or meetings with the police or lawyers. Knowing they are not alone and that their community cares can make all the difference in their ability to cope.
The Financial Burden That Comes with Homicide
Death comes with costs. No matter how you die, there will be bills to pay. These usually include, but are not limited to, funeral and burial costs, buying a plot in the cemetery, administration costs and any outstanding medical costs in the run-up to your death.
But homicide brings with it costs that most people don’t realize exist or that they assume will be covered by an insurance company, a local authority or the state. These very costs can be a huge burden for co-survivors, adding to their trauma and general stress.
Let’s start with the obvious. If your child or loved one is a victim of a homicide, you cannot simply have their body removed to the funeral home and have it cremated or buried. The body is not yours to do with as you wish — it is now the ‘property’ of the state. The police will not allow you to go anywhere near your child or loved one unless it’s to identify the body. You have no say in what happens until the body is ‘released’ for burial. This in itself is very distressing for families.
By this time, depending on where your child was murdered, you may have been charged for the removal of the body from the crime scene and other autopsy or forensic costs. When my son was killed, I was sent several bills, including a request for payment for the plastic sheeting used to remove his body from the house where he was bludgeoned to death. This is shocking, traumatizing and utterly outside of anyone’s possible expectations regarding what you’ll be expected to pay.
Some parents may feel they have no option but to get a second autopsy and toxicology report if they are unhappy about the police investigation and what they perceive to be questionable results. For example, if the police are refusing to investigate because they believe your child committed suicide, and you’re certain it’s murder, you’d want to know. Again, this costs money.
Some families face an added challenge: a child killed abroad or in another state will need to be repatriated or transported home. Most often, this expense is not covered by insurance (if you have any) or the consular office, and it can run into the thousands.
Then there are the eye-watering bills that no one foresees.
Court hearings happen often and frequently. Many families cannot afford to travel to these hearings if they occur in another state or country. Imagine not being able to be present at your own child’s homicide hearings or trial because you don’t have the money to get there. I know of cases where there have been over 50 pre-trial applications before the case even got to trial. Or imagine the distress caused if, following conviction, you were asked to read out your impact statement to the court prior to sentencing, yet couldn’t afford to travel and stay in a hotel.
Then come the legal costs. Who prepares for this? No one.
As days turn into weeks, months and years following the homicide, many parents will come to the stark realization that they’re going to have to fight for justice for their child. But that doesn’t come cheap. In a demonstration of undying parental love, many will re-mortgage their homes. Some will use up savings. Others will organize charity events to raise funds. The final legal bill can run into tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, depending on how long the legal process takes. No wonder many co-victims fall into debt.
And as if all these costs weren’t enough, co-victims often face hidden costs that society knows nothing about. As a result of the psychological trauma, and the number of court and parole hearings, many co-victims will miss work days. This can result in them losing their jobs or having to reduce to part-time work only. Invariably, this leads to financial difficulties, missed mortgage payments and so on.
Lastly, co-victims not only suffer from mental health issues following the murder but often get physically ill. Unless you live in a country where there is universal healthcare, or you have comprehensive insurance, medical costs will not be covered. Therapy for survivors of homicide, which can include several members of the family and last years, plus any other medical expenses, can run into thousands.
The financial stress compounded with psychological trauma makes this type of child loss grief extremely difficult to navigate.
You may be wondering — where do I come in?
Be brave. Don’t shy away from asking about the financial aspect of the trial or travelling costs to hearings and how to plan for them. This is a difficult conversation but an important one because the financial management of homicide loss is hard. If the co-victim is overwhelmed and struggling, support them by making an appointment with the bank or a financial advisor if necessary. If they feel comfortable with you being present, go with them to the meetings and help with re-scheduling credit card payments or loans or whatever needs to be done to help with costs management. Organizing their assets or raising loans in advance of actual costs incurred can help enormously in reducing their stress levels as bills come in and have to be paid.
Just because someone was financially savvy in the past doesn’t mean they will be able to deal with the financial burden of homicide once they become a co-victim.
Secondly, be pro-active in raising money. Help set up a charity in the name of the victim, or organize charity events within the community to cover costs incurred by the survivors. Some families set up ‘Go Fund Me’ pages. Why not offer to run the social media side, to check emails, to make calls? Even at the best of times, these activities would be daunting to do by oneself. Imagine how much harder it is when you can barely function?
On a more neighborly basis, perhaps occasionally do their grocery shopping, or offer to drive them to hearings so they don’t have transport costs. Little gestures can add up to so much. Perhaps you have a spare room in your home where co-victims’ friends and family can stay when they come to visit or attend hearings? Maybe you can surprise them with take-out or invite them out for a nice meal?
Many survivors of homicide struggle to cover costs. Any gesture – however small – that reduces their financial burden can really help. Not only financially but also emotionally because they won’t feel so alone.
We are a long, long way away from co-victims having the right to a lawyer who is paid for by the state in the same way the accused (and once convicted, the killer) gets free legal representation. That the criminal justice system (understandably) offers the accused a state-paid lawyer throughout the proceedings, yet there is no financial help at all for the co-victims is beyond my comprehension. But to date, that’s how it is. In that sense, there is still much to achieve where co-victims rights are concerned. And consequently, the fact that the criminal justice system is as likely to compound a co-victims anguish as alleviate the grief should not come as a surprise.
In next week’s Part IV — Emotional support in the initial stages and beyond I shall touch on the challenges faced by survivors of homicide. Please join me in exploring this last and vitally important topic which completes this four-part series on Homicide Loss.
Please follow these links for Part I — The Challenges Faced by Homicide Loss Families and Part II — Murder As Entertainment and the Psychology of Fear.
Featured photo by Gus Moretta