Families link up to navigate life after murder

Years ago, Tina Chery had a dream, or rather a college project.

She wanted to design a support network for survivors of violent crime that could help guide them through the criminal justice system. Ten years later, thanks to a grant from the Boston Public Health Commission and the Lenny Zakim Fund, that dream has become a reality.

On Tuesday night, The Survivors Leadership Academy, under the auspices of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, came into existence. Over the coming months, the families, the survivors, of murdered Boston residents will come together to find strength in each other.

"The ultimate goal is to help survivors understand the complexities of the criminal justice system and to give survivors the help they need to live life," said Tina Chery, founder of the institute. "No one plans for their loved one to be killed. How do you navigate your life after?"

The program is broken into four modules. The first module focuses on survivor rights, while subsequent modules consider support services and self care, law enforcement, court, and post-conviction phases. Each module incorporates a closed-door time for survivors to talk about their own struggle as well as time to meet with representatives from various public and private institutions.

Survivors expressed both frustration with and appreciation for representatives from the Boston Police Department, the Office of the Attorney General Victim Compensation and Assistance Division, the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, and the Massachusetts Office for Victims Assistance (MOVA). Each representative informed the participants about their legal rights as victims. According to state law, dependents and family members of homicide victims are entitled to the same rights as victims of violent crimes.

The attorney general's office provides up to $25,000 for the health and mental care of dependents. While all the organizations do not provide financial support, they help to guide the family of the victim through the investigation, and trial.

This year the Boston Police Department hired Aliza Rodriguez as a witness advocate. She assesses the needs of the family, works with families to claim compensation, seeks to secure safe living arrangements, and keep families updated on the investigation. When the investigation goes to trial, her work is then passed onto Kara Hayes, the director of the victim witness assistance program for the Suffolk Country District Attorney's Office.

Kathryn Henderson, outreach and program coordinator for MOVA, explained the updated Victims Bill of Rights that the office is lobbying to get through the legislature. The first Victims Bill of Rights, which was passed in 1985, has no enforcement mechanism. Requirements such as a separate waiting room for the family of the victim have not been put into place in all courtrooms. Some courts also take victim statements after sentencing, something that the original bill of rights also prohibits.

On Thursday, the group will gather again, not to learn about different services but to confront and comfort each other's pain.

While the Survivor's Program is in its first year, the institute is entering its 14th year. It offers services ranging from counseling to education to community building. Over 20,000 students in grades K-12 have been taught the Peace Curriculum and the institute has worked with the Harvard School of Public Health to nationalize the efforts of the institute.

"We help families after homicide and also other mothers whose children have been incarcerated or deported," said Janet Connors, Survivors Support Coordinator. "The families of the perpetrators are also torn up. It's what is tearing up the community. We are getting dads and siblings involved, too."

The Survivor's Program is another way that the Peace Institute is seeking to create a community of peacemakers in Dorchester. It's the latest step in a journey that began in 1993 when tragedy struck Chery's son, Louis D. Brown, who was killed in the crossfire of Dorchester streets five days before Christmas. His memory lives on, fourteen years later, in those that violent crime still leaves behind.