New city program reaches out to families of murder victims

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SHARE New city program reaches out to families of murder victims

A stranger approached Yolanda Strong at the hospital on the day her husband was shot to death.

At first, she thought he was a Chicago Police detective.

But the man in the suit was Andrew Holmes, a crisis responder for a new $1.7 million, two-year program funded by the city. He offered to arrange counseling for her family, help her apply for victims’ compensation and keep her in touch with detectives and prosecutors.

“I was so devastated,” said Strong, who was huddling with her family at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn when Holmes showed up.

“I wasn’t in my right mind,” she said. “He gave me the victims’ paperwork and said he could assist with the funeral arrangements and everything.”

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Holmes said he knows survivors like Strong aren’t thinking about the future on the day a loved one is killed.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Strong had watched in horror while a family friend, John Watley, allegedly shot her husband, Anthony Strong, because he was angry that Strong was touching his Cadillac.

“I remember [Watley] saying, let the ‘mother——’ die,” Strong said, her voice full of grief.

John Watley | Chicago Police photo

John Watley | Chicago Police photo

Holmes revisited Strong’s family last week to renew his offer of support.

“Sometimes when they go through this trauma, they forget the small things,” he said. “We are there for six months to a year to make sure they have strong support.”

Holmes is one of three crisis responders and four family-support specialists who assist murder victims’ families in a program overseen by the city’s Department of Public Health.

It’s funded through a U.S. Department of Justice grant intended to fight terrorism and provide emergency assistance to crime victims.

Holmes and the others work for Chicago Survivors, which subcontracts with a mental health agency, Thresholds. They earn about $40,000 a year, city officials said.

The program started in June in the South Chicago and Calumet police districts on the Far South Side, where murders have skyrocketed this year compared to the same period of 2014. Last week, the program expanded to the Deering, Harrison, Austin and Grand Central Districts.

So far, Chicago Survivors has responded to 27 murders.

Gun violence is something that Holmes knows about first-hand. He was shot more than 25 years ago, and it took him six months to learn how to walk again.

“That really inspired me to solve some of this gun violence,” he said. “I got shot in the artery in my left leg. I understand the pain they suffer.”

Last year, his nephew was wounded by gunfire in the Englewood neighborhood.

Other members of the team have had relatives who were murdered.

Holmes, 52, said he became a community activist as an aide to former Ald. Terry Peterson (17th) and former state Rep. Milton Patterson (D-Chicago). After Patterson left office in 2009, Holmes continued his work on behalf of senior citizens, victims of domestic abuse and families of homicide victims. He said he also helps search for missing kids as a volunteer with a private investigation firm.

When there’s a killing in one of the six districts, the Chicago Police Department’s intelligence center notifies one of the Chicago Survivors crisis responders like Holmes.

They’re available 24/7 to rush to the scene of the murder, or the hospital — wherever the surviving family members are.

The crisis responders have city identification cards to let officers know they belong there.

If they’re at the scene of a crime, the crisis responders approach the family after the detectives finish interviewing them. If the family has gone to the hospital, the crisis responders will meet them there.

The goal is to help families cope with their trauma — and to help break the cycle of violence by persuading survivors not to retaliate.

“Sometimes at a crime scene, the family is very distraught and they take their frustration out on the police by yelling and calling them names,” Holmes said. “We let them know there’s a reason why they can’t be with their loved ones lying on the street. They want to touch them, be with them. We let them know the detectives have to see whether there is any evidence left at the crime scene to let them know who discharged that weapon.”

Family members are often surprised to learn that only two immediate relatives are allowed to view the body at the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Holmes lets them know what to expect.

“We have to get inside their hearts, their shoes,” he said. “You have a lot of frustration. We help those individuals not to retaliate. We get them in the thick of things to show them a different route, not to retaliate but help to solve this crime.”

It’s similar to what CeaseFire, another conflict-resolution group, was asked to do under another contract with the city in 2012.

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided not to renew that one-year, $1 million contract with CeaseFire, whose employees include former gang members and ex-offenders who meet with victims’ relatives to try to broker truces. The program had suffered a major public relations setback when its director at the time, Tio Hardiman, was arrested on a domestic-violence charge that was later dropped.

John Escalante, chief of detectives for the Chicago Police Department, said the new Chicago Survivors program “has worked very well” with detectives so far.

“They have defused some potentially volatile situations,” he said, adding that detectives have “open lines of communication” with Chicago Survivors response team members in case they learn something of value to an investigation.

The crisis responders have gone to roll calls at the police districts to introduce themselves to the officers, Escalante said.

“They stay outside the yellow tape until we tell them we’re done,” he said. “They have definitely stayed in their lane, so to speak. They have not interfered in any investigations.”

The program could go citywide before the end of the year, officials say.

“This is a great example of how our city departments are coming together to work with community partners to strengthen our response to violence,” Emanuel said.

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