Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 6, 2019

Caring for crime victims

Three women work in criminal justice to serve those who have suffered injury, loss or trauma

Most days in Chattanooga bring news of another crime in the city, whether it’s homicide, assault or theft. From there, the hope is the offender is caught, prosecuted and locked behind bars.

But even when justice has been served, the effects of the crime can continue to resonate in the lives of its victims. Injuries, both physical and emotional, can linger long after the gavel has fallen; the grief of a mother who lost her son can take years to subside; and a child’s shattered belief that the world is a good place might not be easily repaired.

In Chattanooga, these victims are not forgotten after the headlines have yellowed. Instead, three women labor behind the scenes of the criminal justice system to serve the people local crimes have impacted.

Caroline Huffaker is the victim services coordinator for the Chattanooga Police Department. She’s been with the unit since 2016, when former police chief Fred Fletcher spearheaded its creation.

Huffaker’s history as a victim advocate at the Sexual Assault Center of Northwest Georgia and Partnership for Families, Children and Adults in Chattanooga primed her for the job.

“I learned how trauma impacts our bodies and brains when we go through something traumatic,” Huffaker says. “That helped me to conceptualize how to help victims of crimes.”

Amy Russell is the victim assistance coordinator with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee, which is based in Chattanooga. She’s been with the office since 2006.

“I came to this profession because I wanted to help people through my work, and this is by far the most rewarding job I could have in that regard,” she says.

Russell and the others like her across the nation can trace the creation of their jobs to the passage of three federal acts: the Victims’ Rights and Restitution Act (1990); the Justice for All Act (2004); and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (2004).

These collectively require Russell and her colleagues to keep any victim of a federal crime abreast of what’s happening with their case.

“We cover any federal crime, whether it’s human trafficking, robberies of federally insured banks, child pornography and white collar crimes,” Russell explains. “As the coordinator of this office, the Knoxville office and the Greenville office, I have about 2,500 victims in my system, so I stay busy.”

As the victim specialist with the Chattanooga branch of the FBI, Megan Gentry has a lot on her plate as well. She’s also in good company, as the FBI employs more than 150 victim specialists nationwide.

The agency began victim support services in earnest after seeing the impact 9/11 had on many people. “The exposure to trauma and not having a way to process it can have long-term implications for victims,” Gentry adds.

Despite working for different agencies, these women have similar responsibilities – as their job titles suggest. On the surface, their duties sound like the kind of nuts and bolts work involved with any bureaucracy. Huffaker, for example, leads a team of six advocates who provide updates on cases to victims and helps them to understand each step of the process.

She handles some cases but mostly toils behind the scenes, doing the work that pays the bills and keeps the lights on – such as applying for grants.

Russell also helps victims navigate the criminal justice process. In addition, she assesses their needs, connects them with social services and makes sure their rights are protected.

This includes allocution during a sentencing. “That’s the one time the victim’s voice can be heard,” Russell says. “They can write a letter to the judge or be heard in court during the sentencing. It’s their right, with that defendant sitting there, to say what they want to say.”

Russell says telling a victim he or she has rights often empowers them. “When they know they’ll have a voice during sentencing, I see new light in them.”

Gentry’s work is similar to Russell’s in that she informs victims about their rights under federal law and points them to services that might help, whether it’s counseling in the wake of a traumatic event or housing for someone who’s threatened with homelessness.

Since most of Gentry’s cases involve child sexual exploitation, she also spends a lot of time with the victims and their families. “I arrange for children to be interviewed,” she says. “During that time, I talk with the parents about how everyone is doing and ask if they’re interested in counseling or have any basic needs.”

Gentry also asks if there’s domestic violence in the home, and from there, she might provide a referral to Partnership or the Family Justice Center.

“People might have been experiencing hardship before the crime occurred, and maybe they haven’t had the opportunity to address whatever difficulty they’re facing,” she continues. “It’s my job to assess their needs and then connect them with the appropriate local resources.”

While these fundamental tasks might make up the bulk of each woman’s work day, to describe their jobs as purely managerial or administrative would be inaccurate. Rather, opportunities arise out of the minutia of their duties to show victims compassion and to make a human connection.

Being human

Russell says her work is “very human.”

“We make every effort to give a victim the confidence they need to come to court, and will then hold the person’s hand as they face the defendant,” she says. “There are cases when the victim won’t enter the courtroom without us. It helps to have someone there.

“We help victims face their fears and try to give them the confidence they need.”

Gentry says the human side of her job is its most important aspect. “A crime can turn a person’s life upside down. It can have financial implications; it certainly has emotional implications. My job is to soften the impact, if I can. I can’t undo the crime, but I can make it easier to get through what happens next.”

Although Russell, Gentry and Huffaker don’t officially provide counseling, some informal therapy often works its way into their interactions with victims.

“When someone goes from being crushed to understanding the crime wasn’t their fault, it’s my job to validate that, especially if they’re in therapy,” Gentry points out. “That’s crucial with sexual abuse cases. When the victim begins to identify that it was rape, not sex, I’m there to give them permission to say what it really was and to not take on guilt and shame.”

All three woman say the human side of their job also gives them the opportunity to be cheerleaders, especially in court. “Sometimes, it’s Amy and me saying, ‘You’re great. You’ve got this. We’re right there,’” she says. “That’s their big moment. This person did something that made them feel powerless, and now they can take their power back.”

Huffaker’s compassion for others is evident not just in the things she says but also in the way she says them – with a voice sweetened with kindness and a smile that rarely fades.

A belief in the deep-seated resiliency of the human spirit colors the compassion Gentry feels for victims. “Even when something terrible has happened to you – even if you’ve lost a loved one due to a violent crime – I believe you have the power to pull through and still be a strong, healthy, loving person and accomplish your goals.

“So, I don’t focus on what happened to a victim or how terrible it was; I focus on how strong they are and how they’re going to be able to get through the grieving and healing process.

“At the end of the day, I want to help them see their strength.”

Challenges of victim work

Since victim specialists do distinctive work within the criminal justice system, it stands to reason that their jobs come with unique challenges.

Some of these are easier to handle than others. For example, Russell says ascertaining the needs of each victim can be tricky, since no two victims require the same things.

“Every victim deals with crime differently. One bank teller who’s robbed will deal with what happened differently than another bank teller,” she adds. “So, I have to assess each victim to find out what his or her needs are, whether it’s counseling or a social service.”

Establishing trust with a victim can also be difficult, Russell says, although she’s learned that keeping promises goes a long way with many people.

“In white collar cases, the defendant was someone they trusted, like their financial advisor, or someone who was selling them a home, or a friend of the family. In human trafficking, it was someone they trusted or fell in love with and saw as a companion, and then they were swept into a whole other world.

“So, when victims come into the system, I have to gain their trust, which I pride myself in doing. If I tell you I’m going to be in the courtroom, I’m going to be there.”

Russell says the hardest part of her job is detaching herself from the harsh things she’s seen and heard so she can focus on the victim. “The part of this job that gets to me the most is being unable to take away what happened to someone,” she says. “If I struggle with anything, it’s being unable to make a 9-year-old forget what happened.”

Russell says she feels badly for every victim who walks through her door, even when it’s someone who had money stolen from their account. “They’ve been violated, and now it’s my job to help them move forward with their new normal.”

Coping mechanisms

To be able to focus on the people, each woman employs several coping strategies. Russell, for example, plays golf. “Maybe I take things out on the ball,” she acknowledges.

For her, staying mentally healthy is also about what she avoids. “I don’t watch movies about mass shootings because I have to leave those things at work,” she says. “I don’t leave the victim at work; I leave the trauma. It could easily keep me up at night if I internalized it.”

Having said this, Russell pauses for a moment and then says there are things she probably locks away.

“The pictures you see, the harm that’s done to children – maybe I put those things out of my mind,” Russell continues. “You have to be strong because the trauma could be overwhelming.”

Gentry focuses on self-care, such as eating well, exercising and getting plenty of sleep. “Being physically well helps me to be mentally well so I can continue to provide services,” she explains.

Gentry also makes the most of her time off. After work, she can be found in her backyard, playing with her dogs, or in her kitchen with her husband learning to make Indian food.

She also intentionally plans her vacations. “I’m available around the clock unless I’m on vacation,” she adds. “So, I get away when I can and invest in my personal life. You need balance.”

Huffaker leans on her support system, which includes her family and friends – many of whom don’t know what she experiences at work. “I love having people in my life who don’t know what happens here,” she says. “I love my work community, because I rely on them to get through each day, too, I just don’t want to always be with them.”

Huffaker also sometimes drives to work in silence. The absence of music or voices on the radio helps her to center herself, she says. “Sometimes, it’s the only time during the day when someone isn’t calling me or talking with me.”

Huffaker also says she’s occasionally seen a counselor. “I feel no shame in telling people I’ve been to therapy,” she says. “Sometimes, your car needs a tune-up.”

Even then, Huffaker says she must continually adjust her focus. “There are days when I still become scared about something happening to me or someone I love, or when I’m sad to hear that someone in our community has experienced an awful thing. So, I have to constantly choose how I want to respond to things.”

Given the heavy weight of what victim advocates encounter, it’s not surprising the job changes those who stay with it. Huffaker says her work has given her a greater appreciation for what people are able to endure and rise above.

“Even though I did advocacy work before coming to the police department, I’ve come to see the depth of the hurt some of our community members shoulder. Some of our families have gone through really hard things, and I’m in awe of them.”

Ironically, being a victim advocate has helped Huffaker to open up more to life. “Do I allow this job to scare me and close in to protect myself? No; I fight that impulse.”

Outside perspective

Although Russell, Gentry and Huffaker decline to offer a specific case, or victim, as an example of how their work has helped others, Inspector Daryl Slaughter of the CPD readily sings their praises.

“A girl had been shot and paralyzed, and victim services went above and beyond the call of duty to take care of her needs. She never would have made it to court if it hadn’t been for Caroline’s team. They handled the logistics, provided transportation and made sure she was comfortable because she was still suffering from post-traumatic stress and didn’t want to face the person who shot her.”

Slaughter says victim services even arranged for someone to provide the victim with a motorized wheelchair. “That provided so much comfort.”

Slaughter remembers a day when the girl would have been left to fend for herself, and is grateful for the work victim services does at the police department.

“Sometimes, we’re so focused on finding out who committed the crime and putting them in jail that we don’t realize there’s a grieving mother whose world has been turned upside down,” he says of his fellow police officers and inspectors. “It might seem like we don’t care about what they’re going through, but we do. And that’s what stands out about victim services – they truly care about victims.”

Slaughter adds that victim services also plays a crucial role in improving the public’s perception of the police department.

“People often see us at a bad time; maybe their mom and dad were fighting and we had to take their dad to jail, or maybe we pulled them over and gave them a ticket,” he says. “So, the perspective people have of us might not be fair, but it’s the only perspective they have, and any time an individual or the community can have a positive interaction with the police, that’s great for us.”

Having worked closely with Huffaker on several cases, Slaughter says the department is fortunate to not just have a victim services coordinator, but to have her in the position.

“Caroline was with rape crisis when I first met her. I was the responding officer, and I was impressed with her demeanor and how she was able to comfort the victim. I remember thinking this isn’t a job for Caroline; it’s a calling.”

The future of victim services

Russell says that while laws are continually changing for the betterment of victims, she doesn’t believe the criminal justice system as a whole gives victims enough consideration.

“We’re fortunate in the Eastern District of Tennessee that their voices are being heard and their rights are being adhered to. But across the U.S., are we where we need to be with victims? No.”

To enhance local victim services, Russell, Gentry and Huffaker are working together to craft a mass casualty response protocol that will address how to support the community not just on the day of the incident but also during the weeks, months and years that follow.

The FBI is expanding its victim services program. “We went from having two forensic interviewers to having around 15, which is still not enough, but the program is growing because we’ve come to understand the impact crime can have, particularly on children,” Gentry says.

Finally, Huffaker would like to see victim services professionalized and standardized. “I believe that could be helpful for victims.”

Until then, all three women plan to do the work each one of them has described as being tremendously gratifying.

“A human trafficking victim got married, and I received a wedding invitation. A child pornography victim graduated from college, and I received a call saying, ‘I made it,’” Russell says, her eyes brightening. “Whereas years ago, we didn’t know if that victim would ever be able to interact with society again.

“I’ve seen a lot of difficult things, but I’ve also seen many success stories. When I walk out the door at the end of the day, I know I’ve helped someone, even if it was something as small as returning a phone call or letting someone yell at me because the system isn’t moving fast enough.”

“Being a victim advocate is an honor and a privilege,” Huffaker adds. “I’m simply a public servant.”