Friends of VSS,
As the Holiday season is upon us, it is a good time to not only reflect upon the year behind us, but also to consider the years ahead. Our main focus remains on being a voice for victims and their loved ones, every day working to champion dignity and compassion for those hurt or harmed by crime and ensuring that their stories are told. Our mission is deeply rooted in the belief that every victim and survivor deserves to be heard, supported, and empowered in their unique healing journey as they face life changing challenges and seek justice.
In that spirit, we would like to share a survivor story that truly embodies our goals of upholding ethical, empathetic and inclusive practices in trauma response services, as well as promoting awareness and encouraging activism.
**Trigger warning – The following content contains references to themes of violence, which some readers may find distressing **
It has taken nearly 20 years to finally understand how I might potentially turn my pain into power. Violent crime is somewhat of a taboo topic, or rather, an avoided term – that “would never happen to me.” The truth of the matter is, that violent crime happens in ALL areas, impacts all socio-economic groups and sadly, is getting closer to home for just about everyone these days. I never thought my family and I would become part of a statistic but that’s now out of my hands.
It was a warm summer morning; I was working at Lulu’s Waterfront Grill in Ponte Vedra, FL – a restaurant that was a staple in the community that my sister, Jean Marie, managed. As I was getting the restaurant prepared to serve a very busy Sunday brunch (I was 23), I was beckoned to the hostess stand to take a very ominous phone call, and it was a detective, Adam Militello, who unbeknownst to me would become an intrical part of my life from that day forward. He asked me to stay at work. They needed to come speak to me in person. Needless to say, the next twenty minutes were the longest 20 minutes of my life. A million thoughts run through one’s head when they await news from a detective. I couldn’t have braced myself for the news I was about to hear – news that would shatter my entire reality for the rest of my life. These brave people, first responders, have to be the ones to not only come upon a crime scene of a beautiful young woman, but also then deliver the news to a family member. I have so much compassion and respect for our first responders’ fortitude and commitment to justice.
“Casey, your sister has passed away. She was strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend.” I fell to the floor; Detective Militello picked me up and held me. There was no way this was happening to me or my Jean Bean – my big sis, my best friend, my confidant. She was so strong and independent – there must have been a mistake. There was no mistake. In the blink of an eye, the life I knew as a regular 23 year-old flipped to a statistic, a news story and a young adult who had to harden up quickly to share the news with my mother. The half-mile drive there remains a blur; how do you share news you cannot even believe yourself? I had to figure it out. I walked into mom’s house and sat her down on her bed. She could tell I was as white as a ghost and something was wrong. I told my mother that Jean passed and she immediately started guttural screaming, a primal response to losing a child, especially at the hands of a violent criminal.
My mom was supposed to go shopping with my sister that morning; she called, and called, and had left her several messages of course, not knowing that her daughter lay dead in a pool of blood, waiting to be discovered and taken to the morgue. We got to hear those messages from my mom the first time we entered Jean’s house after her death – news cameras stuffed down our throats, no time to grieve, and as soon as we opened the door to her house (to retrieve clothing for her funeral) – it was the darkest, heaviest, soul sucking energy we’d ever felt in our lives. There was a square of carpet cut out of the rug. There was blood on the wall. Somehow I had convinced myself that this was a crime of passion, a quick strangling, hopefully painless for my sister. The crime scene told us otherwise, and the very long court proceeding proved this was a premeditated, tortuous death where blunt force trauma ended up being the cause of death. In the court documents, we later learned that my sister vocalized that she knew he was trying to kill her, and he physically tortured her after that. At her funeral, which I needed heavy amounts of sedation to even attend, she did not look like herself in the casket. She looked scared, and in pain. I wish I could unsee these images but unfortunately, they run through my mind constantly.
My family endured 3 years of trials (which nearly killed us). We were set up with a Victim Advocate who was provided through the State’s Attorney Office. These people were literal angels. Most people will not have a will when they are just 28, as my sister was. Dealing with an estate and details of a person’s life when they die too young is torture for a grieving family. Bill collectors called to speak to Jean, long after we sent the death certificates to the appropriate departments. Clearing out a home, trying to find mental health services for ourselves as well as support through the judicial proceedings – it was too much. The Victim’s Advocacy group we had saved our lives. It may sound dramatic to some, but the psychological impact of violent crimes on the victim’s family and friends is a lifelong sentence that can be narrowly escaped ONLY with a LOT of support. It breaks my heart to think of how many people have gone through similar experiences without the same type of support. I would imagine many people in these situations end up taking on addictions, dissociating from their lives and barely living.
You might be wondering why my story matters – I would like to fast forward to 2009. Through many years of therapy, friendship and victim advocacy, I was able to build myself a pretty decent life. This life always carrying with it, a dark shadow of the pain and torture I experienced as a young person. My dating life was massively impacted, as you might imagine. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was a very basic diagnosis which I finally accepted and treated somewhat. I was 29 at this point – my friend Patty asked me to babysit her pup one day (a simple task for most.) I headed down to Patty’s house on a beautiful, crisp fall day by the beach and had my first panic attack of my life. As we headed out for the walk, I was stifled. It was impossible for me to walk outside alone. Not something I was aware of, and it was a debilitating attempt. My heart shuttered with fear, my body was in fight or flight and it was literally impossible for me to breathe. I called my partner (then to be husband at the time) freaking out – what was happening? He came down to meet me and the conversation began. Here I was 29, a life I was grateful for, a career that provided meaning, a business I built, a home I owned. I was doing “all the things” yet debilitated by a very basic task of walking a dog. As I started to explore what was happening, it occurred to me that I had not been on a walk outside alone in years. Showering alone in a home could never happen. I would wake my partner up constantly thinking I was hearing noises at night. I was convinced someone was always trying to break into our home, and hurt us. Obsessing about local crime statistics was my thing. My heart was bruised and traumatized, and I just championed on thinking things would become better – and they did, externally, but not so much internally. At this time, I did not know what to do, I felt so defeated. I remembered the victim advocacy group that helped me so much when Jean died, so I searched for one in Washington. I came across VSS (then Family & Friends of Violent Crime Victims) whom I contacted immediately. They were warm and loving and had me meet with a Psychiatrist they worked with – pro bono. It was the first time in my life anyone recommended medication for panic disorder. As apprehensive as I was, the complicated path did eventually lead toward an understanding that medical support for my ailments caused by this heinous violent crime, were likely going to remain essential for me to survive and try my very best to thrive.
Beyond the meeting with the Psychiatrist, they were also collaborating with a research study that was exploring a new type of therapy specifically related to murder and suicide victims. I enrolled. I cannot speak too much about the study for confidentiality purposes, but I can say that in my experience, losing my sister quickly became the most gentle and understandable way someone could die. I have visions of some of these people’s experiences and it is the worst thing you could ever imagine. There is not enough compassion in the world to hold the people I connected with during this study. We saw each other weekly for 12 weeks; we cried, we processed, and we triumphed in a very non- traditional way. Some of us have remained close and still comfort one another around challenging times such as anniversaries and holidays, when things should be joyful, but in reality, keep many people in bed crying. Perseverance was a word that kept coming up. While I cannot speak to the results of the research study, what I DO know is there was solace in being around people who had suffered sudden loss. It was as if I found my people, for the first time in 6 years. This never would have happened without VSS. I can clearly and directly link my healing, success, and my future self, writing this letter to their work in our community.
It pains me to think that an incredible organization that helps people so compassionately and DIRECTLY might have to shut down. Violent crime rates are CLIMBING, yet we are losing funding for victim services. I believe we have too many victims who need VSS from soup to nuts. They carry a person from the initial onset of criminal juncture, through the judicial process; help with emergency financial support and just about everything that can help a person survive their own violent crime experience. VSS has served over 500 people from beginning to end last year, and thousands in other ways. They are operating on a skeleton budget and they may have to close the doors if something does not change with funding. The VSS staff are pouring their blood sweat and tears into their work, because they believe so greatly in the mission of the organization.
In November, I sat with my husband at the VSS fall ball, able to donate decent sums of money as well as donate services through my business. It was so touching to sit as a patron, supporting the organization, sitting in a place of privilege – that I was fortunate enough to have survived the excruciating experience of losing my forever best friend, who will never meet her 9-year-old niece, Lucy. Nor will she meet her new little nephew, Luca who is 8 months old. She would have been the most amazing Aunty and I mourn for her every day. The fact that I found my way and that I could carry on and build a life and have a family, truly may not have been possible without VSS. I am living proof that victim advocacy does not stop being important. True advocacy, which VSS is providing, saves people even decades later. In 2042, the murderer of my sister will be free, and while I carry a level of compassion for his existence, I’m terrified what will happen if we don’t have trained and dedicated people to help navigate these detrimental situations.
Organizations like VSS tend to focus on fundraising from people who they collaborate with – so, local community foundations, politicians and first responders – my big question is how can we make this need more known to the outside world? Would you consider sending this request to a person or two (or 200) who might be close to, or know, another crime victim? Or perhaps you know someone who narrowly escaped a violent crime and can live to tell about it? I urge you to consider ALL of the people like me, who if they had not received support, might not have made it. Send this to everyone and anyone you think might want to help. They can delete the email if they want. If we lose VSS, it will be a travesty for the people in our community, and judging from my story, people who are struggling from other regions as well.
Thank you for taking the time to hear my story, I hope that you will consider that any monetary gift will correlate to direct support. Give $1 or Give $10,000 (Tax deductible) – every donation counts! Please consider those who are struggling with grief this holiday season. It can be a dark and scary time to feel alone and helpless, unaware that there is support. Assisting other people in accessing the support they need, will be my next life’s passion.
We want to express our heartfelt thanks to Casey for sharing a very difficult and personal journey with others. While we understand this may have been tough to read, we also acknowledge that this is a sad reality for so many individuals who are very suddenly affected by crime, through no fault of their own. Reading stories such as Casey’s is one thing – living them day in and out, is another. Being able to offer supportive services for victims and survivors of crime is a necessity – not a luxury. Years, even decades after a heinous crime, it is just as important to know that the victim has not been forgotten, and that someone still cares. Everyone deserves to be heard, respected, and valued.
Just as we are humbled to have been serving the community for nearly 50 years, we are hopeful that we can continue and grow that support for another 50 years to come, and beyond. Thank you in advance for joining us in this endeavor. The power of a strong community working together is unmatched.
Happy Holidays to you and yours,
Dr. Michaela Weber, VSS Executive Director
IN LOVING MEMORY OF JEAN HICKS