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Archdiocese training aims to turn crime survivors into advocates

July 24, 2015
Christina Gray

Three years after organizing community prayer vigils on the streets of San Francisco where in 2014, 46 people lost their lives to violent crime, the archdiocese’s restorative justice ministry has created a program to prepare volunteers to support the families of crime victims.

Watching families struggle to manage their grief and anger and a bewildering criminal justice system after a loved one’s murder – often with little or no formal community support – inspired director Julio Escobar and his staff to coordinate a three-day crime survivors sssistance support training on July 15-17 at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont.

“Adding to a family’s trauma after a murder are intrusions into the normal grief process that others facing a loss don’t typically face,” Escobar said, such as the need to engage with police, lawyers, investigations, or provide testimony and evidence. Other sudden and overwhelming burdens can be financial ones, like legal and funeral costs.

This, and a focus on the offender, can often create for the grieving family a sense of isolation, injustice and further pain and confusion.

“In many cases, faith in God and justice may fade away,” said Escobar, who integrated established restorative ministry practices in creating the three-day program, the first of its kind offered by a Catholic diocese in California. More than 40 crime survivors, victims’ advocates, grief and jail ministry volunteers and faith leaders from around the Bay Area attended.

Restorative justice focuses on repairing the harm done to people and relationships and empowering those affected by crime. Escobar said he and his staff, along with five co-sponsors, including the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Californians for Safety and Justice, IIRP International Institute for Restorative Practices and the Sister Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community organized the training as an act of “mercy and solidarity” with crime survivors.

They hope training will help prevent crime survivors from becoming offenders themselves – a not-uncommon path for survivors – and provide a network of volunteer advocates who can help families navigate the emotional, legal, financial and spiritual aftermath of a homicide.

Participants spent the first two days of the program exploring trauma – the general response and their own experiences – and learning how to apply short and long-term restorative responses to those impacted by it. A panel of speakers representing four Bay Area counties spoke about the criminal justice process, victim and witness assistance centers, victim services compensation and advocacy.

Paulette Brown of San Francisco can see the spot where her 17-year-old son Aubrey was gunned down nine years ago in broad daylight. “I look out my door every day and see where they did it,” she told Catholic San Francisco, a photo of her child pinned to her dress. “But I can’t just sit here and keep thinking about what happened, I need to be active and help other families. This is what I will be doing for the rest of my life.”

Roberta Fitzpatrick sought spiritual guidance from the San Jose diocese to help her support her niece, whose trauma over the murder of her 14-year-old daughter has been made worse by a prolonged and what she calls “dysfunctional” court process. She found nothing available and jumped at the chance for the training.

“Being with other survivors and with those who care and are trying to be present and responsive to survivors, is very strengthening for me,” she said.

Some participants who already work with crime survivors said the training brought a new dimension to their work.

John Strom, director of restorative justice ministries for the Diocese of Santa Rosa and an ordained deacon, said that despite his 35-year history as a probation officer, he often felt “woefully unprepared” to effectively encounter persons impacted by trauma.

“I am grateful for the insights this program offers which will be applicable to my ministry to them,” he said.

Margaret Petros, executive director of Mothers against Murder and a crime victim advocate at the Santa Clara Victim Assistance Center said she is happy to see the Catholic Church collaborating with the community to meet the needs of crime survivors, something few parishes are prepared to do. Many have jail ministries but crime survivor ministries are virtually unheard of.

“It’s crucial that the faith community be aware and trained to help those who are suffering from the horrific pain of losing a loved one through an act of violence,” she said.

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