Saturday 19 April 2014

Joan Dean: It's victims' families who get life term as State prioritises killers

The Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin

The State invests heavily in prisoner rehabilitation while turning a blind eye to victims' families

Murder by its very nature is the most unnatural of crimes. Its impact is sudden and shocking, leaving bereaved families isolated, unsure who to turn to for advice and how to go back to their day-to-day lives.

There is a huge personal toll on families beyond the immediate loss of their loved one due to the trauma of the associated court cases and the damage to personal relationships, living arrangements and their working lives.

One of the biggest issues is the criminal justice system itself, as families of victims of homicide have no legal standing – with the exception of the victim-impact statement, which is only a recent development.

As a result, AdVIC, and other victims' groups, has been advocating to reform the criminal justice system to ensure families are at the centre and that their voices are heard.

The most obvious way to highlight that victims' families are an afterthought is the topic of bereavement counselling. Our research has shown that 63pc of families seek counselling in the wake of a homicide. While this is no surprise, what people will find shocking is that there is no state support available.

Apart from volunteer services, the only professional bereavement counselling available is provided by AdVIC. This is a subsidised counselling service, which we are only able to provide thanks to the assistance of funding from the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime and donations.

At the same time, the State invests heavily in rehabilitation services for prisoners, including convicted murderers, while turning a blind eye to victims' families and friends. This is another example of how the system is weighted in the favour of the criminals themselves.

We often remark that it is the families of victims of homicide who are left with the real life sentence. Every birthday, Christmas and social gathering that passes is another cruel reminder that the loved one is gone. The empty chair where they once sat serves as a stark reminder that we will never be able to experience their friendship, embrace or laughter again.

There is a very real impact from the emotional toll that this takes on families. Our research shows that about 80pc of family members take time off work following a murder, with almost 13pc never returning to work.

Up to 80pc of victims' families also reported that their personal relationships suffered. For example, almost 20pc of those surveyed said that their relationship with their spouse or partner broke down as a result of their bereavement.

How is it that we have a situation that we constantly hear the Government talk about rehabilitating prisoners so that they can rejoin society, while ignoring the plight of victims' families?

All we are asking for is for fairness and to rebalance the criminal justice system in order to achieve an equitable system where justice is seen to be done.

This sentiment is underlined by the expected turnout at the AdVIC memorial service later today, where 300 family members and friends will attend. This is the fourth memorial service that AdVIC has held and despite our loss, people from different walks of life come together to remember family members and friends who have been taken away from us.

By the very presence of so many of us at the memorial service, we can show that our loved ones will never be forgotten.

All we are asking from the Government is that the same level of financial support that is put in place to provide rehabilitation services for murderers is invested in vital services like bereavement counselling. This will enable families and friends to deal with the emotional toll placed on them and, hopefully, one day help them to lead a full and rewarding life once again.

More importantly, it will also ensure that victims' families and friends are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.

Joan Dean is secretary of AdVic, the victims advocacy group, which holds its annual meeting in Dublin today

Irish Independent

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