Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A picture is worth a thousand words, but are all pictures worth publishing?

Crime Victim Advocacy Center staff members are teaching 60 continuing education sessions for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Besides teaching the officers how to communicate with victims of trauma and grief, we (hopefully) teach them some ways to deal with their own trauma- the trauma that comes from seeing what they see and hearing what they hear on a daily basis. It’s the proverbial “put on your oxygen mask before trying to help the child next to you” approach to mental health. If you’re burnt out, it’s only going to make your job harder. One of the coping mechanisms we offer is to avoid traumatic material like books, movies, or news after you’ve had a particularly bad day, week, or month. The same suggestion holds true for other trauma workers, including the staff at CVAC. 

I am not ashamed to admit that I have been feeling a little “toasty” around the edges. Not burnt out, but definitely moving in that direction. With the police training still fresh in my mind, I took great pains to avoid the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. I knew there were graphic images out there. A coworker said she had seen a picture of someone who had lost a limb and all other sorts of injuries. That was the type of traumatic material I knew I should avoid. Practice what you preach.

Then, in the midst of my Facebook newsfeed this morning, among a host of messages supporting the victims of the bombing, I saw a picture of a man in a wheelchair with a tourniquet around his thigh. The photo also showed rest of his amputated limb including the exposed bone and shredded muscle. My first thought was to immediately unfriend the person who posted it, which I did. My second thought was to question why someone would post that on Facebook. Then, a bigger issue came to mind. Why is that image out there to be posted on Facebook?

It did not look like a photo taken on a smartphone. It looked like a professional photograph. With a quick Google search, I found it on a number of reputable news sources. Many of the websites had cropped the image to avoid showing the gory remnants of the victim’s limb, but others had not. One website blurred the man’s face for his privacy, but still showed the rest of the graphic image. The same online photo galleries where I found the original shot showed victims lying in the midst of a blood-splattered sidewalk just minutes after the bombing occurred and other blood-spattered, screaming victims on gurneys.

I understand that when there is a tragedy like the bombing yesterday, people crave information. News sources want to get out as much content as possible, especially if the public's safety might be in jeopardy. I understand that a picture is worth a thousand words. I also understand that each bloody person you see in a news photo is a victim who has family and friends that will likely see those pictures. Those images may have reached them before word from their loved one. Those images may be the last ones that some families have of their children or brothers or sisters. Not to mention the toll that those graphic images take on the general public.

I do not want to regulate the press. The free press is one of the cornerstones of our free speech. Free speech, however, does not mean printing or distributing everything that crosses a news desk. I would ask the press to be more thoughtful in what they are posting. When something is on the internet, it is there forever regardless of whether it is later removed from a website or censored by some sources. Those images are permanent. Decisions like whether to post graphic material have permanent consequences for the people who have already been victimized or those who are simply bystanders to the tragedy. Those consequences may not be seen by the media, but they will doubtless be felt by those who have already been put through so much pain.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

And I think to myself...

Thinking of the faces is not something that I regularly do. It is a luxury that I cannot afford to myself. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the victims. It’s just self-preservation. I have always been afraid of being crushed under the weight of all the pain and loss.

When I started my college internship at CVAC in 2002, the second case I opened was with the mother of a homicide victim. I still remember the victim's name, but I never saw his face. Since then, I have worked with hundreds of families of homicide victims. I have seen some of the faces on t-shirts their families wear or on funeral programs families bring to our office, but it’s always in passing. I know the names. I see them over and over in case notes and in the list of names I assemble for our annual homicide victims’ vigil. I don’t know their faces.

Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes God smiles on us. Sometimes karma brings us good things. Sometimes there are coincidences that turn out for the best. However you want to attribute it, you know what I mean. And so it went with CVAC’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week event this year. Victims’ Rights Week was coming up. An artist was looking for pictures of young victims of gun violence. A gallery just a couple blocks from the CVAC office gives space to artists free of charge.  It turns out that the artist’s schedule, the gallery’s availability, and Victims’ Rights Week all coincided, so we scheduled the exhibit and an opening reception.

For the “Faces Project,” Christine Ilewski paints watercolor portraits of young victims of gun violence, donates the original to the family, and collages reproductions of the portraits onto vintage handkerchiefs. These images make up a traveling exhibit with a mission to raise awareness of the toll gun violence takes on American youth. So, with the help of coworkers and interns, I narrowed down our clients according to the artist’s guidelines (victims under 20 years of age and killed by a gun) and sent them an invitation to participate along with an envelope for them to return the release form and a photograph of their loved one.

A few responses arrived in the mail. I did not open them. I told myself it was just to keep them from getting lost. If I’m being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the faces.  Finally, one showed up with a handwritten note on the outside of the envelope that read “Last picture he took! Thank you.” My curiosity got the best of me and I opened the envelope. Seeing the picture nearly brought me to tears (which my coworkers could tell you is a rare occurrence). Then one arrived with a familiar return address, so I opened that one, too. Same result. Finally, I decided to open the rest. I found not only pictures, but also notes about the victims. Even in the midst of their grief, the families found happiness in this project and in telling their loved one's story.

Then it hit me, the tears I was holding back were not tears of sadness. Instead, I was in awe of how much this project meant to people and of the very small part that I could play in making it happen. I was in awe of how these families let us into their lives at the worst time and how much trust they place in us. Rather than crushing me under their weight, the faces buoyed my spirit.

Whenever I tell people where I work, they either tell me a story of their own victimization, they try to get away from me as quickly as possible, or they tell me how sad or hard my job must be. It’s true, although I don’t let myself think about that. Just like I don’t let myself dwell on the faces. Somehow, though, I am sitting at my desk and listening to Louie Armstrong sing “What a Wonderful World” and thinking that it couldn’t be truer. It’s a cruel world. It’s a difficult world. It’s a sad world. It is also a wonderful world. And sometimes there is wonder in the midst of the sadness. It is with that revelation in mind that I invite you to come see the faces.

Friday, April 19, 2013
3701 Grandel
St. Louis, MO  63103

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Monday, April 1, 2013

Taking stock of our resources

Today, several media outlets circulated news about a push to establish a National Compassion Fund for victims of mass shootings. Families of some of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks and of several highly publicized mass-shooting events have created a petition on the White House’s petition page to collect funds and to give them directly to the victims’ families. Since most people do not think about victim services until they need it or until it is in the news, this petition provides a perfect opportunity to explore the resources that St. Louis has to offer in the case of a local mass-shooting attack.

Need: Funeral & Medical Expenses
Services: Mo CVC can provide up to $5000 in reimbursement for funeral expenses and up to $25,000 in medical expenses, lost wages, and/or loss of support for children.

Need: Counseling for Adults
Services: Free trauma-specific counseling for anyone age 10 and up

Need: Counseling for Children
Resource: Family Resource Center, Annie’s Hope, and others

Need: Spiritual Support
Services: A volunteer minister is paired with grieving families to provide sensitivity and support to the families of homicide victims, to rebuild and strengthen relationships between the Police Department and the community and to reduce the likelihood of retaliation

Need: Group Counseling
Resource: NOVA (National Organization for Victim Assistance) Gateway Crisis Response Team
Services: CRT responds to crises in the workplace, neighborhoods, organizations and corporations with group crisis intervention and companioning.

This list is by no means exhaustive of all possible needs, but it also does not cover all of the available services. Listing all of the resources available would far exceed the limits of this blog and the limits of its readers' attention spans. While we cannot provide direct funds to victims like a National Compassion Fund, victim advocates at CVAC will assess what needs a family has and will do their best to find a resource to meet those needs. You can reach CVAC at our hotline 314-652-3623.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services