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CURRENT ISSUE:  August 9, 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 14   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Catholic leaders decry California judge's decision on same-sex marriage
Bishops commend ruling on Arizona immigration law
Relic of St. John Vianney venerated in Oakland Diocese
Manhattan Declaration author sees ‘call of conscience on great moral issues’
Voice editor to retire
Oakland budget crisis imperils
outreach to victims of violence

The management and staff of a rapid-response counseling program, which supports families and friends of homicide victims and is co-managed by Catholic Charities of the East Bay, are vowing to keep it running even while its funding is threatened by the City of Oakland’s budget crisis.

They say the work, giving aid to people in the throes of grief, fear, anger and a host of other wrenching emotions, is critical, including efforts to help guide youngsters, who are the derivative victims of homicides, away from the pull of gangs and violence after the murder of a loved one. “I refuse to lose (the program). That’s not going to happen,” said Millie Burns, deputy director of programs for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, which co-manages the Crisis Response Support Network with the Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence.

“We know how important it is to the people we serve,” said Burns. “We may have to change it, refine it, but we are seeking grants, we are seeking donations — absolutely we are.”

The network, which in the last fiscal year responded to cases involving 87 homicide victims and came to the aid of several hundred people traumatized by those violent crimes, has been funded by an Oakland parcel tax called Measure Y since 2007. The tax, authorized by Oakland voters in 2004, in part funds violence prevention programs.

But the funds can only flow if the city maintains a force of 739 police officers, and there’s the rub.Oakland recently lost 80 officers to layoffs and now has a police staff of 694.

Last month, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to place on the November ballot an amendment to Measure Y that would suspend the minimum staffing level required to collect the tax. By a 5-3 vote, members also placed on the ballot a far more controversial measure, a $360 parcel tax per single-family home for firefighting and to restore funding for police.

Catholic Charities of the East Bay and the Khadafy Foundation share a Measure Y grant of $310,800 annually. Funding was approved for a six-month period that began July 1, but the crisis program’s future is in doubt after that.

Amid the tumult — Catholic Charities does not take political positions — managers and staff of the crisis network pledge to press on.

“It is devastating, absolutely devastating,” Burns said of the spreading effects of homicide on family and friends. “The feedback we get from our clients is pretty amazing. One of the things we hear over and over again is ‘Thank God you were here.’”

The network, said Burns, is not engaged in “survivor recovery” per se because that doesn’t fully occur. “A violent death is a hole in the heart. It is never really filled. You learn to live with it,” she said.

Counselors seek to respond within 24 hours, either at the scene of a homicide if called by the Oakland Police Department, or at homes of family members. Quick response is essential, said Burns, because the sooner effective intervention occurs the better the possibility for people to cope, as best they can.

Counselors provide intensive crisis support, including planning funerals, and in some cases help secure finances to cover funeral costs as well as for relocation, loss of income and other disruptions. Members also work closely with the Oakland Unified School District to coordinate services to affected students and their families.

“Clients know they can call their counselor any time of the day or night and they do,” said Burns. “They will call at one o’clock in the morning, saying they cannot sleep, it is too much for them. They know they can call Sunday morning and the counselor will be there Sunday afternoon,” she said.

The Khadafy Foundation was founded by Marilyn Washington Harris as a tribute to her son, Khadafy Washington, who was killed in West Oakland on Aug. 4, 2000, not long after his graduation from McClymonds High School. Harris, the foundation director, is a network staff member, along with counselor Sharmaine Robinson and Khadafy volunteers, including Jesse Washington and Todd Williams. Catholic Charities of the East Bay personnel are staff counselors Denise Curtis, Adrian Dominican Sister Marian Castelluccio, Deb Collett and Maty Brito.

“It takes an extraordinarily compassionate person, emotionally resilient, who is able to balance this daily intervention with the worst of grief and trauma with their own personal well-being,” Burns said of the counselors. “Our staff is at very, very high risk for associative trauma.”

Collett, a native New Englander with more than 20 years experience as a social worker, said she is not daunted by the work’s risk.

“You jump into the vortex,” she said. “You meet the client where they are at. And they are in deep trauma, deep confusion, and deep shock.”

Collett joined the network last year as a volunteer and was subsequently hired. In April, she witnessed violence like so many of her clients have seen.

She was attending a funeral at Cosmopolitan Baptist Church in East Oakland for an 18-year-old man who had been slain. When the service ended, shots rang out in the church — there was a dispute involving mourners and people outside the church — and Collett, who had been sitting with a young cousin of the victim, shielded him with her own body. People ran in all directions, and some kids jumped into the baptismal fountain for protection. Fortunately, no one was injured.

That afternoon, Collett and Castelluccio went to the family’s home to comfort them.

“What I did in that church was what anybody would do,” said Collett. “I addressed the needs of that little boy.”

Her current caseload includes children under 14 who are at high risk of being sucked into gangs, of committing violence themselves, and not completing school. Some of them are success stories, she said.

“So often in this society we report the bad,” she said. “We report that which is sensational, and I think it is time to redefine what is sensational.”

Collett’s example: She has been working with a 10-year-old boy who saw his father murdered. A friend of Collett’s suggested a therapeutic horse riding program at Las Trampas Stables in San Ramon — and the boy took to it.

The stables gave him a scholarship to ride weekly — he has learned kindness to animals and controlling their power — and he has become part of the staff. He has grilled hot dogs for a fund-raiser for the therapeutic program and given pony rides to kids.

“He has done a lot to give back even though a lot was taken from him,” said Collett.

“We’re all in the same boat,” she added. “You treat people how you would like to be treated.”

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