Wednesday, January 7, 2009

If You Want to Know How to Talk to Us, Ask Us

Louisiana MVFHR member Tom Lowenstein writes:

Recently I was asked to tell my story at a Defense-Initiated Victim's Outreach training program here in New Orleans. I had given a talk a couple of months back to a group of capital defense lawyers to encourage them to send people to the training, and apparently it was useful so they asked me back as part of the training. Talking about my father's murder is never fun, but like everyone in this community I'm willing to do it if it's useful, so I agreed.

At the meeting a couple of months ago I felt like my story--a victim's family member's story--was central to the day. This time, it felt a bit like "token victim time." I knew it going in--they were doing a 40-hour training and had only a couple of hours scheduled for actual victim's family members to speak. A little strange, I thought. They had even replaced my sister, Kate, who was supposed to be an important presenter during the training and has extensive experience as a liaison with victim's families and who, of course, has been through it herself, with a woman who has a Master's in "Victimology." With all due respect to that woman and her extensive experience and training, I couldn't understand why the DIVO people wanted the actual family member to not speak in favor of an academic.

This tied in with a more general unease I had about the training's heavy emphasis on Restorative Justice, which might be a fine idea in many instances but, in my opinion, is not a helpful concept in homicide cases. And whether it is or not, it shouldn't be part of DIVO: if you're reaching out to a victim's family member during the trial of the murderer, the last thing on earth you should think of bringing up to them is some kind of reconciliation with the killer. And if you're going to hold that carrot out to victim's families you are, in my opinion, doing the same damage as a DA who holds out the great "Feel Good" of the Death Penalty.

Despite my hesitations, I think it's good for actual family members to be heard, so I went ahead. And my talk went fine. I felt like a specimen when I first got there and heard the academics and lawyers talking about victim's family members, but that's par for the course. As I spoke I had that moment of thinking, No matter how much I hate talking about this, it's useful to do it. Which is a good feeling.

Later, I was puzzled to hear that right after I left, the Victimologist got up and did an exercise in which people pinned to her lab coat small badges with emotions on them that a family member of a homicide victim might feel. It must have been strange, I thought--I'd just left the room and she gets up there in the lab coat and announces (role-playing), "I'm the family member of a homicide victim. What might I feel?" And people say emotions and an assistant pins them to her....

Later in the week I went back to listen to another presenter and saw that coat hanging up with the emotions still pinned to it. One of them was "overwhelmed." Yeah, I thought. Right. Overwhelmed. That's what it feels like to hear someone you love has been shot to death.

So I’m left with mixed emotions about DIVO. I think having someone from the defense team say to the victim's family, "I'm sorry for your loss. Our job is to defend this person and we're going to do that, but we want you to know we are sorry for what you're going through and if there's any information we can provide you with without hurting our client we will" would be good for victim's families. I think it would help the cause of “justice,” as flawed a concept as that may be. The same way DA's being honest with victim's families would be good. DA's listening to victim's families, even if those families do not want the death penalty, would be good.

And I think letting victim’s families be heard is important.

Which is why I’m unable to shake my concerns about the DIVO training. Are the proponents of Restorative Justice using DIVO to push a broader agenda? I heard from a friend of mine who did the whole training that even though Restorative Justice got a lot of coverage during the week, he didn’t think the trainers were pushing it. But why was so little time, comparatively, given to hearing actual victim’s family members? I understand that later in the week one other family member spoke, and a short video of two parents of a murder victim was shown. I’m glad of this, but it still doesn’t seem to me like enough. And I still can’t understand their decision to shunt aside an actual family member with years of experience doing victim's family outreach (my sister, but that's not why their decision puzzled and upset me) in favor of an academic. If you're going to spend 40 hours training someone to go talk to victim's family members, shouldn't more than one or two of them or five of them be involved in the training? Wouldn't that be helpful?

It's not like victim's family members are World War One veterans--impossible to find. We're all over the place. If you want to know how to talk to us, ask us. You don't need an "expert" in "victimology" or "restorative justice" to tell you.

The whole experience left me with a bit of that feeling we all get sometimes, from the anti-death penalty world and from the DA's: Say what we need you and want you to say, serve our purposes, and then be quiet.


fixthehurtpag said...

As someone that will be speaking to this same group next week, I am really glad I came across your blog. When I mentioned to the prosecutor in our case that I was speaking at DIVO (which he had never heard of), he said, "I think that the seminar leaders might have bitten off more than they can chew by asking you to speak to them. I encourage you to not hold back anything. Let them know that the actions of the defense attorneys throughout our trial were hurtful; and how they persisted in dragging Lisa’s past into the trial; and how they tried to make the murder case about Lisa . . . . "
I appreciate your candor and will try to connect back with you to give you my feelings. I have a website, should you choose to find out more about Lisa.
I am very sorry that you lost your father in such a terrible way. My heartfelt best to you and your family. Linda

fixthehurtpag said...

I just returned from the DIVO Seminar in El Paso and was impressed with the thought-provoking information that I heard. The program appears to be well-researched and I cannot see how, if properly conducted, this program could be anything except a win-win. As a survivor of homicide, I was treated with respect by all in attendance, especially the leaders of the seminar. It was a very positive experience for me.