Hamilton County support group launches for those who experience loss from homicide

Contributed Photo by Verna Watt / Verna Wyatt, co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims

A new support group, founded by women who understand losing a loved one to homicide, is coming to Chattanooga.

"Grief is a process that has many stages, and it's a long, hard, difficult journey to create a new normal for your life after it has been torn apart by murder," Verna Wyatt, co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims, said.

"The goal for Chattanooga is to have a homicide support loss group that can offer all that support and friendship from others who understand your pain because they are living it, and to have your grief journey led by a counselor who can help you avoid getting stuck in a stage of grief that could further complicate your recovery."

Wyatt, who is from Ohio but has lived in Nashville since 1974, began working in victim advocacy after her sister-in-law and best friend, Martha Wyatt, was sexually assaulted and murdered.

Martha Wyatt, a teacher, was killed by the boyfriend of the mother of one of her students. Her body was found three days later in the Cumberland River. The defendant pleaded guilty in that case and the rape of another woman two weeks earlier.

When the Times Free Press asked Verna Wyatt how long it took her to move past her grief to begin working in victim advocacy, she said it was years. Wyatt said while she has benefited from support, she still struggles with the loss.

"I'd say the first year after Martha's murder, I was really in shock. The first year is harsh," Wyatt said. "But the next three were hell, because the shock had worn off and the reality of the situation set in. I don't think I really felt joy for the next five years. I loved Martha, she was my best friend, but I can't even imagine if the loss was a child."

Wyatt continued struggling until she became involved with a homicide loss support group. Wyatt dove head first into the group, eventually becoming so involved she decided to serve as executive director.

The "support group helped me subdue the anger, because I had a safe place to process with a counselor who could lead me through the journey," Wyatt said. "But it rears its ugly head from time to time, especially when it is evoked from some kind of injustice."

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Wyatt worked on educating people about domestic violence, child sexual abuse, sexting and cyberbullying for 10 years. During this time, she met Valerie Craig, who would become co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims.

photo Staff photo / Melicha Calhoun adds flowers to a memorial set up in memory of LaBrecia Dews on Sept. 28, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dews was one of two women killed during a shooting at a block party on Grove Street in the fall of 2021.

According to Wyatt, Tennessee Voices began in the state Office of Criminal Justice Programs when officials saw a gap in services for victim's families in Tennessee.

Wyatt said Tennessee Voices was able to secure a government grant, and her support group also contacted district attorneys general in order to spread the word about the counselor-led support it offers.

As her program expands throughout the state, already serving Shelby and Davidson counties, Wyatt's goal for Chattanooga is to provide a support group that understands the same type of loss and allows for healing.

These services will be provided in addition to the ones already offered by the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County district attorney general's victim services units.

"The [police] department has their [program], and we have our victim/witness coordinators," Bruce Garner, the communications director for District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said in an email to the Times Free Press. "Our support more or less ends when the court process has ended. Tennessee Voices for Victims will provide ongoing support."

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Caroline Huffaker, victims services and chaplains director for the police department, worked with Wyatt and Craig to expand Tennessee Voices to Chattanooga. She said that the new initiative has been in the works for "upwards of a year."

"[They] have been working on it for quite some time," Huffaker said in a telephone interview.

Huffaker said the difference between the existing programs and Tennessee Voices is the latter can offer families long-term support the city cannot.

"We are what's considered a systems-based advocacy program. So our unit is based within the police department, a government system, and we provide supportive services and advocacy related to ... crime victimization," Wyatt said. "But we are not able to provide in-depth therapeutic work because that is not what this program is designed to do."

In addition to victim advocacy, Wyatt and Craig lead victim impact classes, which in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Corrections, teach incarcerated people how their actions have affected their victims along with helping them find the root of the problem.

"We do this because we know the reality, 98% of the people incarcerated are returning to our community, we want them to return as good citizens," Wyatt said. "Our class is about accountability, understanding our actions and the impact on others and the hope for changing behavior."

"In our class [they are] learning about child sexual abuse, or domestic violence, and they begin to understand the impact on the individual. We see them begin to connect the dots of their own offending behavior," Wyatt said. "Not an excuse, but an explanation. Instead of working on the symptoms that brought them to prison, they see a deeper problem."

Pinkston also worked on bringing Tennessee Voices to Chattanooga. He said he is trying to bring awareness about the program for the benefit of those affected by homicide.

"Our victim/witness coordinators work with them through the court process, but it's hard for people who have lost someone to homicide to ever really get closure," Pinkston said in an email to the Times Free Press. "That's why we want them to know about this ... support group so they can get the support services they need in the years ahead."

Hamilton County residents interested in participating or supporting the homicide victim's family support group can go to the district attorney's website at tndagc.org/support or call 423-209-7400.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at [email protected] or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.