COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) – South Carolina agencies have announced a guide on how to support victims and family members of mass casualty events.
The 95-page guide’s creation was spurred by the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting, in which nine people were killed in 2015.
“The office learned that the coordination of multiple entities – prosecutors, victim services staff and their allies in the community, including mental and behavioral health professionals, and multi-faith communities – was essential to ensuring that survivors and community members were treated with dignity and respect,” an announcement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of South Carolina reads.
The guide, created in collaboration with the district attorney’s office and the National Mass Violence Victimization Resource Center – located at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at MUSC in Charleston – outlines how to support victims and families throughout the court process, from what to wear during media interviews, to a recommended book list, to advising people to bring mints and river rocks to the trial.
The guide is aimed at agencies that support survivors and their families after mass violence, terrorism and casualty cases. Those resources include prosecutors, victim service agencies and mental health providers.
Professions who have helped with the cases told the researchers that they’ve faced several challenges when helping victims – the lack of a clear response plan, difficulty in building teams, unclear communication from law enforcement to victim service professionals, a lack of understanding and communication with victims and family members, a shortage of resources and prior conflicts with personnel.
Survivors qualify for services such as referrals, knowing the status of investigations, being protected from the accused and getting funds for transportation, lodging, parking and supplies at the trial.
In the case of the AME massacre, the prosecution used an auditorium to gather family members prior to the trial to go over an overview of proceedings and give a schedule. Most of that time was spent hearing concerns and answering questions.
Communication, the guide states, needs to start early.
“This should begin during the investigative state of the case, with a seamless transition in mind to enhance communications during the pre-trial stage of the case,” it reads.
The guide recommends teams develop safety plans for the trial and talk to victims about what can make them feel more secure.
“To some it may not be logical, but it is important that they have confidence in their safety,” the guide reads. “They might be physically safe, but still feel personally insecure.”
Professionals need to ask survivors and families about what fears they have. Teams should also encourage them to limit their online time to avoid the “horrific things” they might see on social media.
Self-care workshops should start one to three months before the trial. Victim service teams and mental health providers should see any visual evidence – like autopsy photos – beforehand so they can be prepared to help survivors and family members for any trauma they might experience.
Families should also be able to tour the courthouse before the trial and be briefed about the evidence that will be shown beforehand. They should be taught how to manage their expectations and what to expect if they don’t feel peace after the trial, or if it’s not a guilty verdict.
“Walk a careful line between hope and reality, and preparation for trial outcomes in coordination with the prosecutor,” the guidelines read.
A courthouse should have a family and victim gathering room with snacks and items to destress with, such as stress balls or coloring books. Meals should be delivered to the courthouse during the trial. Private rooms can also be set aside for when survivors or families get distressed.
Other items include blankets in case the rooms are cold, or photos of victims. Other culturally relevant traditions and items should be included, such as using sage to purify a room for certain Native American cultures.
Families should be discouraged from bringing children to court.
If a survivor or a family member chooses to be in court when potentially disturbing testimony is given or photos/videos are shown, prosecutors should establish cues to say when that evidence is about to take place. The guide also recommends placing tissues in courtrooms.
Teams should encourage survivors and families to identify a support network, create soothing playlists, use a meditation app and learn breathing strategies. Mints, the guide reads, can help ground them. Seat cushions and notebooks are also recommended.
Survivors and family members may also want to bring photos of the victims to look at during rough testimony or graphic evidence.
“Photos of happier times may help to serve as a reminder that you and/or your loved one are not only this incident,” the guide reads.