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Stephanie Hartwell,University of Massachusetts-Boston
In 1993, 98 people were murdered in the city of Boston, including 15-year-old Louis D. Brown, who was killed in the crossfire of a gang-related shooting on his way to a Teens Against Gang Violence meeting. In response to this tragedy, Louis’s family founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute (LDBPI) to address violence in the Boston community through models of restorative justice and building sustainable peace in the community. Boston experiences 50 to 90 homicides a year within and around the city. The LDBPI serves 98 percent of the families affected by these homicides. The LDBPI also provides crisis response training for front-line providers.
In 2011, I was awarded an ASA Community Action Research Initiative (CARI) grant to support the LDBPI with the dissemination and implementation of their “Burial and Resource Guide” as well as a corresponding evaluation. The burial guide is a “step-by-step” manual with sections including notification and correspondence with family, friends, funeral homes, officials, services and insurance companies; writing guidelines for obituaries and media statements; and tracking and contacts with police, medical examiners, and victim advocates after the murder of a loved one. The guide also includes exercises and resources for healing/coping. To our knowledge, no other specialized burial guides exist for survivors of homicide. Our collaborative objectives were as follows: to develop a burial guide training for frontline service providers; implement the training; to conduct a pre- and post-test evaluation of providers before and after burial guide training; and to help position the burial guide as a standard protocol for responding to families of homicide victims throughout the region.
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The CARI grant provided the opportunity to deepen our collaborative efforts with the LDBPI and employ our sociological expertise and technical assistance in the dissemination and implementation of the burial guide through training and a comprehensive and iterative evaluation. The evaluation informed the need for the guide and positioned the LDBPI as a leader in the development of a standard protocol for responding to families of homicide victims. The burial guide is an innovative technology in its attention to family members of homicide victims, in particular its message of peace.
The project demanded a dialogue between researchers, the LDBPI, and frontline/crisis-service providers. It provided an opportunity to survey the field and determine the resources and environments in which the providers operate, while addressing the immediate needs of survivors of homicide through the dissemination and implementation of a routine practice. For close relatives and friends of the homicide victims, dealing with the sudden violent loss is traumatic leaving the survivors feeling angry and confused. The burden of navigating through the complexities of the criminal justice system and death-related issues often exacerbates their emotional strain. Similarly, members of law enforcement and other frontline providers report a feeling of frustration in dealing with homicide victims' families because of their limited knowledge of the complexities of the judicial system (Goodrum and Stafford 2003).
The director of a crime victims’ advocacy group explained, “If you have a person who is just so emotionally wrought, every time you talk to them . . . they won’t remember from day to day what you’ve told them.” (Goodrum and Stafford 2003). The LDBPI has recognized the difficult necessity of facilitating interactions between victims and frontline service providers, such as the police and crisis response teams, as a first step along a continuum of addressing the needs of homicide survivors in a thoughtful deliberate way. The ultimate goal of their continuum is to transform pain and anger into peaceful, rather than potentially retaliatory, power and action.
Employing resources of the CARI grant enabled us to create a training day for responders across Boston including social workers from emergency room departments, clinicians in schools, case managers providing psychiatric first aid, police, and firefighters. The funds were used to assess the viability of adopting the burial guide technology for crisis intervention and the public health of survivors of homicide; standardization in the response of frontline service providers; potential for creating an ongoing dialogue between researchers and service providers in this area; and ability to document systemic change in response to survivors of homicide that closes gaps in practice and diffuses peace.
When a youth or adult is murdered, the “code of the streets” demands revenge and vigilante justice. The actions taken and reactions to a homicide by frontline responders and family members are crucial to whether the cycle of violence is perpetuated or broken. When family members—parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and other caregivers—are affected by violence their parenting is affected. These adults need assistance in their personal healing so that they can support siblings and youth affected by the murder and not feel abandoned by grief as well. Thus, the project evaluation examined strides made as the result of the training at the individual, organizational, and community level in regard to structural responses to homicide response and community healing (Figure 1).
Important and unique research outcomes included the publication of the burial guide, additional training, and the widespread dissemination of the guide to frontline responders. The CARI grant provided these outcomes as well as the opportunity to establish even greater trust between the LDBPI and University of Massachusetts-Boston. It has also resulted in further collaborations in the area of violence reduction and mindfulness as well as a welcoming partner and real life laboratory for graduate students in sociology at University of Massachusetts-Boston.
Goodrum, S., and Stafford, M.C. 2003. “The Management of Emotions in the Criminal Justice System.” Sociological Focus. (36) 179-196.