Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Remembering Those We Lost and Helping Future Victims of Mass Violence

Remembering Those We Lost and Helping Future Victims of Mass Violence

By Anita Ahuja, MA, Manager, Mass Violence Response Team, California Victim Compensation Board

As we approach the 18th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, we remember those who lost their lives that day or were injured and how so many lives were forever shattered by terrorism. 

The attacks of that day impacted California directly, as all four of the hijacked planes were scheduled to arrive in our state, three to Los Angeles and one to San Francisco. 

Immediately following the tragedy, there was a lot of confusion which made it very difficult for the California Victim Compensation Board (CalVCB) to obtain a list of victims so we could reach out to survivors and family members to inform them about benefits and resources available to them.  Initially, we relied on airline manifests and outreach including media announcements and press releases. 

The California State Legislature quickly passed emergency legislation to expand benefits for victims, created county tolerance programs in response to hate crimes that were occurring and provided $1 million in assistance to the State of New York for their recovery efforts.

On October 9th, the Governor’s Office held a Day of Remembrance on the West Steps of the Capitol to remember those who died and to honor first responders. 

Five-year old Sonali Beaven sang beautifully during the ceremony, less than a month after losing her father, Alan, on United Airlines Flight 93 which crashed outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  Amidst her tears and those of her mother, Kimi, they shared cherished family stories as we spent time learning about their family history and what would help them heal one step at a time. The memories of that day are vivid, as are the feelings we experienced of losing our sense of normalcy and not knowing what to expect.

The federal Office for Victims of Crime provided crisis response grants to CalVCB to host peer support group meetings — a practice that worked well following the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.

The groups met monthly for approximately three years in Northern and Southern California, becoming one of the greatest sources of healing for the family members and survivors.  Since everyone had experienced the same incident, they shared a common bond and were able to easily connect and support each other through severe trauma, depression, substance abuse, the inability to work, suicide and family separations. 

Sadly, since the tragedy of that day 18 years ago, mass violence incidents have grown significantly in frequency and size.  In California, we have witnessed horrific events such as those in San Bernardino, Seal Beach, Cedarville Rancheria, the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, the Chabad House in Poway, the Gilroy Garlic Festival and the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas where approximately 65% of the victims were from California. Too many people have joined the ever-expanding group of mass violence victims around the globe. 

In response to these mass violence events, CalVCB has established a mass violence emergency response plan which includes a field response team trained in trauma-informed crisis response and a detailed list of resources for assisting victims.  Through statewide victim forums, we have been able to learn about the ongoing and unmet needs of victims and survivors. CalVCB has partnered with other government and community agencies to help meet these on-going needs.  The Antiterrorism and Emergency Assistance Program (AEAP) in the federal Office for Victims of Crime has also provided grants to assist with long-term recovery.  This program has made a tremendous difference through the support provided to victims.

More and more service providers are stepping forward to share resources during times of mass violence.  The FBI has expanded its Rapid Deployment Response Team which is activated in less than 24 hours.  The Red Cross helps with setting up Family Assistance Centers and providing for immediate needs such as food and clothing.  Corporations including Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, major airlines and others provide complimentary accommodations and transportation for victims and family members in need. 

It is impossible to make sense of the mass violence that has besieged our communities.  Our hearts are continually broken when we learn about the lives that have been taken.  I am reminded of my first encounter with victims of mass violence shortly after September 11th.  A husband and wife, parents of an adult son who perished on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center, asked me “what sin did we commit that God would punish us this way?”  I responded “you didn’t commit any sin.  I don’t know why this happened, but I know we will do everything we can to help you get through this.” 

And when the next mass violence tragedy occurs, we will do everything we possibly can to assist.  Our program provides assistance to reimburse for medical, mental health, and funeral/burial expenses as well as income and support loss.  We help those with catastrophic injuries with a variety of eligible expenses.

Know that we are ready to help victims heal and recover in the midst of horrific pain. We have learned a great deal about responding to mass violence and are prepared to respond when the time comes.  Our greatest hope is that these tragedies will cease, but until they do, we are here to help.

The California Victim Compensation Board is dedicated to providing financial assistance for many crime-related expenses. Victims who suffer physical injury, threat of physical injury or emotional injury as a direct result of a violent crime may qualify for assistance. To learn more visit: https://victims.ca.gov/.