Victim Services Unit aims to help victims, witnesses

Victim Services Unit aims to help victims, witnesses

May 27th, 2018 by Emmett Gienapp in Local Regional News
Caroline Huffaker

Caroline Huffaker

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Victim Services by the numbers

Category 2016 2017

Victims served 161 238

Criminal justice support & advocacy 966 2,020

Crisis counseling 442 761

Court accompaniment 35 130

Follow-up contacts 2,197 2,724

Safety plans 180 218

Presentations and training 11 75

 

At the beginning of 2016, Caroline Huffaker took the helm of the Chattanooga Police Department's Victim Services Unit.

Four months later, Bianca Horton was killed, found dead on the side of a road with multiple bullet casings on the ground beside her. Authorities said she was slain to prevent her from testifying at trial that Cortez Sims was the man who shot three people in January 2015. Twenty- year-old Talitha Bowman was killed in the shooting and Horton's daughter, Zoey Duncan, was paralyzed from the waist down.

In March of this year, three men were charged in Horton's death.

The homicide was monumental for Huffaker, who was just starting to get what is now a three-person unit off the ground. It was a painful experience, but one that has guided their work over the last two years.

"I think of her probably on a weekly basis when we're doing our work, because it taught me so much as an advocate," Huffaker said. "I learned so much from that case, and it's really informed how we do things now."

The Victim Services Unit now serves dozens of victims and survivors of crime in the community annually, offering everything from court accompaniments to crisis counseling with the understanding that if authorities expect community members to cooperate with and support police, they need to feel the department supports them in return.

To that end, Huffaker said her unit serves victims and witnesses as a support clearinghouse, connecting them with available resources and services.

"We have an obligation to come alongside people and help. I don't make decisions for clients, but I provide options, present information and help facilitate decisions," she said. "We walk through the decision-making process with them, but they get to be in the driver's seat."

She said the hurdles that must be faced both by victims, especially those who have lost a loved one to violence, are daunting. There are funeral arrangements to be made and court appointments to attend, all while the survivors process and grieve through a traumatic experience.

Victims of violent crime also frequently have long-term health considerations and expenses thrust on them that they have no experience in navigating.

"If I have a victim that has significant medical concerns and maybe they have a different ability now because of the injuries sustained, they're going to have to do rehabilitation, occupational therapy, and they're going to have all of these medical bills," Huffaker said.

Huffaker and her colleague see that work as a moral responsibility, but it also provides the foundation for improved relationships between officers and the people they've sworn to serve. Both the advocates in the Victim Services Unit and increasingly the department at large are making investments in the community that produce tangible results in criminal prosecutions.

"We should never underestimate the power of just listening to the lived experience of somebody. Even if the only action I took was listening, it can change their interaction with our department and fosters trust and rapport," she said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke underscored that as one of the chief benefits of the Victim Services Unit and said his conversations with families of victims made the need for such a unit abundantly clear.

"I almost always ask what the victim was like if it was a murder to try to get a feel for what his or her life was like. One of the things that was really important was the relationships that came out of that," he said. "It seemed like having a Victim Services Unit would help to build that kind of trust so we could both help these families and also get important information to solve crimes."

Residents also have seen the rollout of the Family Justice Center during Berke's time in office. The center offers all of its services both confidentially and free, including assistance in creating a personal safety plan, referrals to available services and personal support in court appointments.

"None of that existed five years ago. We spend more time trying to deal with the effects of crime than we ever have before," he said. "That is something that helps the city but it also ensures that we can clear more cases."

The Chattanooga Police Department's clearance rate last year was above 70 per- cent for violent crimes, higher than the national average, and no small part of that is due to the changing nature of interactions between officers and the public. Huffaker said victims will frequently come to their advocates with something pertinent to a case before they go to investigators, but patrol officers are handling situations differently now, too.

Huffaker pointed to the example of an officer who recently managed to de-escalate a situation involving a mother at a scene who was grieving the death of her son.

"She said she saw all these officers telling this mother, 'Calm down, do this, don't do this, come over here,' and giving these commands and so she asked all these other officers to back up and she said 'All I did was listen,'" Huffaker said. "You can still keep people safe and do exactly what she did for that mother, which was listen to her and acknowledge her pain at the loss of her child."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.