Addressing the Needs of Children and Families After Mass Violence, with Melissa Brymer, Angela Moreland, and Melissa Sommerville
In this panel discussion recorded at the 2023 NCA Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2023, Dr. Melissa Brymer, Dr. Angela Moreland, and licensed mental health counselor Melissa Sommerville who speak from their personal experience in responding to incidents of mass violence in Sandy Hook; Charleston, South Carolina; Buffalo, New York; and more. How can organizations that support children and families support healthy coping and identify evidence-based trauma and grief treatments when additional assistance is needed? How can we address the additional pain when these incidents target one’s identity—race, ethnicity, gender identity, or religion? And how can we care for our own well-being and that of our staff, and create our own coping plan to help us get through these challenging times?
Topics in this episode:
- Our objectives today (0:10)
- Personal experiences (15:00)
- First steps (19:54)
- Basic needs (35:11)
- Social media (41:34)
- Resources (44:42)
- Pause, Reset, and Nourish (48:19)
- Q&A (51:56)
Angela Moreland, Ph.D., is associate professor of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and currently serves as the associate director of the National Mass Violence and Victimization Resource Center
May 14, 2022, Tops Friendly Markets, Buffalo, New York
National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD)
E-learning courses at learn.nctsn.org
March 27, 2023, The Covenant School, Nashville, Tennessee
Antiterrorism and Emergency Assistance Program (AEAP) grant
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Season 5, Episode 9
“Addressing the Needs of Children and Families After Mass Violence”
[0:10] Teresa Huizar:
Okay, for those who are joining us by streaming, I’m Teresa Huizar, the CEO of National Children’s Alliance, and we are so glad to have you here today as a part of our annual Leadership Conference.
[Intro music fades out]
You may be wondering why we selected this topic for a plenary. I think all of us know that mass violence can come to any community. Many of you in this room have certainly been exposed to it in the media, but some of you have been exposed to it much more directly, and your CAC has even responded to mass violence events.
But for those who’ve not had that misfortune yet, we want you to feel prepared to know how you can not only respond to that but how you can support your staff through that process and cope with the aftermath of that. Because God forbid that it should happen to you or in your community, but we certainly don’t want you to be unprepared.
So it’s my pleasure to introduce three guest panelists, and this will also be a part of our One in Ten podcast, so you guys can have access to it both ways afterwards. And I’m going to introduce them one at a time because they’ve each had a very distinguished career.
So I’d like to start with Melissa Brymer, who’s the director of the Terrorism and Disaster Program at UCLA/Duke University’s National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. She is one of the primary authors of the NCTSN/NCPTSD, Psychological First Aid and Skills for Psychological Recovery, and has served as consultant for many federal, state, and local agencies across the country and internationally after disasters, terrorism, school shootings, and other mass emergencies. She is a researcher at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Also we have joining us today Angela Moreland, who is associate professor of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at MUSC. Dr. Moreland held a leadership role on a policy project entitled Vision 21 that many of you may be familiar with through OVC at the Department of Justice, which focuses on transforming victim services to better meet the needs of trauma victims and their families. And many of us have had our work guided by that project. Dr. Moreland currently serves as the associate director of the National Mass Violence and Victimization Resource Center, which is an OVC-funded initiative to evaluate previous response to mass violence incidences as well as to develop effective responses for future events.
Finally, Melissa Sommerville will be joining us, who is a licensed mental health counselor and project director of the Mobile Child and Family Trauma Treatment Team at BestSelf Behavioral Health. There she oversees a mobile trauma team that provides trauma counseling to youth in their homes and the community. She has over 20 years of experience providing support services to individuals and families by facilitating parenting classes, in-home intensive therapy for children and their families, supporting domestic violence survivors, providing resources and support for parents and caregivers, working to keep at-risk youth out of the legal system, and providing counseling and advocacy for families and youth who’ve experienced trauma.
Please join me in welcoming them to the stage.
Thank you so much for allowing us to be with you guys this morning. This isn’t a topic that we like to talk about, but we have to talk about.
And so as we begin with the slides, I wanted to just briefly go over a few points right now. So, Teresa mentioned that I’m from the Child Traumatic Stress Network. If you haven’t heard about our network, our mission is to raise the standard of care for all kids who have been impacted by trauma. And both of my colleagues and some of you in the network are out there. Lisa, hey, see you out there. So I hope if you haven’t had a chance to see our materials, take a look at our website, and I’ll show it to you in a little bit. So we’re actually 184 centers across the country, and we have a site in Guam and in Puerto Rico, and we have 200 affiliate centers. And so if you want to get a look and connected to our network, we’d love to collaborate with all of you.
So as we talk about mass violence, one of the things that I wanted to just make us keep in mind is that we see different statistics in the news. We hear about it in different ways, and we wonder why is it all over the board? There isn’t actually a universal definition of mass violence, and that’s part of the problem.
So when we talk about mass violence, sometimes it’s, people are referring to the method used. Sometimes they’re focused on the motivation of the perpetrator or who was attacked. Sometimes our federal agencies, when they actually do programming, it’s about how much assistance is needed. But you’re going to hear from all of us that no matter what definition we use, we know that it impacts the entire community.
Sometimes it impacts the entire region, and that all of us have to collaborate together to support those who have been most impacted by these events. And when kids are involved, we know that the impact to the community is greater. You’ll have many more people coming to your community wanting to know why this happened. How could this happen? I’ve been here before and I’m still suffering.
You’ll have politicians or other leaders coming to you also. And so that’s part of what you are needing to help, to coordinate and organize. But we also know that there’s been additional when there’s hate crimes, and that some of these incidences are happening because of the color of your skin, because of your religion, because of your gender identity. And we’ll be talking about how do you adapt practices when it’s because hate was the motivation. And so one of the things that’s been important for us to consider is that when we respond to these events, there’s not a one size fits all.
And so when we think about responding to these events, we need to learn about the community: Have you experienced something recently, or is there an event that might be taking place soon or a holiday that people were looking forward to that might have been disrupted because of the incident? Is there distinguishing features of the event?
You’ll hear me, in a little while, talk about my work at Sandy Hook. Many of you know when those first graders—and any of you who are parents, were thinking about how could this happen at an elementary. You’ll hear from Melissa, in a few minutes, share what is it like in Buffalo hearing that somebody could travel hours away and purposely target your community because it’s primarily Black.
And so learning about these distinguishing features, helping to ensure that we support those that are most impacted, and what are some of the secondary impacts that we need to be considering, and thinking about how do we bring in cultural rituals and practices into the work that we’re doing that helps with that healing.
So as you hear us going to be talking, I want us to keep in mind a few things. So when we do our responses, we do first of all think about who might have been most impacted? Who are those that were in life threat that day? Who might have had a loved one who had died or injured? Who maybe had a first responder family or a first responder who had a significant impact?
We also think about, and you’ll hear from my colleagues, what are some of the secondary adversities? One of the things that we don’t think about is that when some one of these events happen, the number of additional threats that happen weeks to months afterwards, where we have to see are we still safe. Do we need to be taking in other protocols and adapting our practices? Sometimes there are trials or memorials that, again, that we have to think about how is that interplaying and impacting those in our community.
Many times when we talk about mass violence, we focus on the trauma, but I think it’s important that we focus on both trauma and grief.
And for us, trauma and grief have separate trajectories. So when we talk about trauma, we talk about potentially healing from it. There’s evidence-based practices. But for grief, we will always have that person in our hearts that may not be with us anymore. We learn to adjust. We learn to make meaning. We learn to live our lives without them. But each anniversary, we’re thinking about that person not with us anymore. So you will hear from us about how it’s important for us to acknowledge both the grief components and the trauma components in making sure we think about those reminders and those experiences, and that there’s different psychological reactions that people have after these events.
There’s that grief, that anger, that being afraid. But we also have to think about the developmental levels. Me working with the first graders and with Sandy Hook is very different than when we’re working with a high school, and making sure that we adapt practices based on those who are impacted. And that we have to be thinking about are there aspects of this event that we took for granted, that protective shield that we can protect our kids when we go to a grocery store, when we go to church, when we go to school. And how does, how did, this event impact that protective shield? And has there been aspects of our society that has failed us, that we need to be taking into consideration?
When we have done our research with talking to survivors of mass violence, the piece that they keep telling us that we are not doing a good job of is that we keep ignoring the grief, those that are suffering the loss of their loved ones, and that we need to be making sure that we give them the support that they are deserving and making sure that they get that.
Because many of these families have—when your loved one dies from mass violence, you do not have privacy. You may be involved in the criminal proceedings. There may be lots of media at your door. There may be additional threats that you might be experiencing as people take advantage of this situation. So it’s important that we, as CACs, as community providers, make sure that we give them the protections that they’re needing.
And so as we’re going to be talking today, we make sure that there’s tiers of interventions that we provide support. That first level is Psychological First Aid and I-CARE collaboration might be a new one that might be not as familiar for you, but that is helping to make sure our caregivers who might be stressed, how do we actually help them to engage with kids during these stressful times.
There are Tier-Two interventions. Yesterday there was a great presentation on Child Family Traumatic Stress Intervention. And some of you might have heard me talk, um, earlier on about Skills for Psychological Recovery. And then there might be needing more solid treatment like Trauma-Focused CBT or Trauma and Grief Component Therapy.
So the National Network has lots of psychoeducational resources on our website for teens, for caregivers. We have storybooks to help you and parents to be able to connect on these issues. And you can learn more about Psychological First Aid. We can’t go into it in detail today, but we have a great learning, e-learning course that you can get a certificate and actually get CEs, as well as we have a mobile app for our Android and on mobile devices. As well as Skills for Psychological Recovery, which is that intervention for the weeks to months and sometimes years, which you’ll hear from my colleagues how we might need to be continuing to provide support, helping with problem solving some of the issues that are going on, helping with managing reactions, rebuilding those social connections.
Again, we have that e-learning course that you might be interested in. So here’s some of our, if you’re wanting to take a look at our website, it’s www.nctsn.org. And our e-learning courses are at learn.nctsn.org.
So I’m going to stop talking for a minute and I’m going to ask my colleague Melissa to share. First of all, can you remind us about Buffalo and what happened at, um, at the Tops Market?
[15:00] Melissa Sommerville:
Yes. So I’m from Buffalo, New York, where at Tops Market is a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood—one of … probably the only grocery store in this area—where a white male traveled from about two or three hours away and walked in the grocery store and shot 10 people. Shot more than 10 people. Ten were shot and killed, and three were injured.
And this photo, this Instagram that we’re looking at right here, I actually stole this from my cousin and it is, this is also very personal for me because this is where my grandma lives. This is the picture my cousin took. My grandma and my cousin, a lot of family members live in the house there. And this is the view from the house, so it’s very close. So again, like that really just having that personal touch for it.
Angie, do you mind just reminding us about the Charleston shooting?
[15:58] Angela Moreland:
Yeah. Absolutely. So on June 17th, 2015, a shooter, a white male shooter who was a white supremacist, went into a church, Emanuel AME Church, which is in downtown Charleston. Those who have been to Charleston, you’ve probably seen the church. It’s very integral to right downtown. And it’s also a very big memorial. It’s a big piece of our community and a very important part of kind of civil history as far as Black churches go.
So on a Tuesday evening, there was a Bible study occurring, with 10 members being present of the Bible study, including Reverend Pinckney, who was the reverend of the church. And the male walked into the Bible study, sat down and took part in the Bible study for part of it, and then openly shot and killed nine, um, members that were there present during the Bible study.
So we’ll talk a little bit about—it has been several years. This was in 2015. So as we kind of go through some of the questions talking about some of the initial kind of impact on the city. It was a hate based crime, and that had a big impact on our city in general. And also being a city in the South for those familiar—kind of, obviously different parts of the country—but then also kind of talk about the impact over time.
So the shooter did not kill himself. So there was a trial, and it still continues to be kind of plague our community as far as when appeals come up and things like that within the community.
So from a personal aspect, I was not a member of the church. I’m a member of the community, and I, but I think anyone—we probably have some Charleston community members here. It was a very big impact on the entire community. And for a city being in the South where there are kind of those deep-rooted issues of hate crimes and really talking about how that impacted both us, who we work with—so we work with a lot of young African-American children. From a personal standpoint, my children are African-American; so, my husband is African-American, so my children are biracial. So, in just figuring out how, personally and professionally, to kind of merge those two things together and figure out how to help talk to kids, my own kids, but then really generalize that to how to talk to kids throughout the community and how to incorporate the CACs kind of in that.
[18:14] Melissa Brymer:
And I’m going to be sharing Sandy Hook. So with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, many of you might remember on December 14th, 2012—we just actually had our 10 -year anniversary this past December—a former student of that school went into the building, ended up killing 26, 20 of them first graders.
And so part of my job was to support the Newtown School Districts with the recovery program and trying to think through how do we stabilize a community that was just overwhelmed with grief. And how do we think to be able to bring back support, help to empower those who had different views of what they wanted for change. And making sure that their voices could be heard, especially when there was such an overwhelming presence of, you know, here, see here, President Obama came, many other politicians came. And when there’s so much well wishes, sometimes that can actually drown out the grief and the sorrow that was happening. And so part of our job had to be helping to stabilize so that we could make sure that their needs were met.
So I’m going to turn it back to you again, Melissa. You know, just setting the stage of these different events. Some of them have some overarching similarities and some don’t.
So, Melissa, in those early days, what were some of those steps that were important in helping with that stabilizing for your kiddos that you guys work with?
[19:54] Melissa Sommerville:
So I think in the early days, my first initial response is, How am I going to support my team? How am I going to have those conversations with them? How are they doing? Are they mentally ready to tackle this? This happened on a Saturday. Knowing that come Monday, and even maybe sooner than Monday, we need to be out there supporting the community. We are a trauma team. So I really had group—we’re a small team; there’s five of us—so we had a group conversation. And then we did individual conversations just so I can make sure that if anybody wasn’t comfortable sharing—we’re different backgrounds on the team. So I wanted to make sure if anybody wasn’t comfortable sharing how they were feeling or what was going on for them in front of everybody, they had the opportunity to do it individually.
And then we originally just talked about, they were … we were feeling like, What do we do? How do we support what’s needed? So we really just talked about: We can’t fix this. We can be there, we can support, we can provide that space to have those conversations and work on coping. And that’s what we did. That was the initial response.
We reached out to schools, and different community groups in the neighborhood were reaching out to us. Everybody was looking for support, and we did a lot of work within some of the schools that didn’t already have services in place. And we did work with some community groups.
We had some really great conversations with kids. They were just so amazing and asked some really great questions. And we talked a lot about how to cope, how, you know—gave them the facts because they had a lot of wild thoughts about what happened. And they had a lot of powerful questions like, “Why didn’t the police shoot him? If he was Black, the police would’ve shot him right away.”
So it was really hard for us to answer those questions and really just stay to the facts. You know, there’s a lot of different perspectives about what happened.
We also, yeah, we did the support groups in the community. Also our agency as a whole developed a team of Black counselors, all different staff members to serve the community. Because we were hearing from the community that’s what they needed. That’s what they wanted. They wanted people that looked like them and represented them and they didn’t want to leave the community because they already were so vulnerable about what—the violation that just happened.
So we went into the community, were there at different sites, libraries, community centers. There’s a big football field in the area which was utilized for that. And just were there for shifts all day long, supporting and being there for these families.
[22:33] Melissa Brymer:
Melissa, you said you had to prepare yourself first.
How’d you do that?
I cried. I talked to other family members, tried to figure it out. I had to prepare how—I’m a mother of three. So I have an 8 year old, a 10 year old, and a 12 year old. I needed to figure out how I was going to tell them. It was Saturday, but I knew come Monday they’re going to get all this information.
So I was just trying to, you know, make sure my family was safe, organize everything in my head. How do I support my team? And most of all, how do we support the community that—I’m struggling with this because I am a Black female part of this community. I have family in the community. But people lost their lives. And so it was really just, you know, using my own faith and working through that.
How about for you, Ang?
[23:23] Angela Moreland:
Yeah, I think some of very overlapping is with what Melissa said. But I think a big piece in preparing the staff. I’m a part of the National Mass Violence Center, but we’re housed within the National Crime Victim Center. So within that we, you know, have a long-standing history of working with trauma, but most of our clinical team either is fairly young or newer to the area or residents and interns. So people were somewhat newer to the area and newer to working with trauma and definitely new to working with mass violence.
So kind of taking some of that and being able to kind of dually support—like make sure that we were embedding ourselves within the community. All of the families involved and certainly the church was very embedded in the community. And there were a lot of events that occurred after just like with any mass violence incidents.
So figuring out how we can support the community but also support our staff and support ourselves and make sure that they felt comfortable talking about, you know, their own fears and their own kind of vulnerabilities and what they felt comfortable talking about and what they didn’t. And I think that spanned multiple different races. So for people—and cultural backgrounds. So for people who are African American, who did have kind of that connection, we really supported them in, you know, talking about it and how did they feel and how was this personally impacting them. But then I think for other cultural backgrounds, talking about do they feel comfortable talking about that and making sure that they feel like they can support, even though they don’t have that same kind of similarity.
And then from a children perspective, we were out—it was June 17th, so our kids were out of school for the summer. So we didn’t have the ability to kind of go into the schools and work very closely with the schools. So, for us, a lot of that was how to work with the families and how to kind of get that information out and support not only the kids that were impacted because their families were involved but just across the whole community.
So it was very, very visible. There were nine large funerals in downtown Charleston. Much like at Sandy Hook, President Obama came and spoke at Emanuel AME at the large service. So Charleston’s not a very big place. So having, you know, highways shut down and just all of the media because different people were coming in and out, whether you talked to kids about that or not, they knew something was happening.
So being able to support them and teach parents how to and teachers—but they weren’t necessarily with their teachers—how to have those conversations but then also ask questions and kind of continue to move forward. So I think supporting kind of dually that our own staff, but then making sure that we were providing the support that the community needed and what that would continue to look like. You know, there’s that immediate support and then that continued support.
[26:14] Melissa Brymer:
Faith is important to so many families. And since this happened at a church, how did you help to keep that strength of faith—
—in making sure that families didn’t lose that peace?
I think in Charleston our families did that, which was very helpful. So I agree. And in, you know, Charleston, it is a very, a lot of people are very ingrained in their faith and that is a big piece of their coping and a big support system. This was one of the first—now unfortunately there’s several others—but one of the first times that a church setting had been infiltrated like this.
So I think that loss of, or that fear factor and that like the church is a safe haven. Like this is especially, it wasn’t during a church service, it was during a Bible study during the week. So that’s the safe haven. So how do you do that? Our families were unbelievable just in how they were able to kind of continue to grasp onto their faith and really show kind of what we would expect in a church family and like what stereotypically you would think would happen.
And I think that kind of helps the whole community to see that instead of turning their back on that, which, you know, regardless of your religious standpoint, if that’s something that’s important to you, you don’t want to change that. So instead of turning their back on it, they really embraced that. And I think that was kind of heard throughout the community that what’s being shown right now.
There were several murals painted, and these were by people that were not necessarily close to the families. Like our entire community really came together. And I was very proud, and I know a lot of people in Charleston were about how they looked towards the survivors and looked towards the victims of what they needed.
And the fact that they were really embracing the religious aspect of it helped the whole community to be able to do that, I think, regardless of religious background.
[28:07] Melissa Brymer:
I think for Sandy Hook, because the most impacted were first graders, that part of what we had to be thinking about is, our first graders weren’t as verbal, so we had to make sure that we used interventions that were appropriate for that developmental level. But we needed to make sure that the caretakers, whoever they were, were actually OK. So we had to spend a lot of time supporting the parents, supporting the educators who—six of them were educators who died. So they were grieving not only the kids that died but their friends and their principal.
It also happened around the holidays. Newtown is an area that Christmas is a very prominent area where there’s the lighting of the Christmas tree right in the center of town.
And so we got many questions of, Is it appropriate for my kids to still open Christmas gifts this year? And helping to make sure that we didn’t take away those things that are developmentally appropriate, but maybe finding ways to honor what happened too and integrating that in. Because we were dealing with first graders, we did need to make sure—we’re at 10 years now as these kids developmentally mature, so does their minds. So what was appropriate as first graders, they’re now in high school. So making sure that those that are in their lives grow with them. So that initially it was the parents that were more vocal about what they wanted as a difference. And now you’re hearing more from the kids. And making sure that there was, that developmental changes and making sure that our interventions, the supports that we did, grew over time.
And what Angie is also saying is that sometimes people are thinking that this is a six- month gig or a year. I was at Sandy Hook for four and a half years. This up here is the permanent memorial. It was only opened a month before the 10-year anniversary. There are still lawsuits that are happening that are still pending, that every time there’s a new lawsuit—whether it’s in the family’s favor or not, it’s still ripping the bandaid of pain. It’s still causing hurt. Anytime there’s a new mass violent event, they are one, hurting themselves, but they know the pain that these new communities are experiencing. And so reaching—many of them reach out and try to provide support.
And I tried to make sure that there’s that continued support. But we also know that there’s secondary consequences to these events. And so with the school district, we did see additional domestic violence that happened with our families, additional abuses. And so it was really important to work with our CACs to make sure: Did they know what happened with our families? Can we make sure that these kids or these families get the trauma and grief treatments and that they work in partnership with our CAC and our schools so that they could get healing and not punishment because of what they experienced.
And that was a partnership that really became critical throughout our work here.
And so, Melissa, I did ask you, you know, you guys just went through your one-year anniversary not too long ago. And so as we think about some of those kind of critical points in that one year, what have been some of those places and times that you guys have had to give extra support?
So I think within the one year—and I didn’t share the date, it was May 14th, 2022, that the incident happened. And so we just had our one-year anniversary where there was a lot going on in community, community celebrations, community events and remembrance and people really just still struggling and looking for support.
We … at the recent community event that I attended with my family, we—it was very nice. There was so much going on and it seemed like a really great day. And then my kids look up and they see snipers on the rooftops. And it just kind of reminded us how kind of vulnerable and probably unsafe we were in that moment because there was such concern that someone may try something else again, given that we are all in this open space. Because we’re in a football field and it just really brought that check back of how real this still is. And this is probably never going to go away. We’re always have a feeling of unsafety and uncertainty. So we are constantly having those conversations with the kids we work with—the kids I work with individually, the kids we do groups with.
And it’s always a topic of conversation. It’s not something that, oh, that happened a year ago or 10 years ago. Um, it’s going to keep coming up. We are always talking about routes to get out of a grocery store safely if something happens. That’s kind of a game my kids play and I’ve heard other kids share.
Some kids are still scared to go to a grocery store. Some kids need—I’ve worked with a kid that needed an evacuation plan, a clear plan for each store they went in with their caregivers to feel safe and be able to go into that store. So that’s some of the work that we’re still doing. We’re still attending to those traumas. We’ve had kids that were in the store that were hiding in certain places, um, like the freezers. So we’re still attending to those traumas.
I think that answered the question.
[34:16] Melissa Brymer:
Yeah. Do you mind sharing—you said your grandma lives in that area. Like, how are you helping the multi-generations of healing right now?
Our main focus is with children, but we do family work because you can’t work without—in my perspective, you can’t work with just the kid. It’s about the family unit. And we just pulled out a lot of support about that, shared a lot of information, shared ways for them to talk with their children, their grandchildren, other family members at a developmentally appropriate level. And that seemed to help in not knowing the answer. I think that was a huge thing. Everybody wanted answers and wanted to be able to support their families, and be able to answer and take away the pain and the anxiety. And there was just support and love in trying to find where the hope was because we can’t take it away. We have to heal through it.
[35:11] Melissa Brymer:
Melissa, I think one of the things that Buffalo did that—part of Psychological First Aid is making sure we attend to basic needs.
So this was a grocery store? The main grocery store.
So it was shut down for a period of time. And so the initial thought, not well thought out was like, “Well, people can just go to the next town over for the grocery store.” But if you’re hearing from Melissa, safety was a big feature.
And if you don’t know this grocery store, you don’t know who shops there, you’re just not going to go to another grocery store. And that’s just not an easy task to do.
OK, so one of the things that some organizations did is they actually made sure that the food came to the community and that they brought in food, they found out what was needed so that they didn’t have to suffer with not being able to attend to those basic needs.
And just that intervention, I see looks in the room, like, “Wow,” it seems like a basic … but if your safety is at risk, going to that new grocery store isn’t something that you’re just going to do. You’d rather not eat than—and I think some of those types of things were so critical.
Yeah. They were. In addition to after the shooting happened, there was so many threats going around by word of mouth, by social media, that nobody wanted to go to any stores because they would be specific on Facebook: Shooting planned for this date and time.
And, you know, half of it was no other shooting happened, thank God. But that definitely was very fearful for everyone. No one wanted to go to the grocery store, especially people who lived in that community. They didn’t want to leave that community to—they didn’t feel safe. And I can’t stress that enough. That’s why I keep saying it.
[37:07] Melissa Brymer:
So what about the proceedings or in terms of like … feelings about the perpetrator and how—
—not so remorseful, huh?
We sentenced—and I don’t remember exactly. Trial has already happened. He’s been sentenced to life. That was a couple months ago.
I was running groups in the community along with my agency. At that time I was running a women’s wellness group, and that day was the day of the sentencing. And it was just, that was the topic of the group that day. I kind of knew it was going to end up being that way, and just the feeling and the emotion in the room, like I’m feeling the emotion right now because like, it just was so thick and it was hard and it was heavy and it was just about supporting. Having that space to be able to discuss freely what was on your mind and, How are we going to cope? What are we going to do when we walk out of this room to take care of ourselves? For each one of these women to take care of themselves and then take care of their families. Because I’m sure in, you know, the other groups that are going on right now, the conversations are the same.
[38:13] Melissa Brymer:
And that news doesn’t bring the relief that some people think it’s going to.
And especially when there’s no remorse.
And Angie, you guys also had the no remorse.
In fact, the exact opposite.
So for us, the trial was in—so the event was in June 2015, and the trial was not, the final trial wasn’t until January 2017.
So we had a couple of years of very much supporting these families. And as families are starting to heal and starting to kind of learn, you know, how to navigate and what to do next and what life will look like, now all of a sudden there’s a sentencing and then there’s the trial, and then there’s just multiple kind of over and over.
So a big piece for us kind of in that ongoing support was during the trial proceedings. So really, by that point we had opened our resiliency center and we were very active in that and being able to do small things like bring … you know, have rooms available at the courthouse.
It was courthouse right downtown. Anyone that’s been to Charleston, again, much like the church, you’ve seen it, you’ve walked by it, it’s very visible. So how do we protect those families and from a safety perspective, physical safety, but also emotional safety, like helping them to be able to arrive?
We brought coffee, we brought breakfast, we bought donuts. Just all the little things that we could do to be able to provide support kind of through those proceedings and kind of as that was going on and just having … yeah, I mean, there was a lot of fear, a lot of anger. A lot of hatred and just really having these very mixed feelings. And coming from all of the survivors—going back to what Melissa said earlier—all the survivors were very spiritual and very ingrained in their beliefs and in their faith. So really having that kind of pulling, and making sure that we were supporting them in the ways that they needed supported. So us saying, you know, evil things about the perpetrator or things that all of us were probably thinking was not supportive for them.
So making sure we really met them where they were and provided the things that they needed kind of through that. And then to go off of what Melissa’s saying from an ongoing perspective, really understanding that each event continues to come up. So when the shooting happened at Tops, many people in Charleston were very, very impacted because although the setting was different, it was still a very similar hate-based crime.
So knowing that, like what we know from research and from clinical work is proximity is key. So in proximity is not just physical proximity If another event happens—and yes, if it’s physical proximity, it’s in the same city, you’re going to be impacted. But proximity goes across multiple layers. So it can be a similar setting, a similar motive, a similar, you know, play of events of how it happened.
And all of those continue. I mean, eight—we have our eight years coming up soon. And it continues to really impact people in different ways and really paying attention to that, to how when new events come up, it doesn’t stop. The pain comes right back. And as Melissa said, the pain for themselves, but also that suffering and that pain for others going through it.
[41:34] Melissa Brymer:
The other piece for me, doing this work we really do have to pay attention to what’s on social media and on media. Not that I am a big TikToker, I’m not. [Laughter] But we need to understand how this influences our kids and our families.
So if you—the recent shooting in Covenant in Tennessee, within 36 hours there was a release of bodycam. That was actually before any of the bodies were buried. And so families are asking me, “My kids want to watch this.” And if you watched any of that bodycam, if you watched it on major outlets, there were blurred versions. If you watched it on some of these social media streams that blurred were actually the bodies of those that died.
And so we are going to be asked really specifically, “How do I help our kids?” if you want to answer [mic static]. And part of that is letting parents know that if, you know, if they’re feeling it’s not appropriate, it’s okay to say no.
Asking your, the kids, “Why do you want to see it?” So some of the kids wanted to know, “I wanted to know how close it was.” “Oh, I heard a sound.” Well, we can give them those answers. We can find out those answers without them having to see some of that footage.
One of the pieces that, doing this work I never thought it would be the hardest, I thought it would be working with those who are bereaved. It’s those that use social media to cause more hurt. And if you ever have seen any of these articles, if you look at some of the comments under the article, they’re brutal.
So I have received death threats. I have received that “These didn’t, this didn’t happen.” That all of this was staged, that I should give proof that this happened. And so part of what we need to be doing through either—as supervisors, we need to be making sure: Are staff actually protected here? Is there some way whether, because if it’s been a hate crime—and you’ve heard from Melissa, you’ve heard from Angie and from me, there’s other threats going on. Has any of your staff actually received any of these threats? Do they actually feel it not as comfortable doing home visits? And maybe we need to pair up so that there is those protections, there is those supports, and that we pay attention to these safety things.
There’s many times things that we can be doing, but when we don’t ask, our staff may not be telling us everything, and we need to make sure that our staff are just as supported during this work.
And so I do want to, I showed you a little bit about some of the National Network, but we are partnered with the National Mass Violence Resource and Violence Victimization Center. And I was hoping, Angie, you could go into a little bit about this partnership and the work that you guys do.
Absolutely. So, we’re funded through the Office for Victims of Crime, so we’ve worked with them. I talked about Emanuel AME and the church shooting there. We actually received an AEAP grant through OVC directly following that in partnership with the church and we’re able to build our resiliency center and really help the families to begin to thrive in Charleston and heal and kind of come back after that happened.
So then in 2015, OVC came out with a call to basically become a national response and to be able to—by response, I mean being kind of a resource center. So not necessarily fly out and respond to every single event, which we do tend to do that sometimes. But we have a lot of resources. So I’m just going to share a couple today.
This is our website, you can have access to a lot of areas, a lot of the NCTSN and other, probably, organizations that you all work with as well. We don’t necessarily, we don’t want to invent the wheel, so if there are quality resources out there we host them on the website and then we look for gaps, kind of what, with what we need and how we can fill those gaps.
We do have a lot of tip sheets. So tip sheets is—I know we’re all very familiar with tip sheets in our work. But if you do go to the site, there are a lot around working with children. So working with children, working with families, with schools, first responders. You can see a list here, but that’s a really good kind of first resource to kind of go and look.
We do have town halls. We have those quarterly. Anyone’s open to participate in those. Our most recent one, which people here might be interested in, was working with children. And Melissa and I were both actually a part of that. So a lot of what we’ve talked about today, but a little bit more in depth of how specifically to work with the communities.
And then we have an app, so it’s called Transcend and it’s available on Android and on Apple. It’s really good actually in general for trauma. It has a lot of resources that all of you are probably very familiar with, but it is very honed in on mass violence. So victims, survivors, and communities can download that app.
And then a podcast. So, as everyone, you know, likes podcasts these days, we have several different experts kind of throughout the field. So that’s one area just to kind of point you to on the website.
And then our resource sheet. So one major thing that we do, some of you who unfortunately maybe your communities have been impacted by mass violence, within a few hours of a mass violence incident occurring, we come together and put together a resource sheet that is specific to that particular community.
So some of it will be overlapping, but as Melissa said, one size does not fit all. So figuring out what resources that community needs. And then that’s probably one of our biggest kind of strengths and what we’ve built over the last several years is we have connections and have really key partners with mayors, governors, police, fire, a lot of different organizations, where we can get those resources into the hands of the people in the community and also into media within the community so that people aren’t Googling what resources.
Now sometimes you can get some really good resources on Google and sometimes you cannot. So we try to place those resources in the hands of people to get them out to the community as needed pretty quickly after an event occurs.
[48:19] Melissa Brymer:
So I think it’s been really important. Many questions we get is, How do we do this work? And we really do need to be making sure that we take care of ourselves. And so I always have a out group that I connect with, whether it’s my colleagues here or others.
This work is tough. And we need to have outlets. When I did a National Institute of Justice grant where we examined 12 different type mass violent events, the impact to providers. How many of them had shared that they had broken relationships after these events? How many had illnesses, whether it’s cancers or higher blood pressures?
So as we do this work, we do need to be making sure we’re taking care of ourselves and that we’re supporting each other. So one small thing that we created is that, you know, when we go to a doctor and we have symptoms, the doctor may give us medications, right? Well, what type of work are we doing for our well-being? So sometimes we’re supposed to take those medicines “PRN,” so we’ve adapted that “PRN” for Pause, Reset, and Nourish.
So pauses throughout your day, are we just taking three breaths.
One breath. Let’s check in with our bodies. Do we have tension in certain ways? Because we might have just dealt with a case that really got our gut. Or I was on a plane yesterday, so my back is a little cranky.
Second breath. What’s happening in our minds? Are we feeling a lot of clutter? Are we feeling really agonized because of what just took place? Because I’m still being tortured by the hate that I just heard and not being able to wrestle with those answers to those questions that have been posed to me.
And that third breath is that feeling. What’s my feeling state? Am I angry because of what I just heard? Am I feeling grief? So pause is three breaths: our body, our minds, and our feeling state.
Reset is what are we doing from when we go from person to person or from meeting—what do we do for those moments to reset ourselves, to get back into control and to get centered again? Do we send gratitude to colleagues like, “You’re doing a good job today”?
We can get through this. Do we send a text message home of, or do we look at pictures of our last, our vacation, or our fun? I have pets, so I have very cute pet pictures. Or memes. What do you need to do to reset so that we can do this hard work? But we give ourselves relief. And that relief, we might only have a minute or two. So what are we doing to help to reset?
And nourish is really making sure that we take that time to really fill our buckets, have those times of joyfulness, of family time, whether faith is important.
And so you’ll see from our PRN what some tools that you can be thinking about so that you can pause, reset, and nourish.
So with that, we have a few moments for questions. So I do know you can put questions in the app or there are microphones. There’s a microphone by that we would love to have questions. A couple questions that we can take before we wrap up.
[52:12] [NCA Staff] Woori Song:
Yeah, so we already have a few questions through the app which crashed on my phone, but I’ve memorized them, so it’s fine.
The first question was, for folks who experienced these acts as mass violence and survived, what resources are available and offered to them, particularly those who deal with like survivors guilt? And what does that look like for children?
Both the nctsn.org and the National Mass Violence Victimization Resource Center, both are on the websites, on this. So www.nctsn.org or www.nmvvrc.org are two places where there are resources to help.
I can tell you that there is a lot of kids struggle with survivor guilt. “If I had only shut the door quick enough, he wouldn’t have been able to come in.” Or parents might struggle. “My kid had his snuffles, and if he didn’t, if we were just two minutes later, we wouldn’t have been at the grocery store at that moment.”
So guilt is something that we need to work with. We need to help clarify, Are they holding onto things that they truly didn’t have responsibility for? Do we need to help them walk through those steps that they did do to help protect themselves, to protect their families? And there may need to be, sometimes the treatments, whether it’s Trauma-Focused CBT or others to really help with that, with that guilt.
But answering those questions and really addressing them are really important.
[53:53] Woori Song:
This next one is a two-parter. So did you have a crisis plan in place or were you creating your response as you went? And what suggestions would you have for a community to prepare?
Melissa, you want to take that one?
Yeah. I would say we did not have a plan, a crisis plan in place prior. And we are developing one as we were just working with what we were getting from what the community needed.
So that’s how we developed the plan. Really just being in the community, being a part of the community, not sitting in our office saying they’ll come to us. Going and being in spaces where this happened and asking people what they needed, what was most helpful, how they wanted support. Because we can have our ideals, but that doesn’t mean it’s always going to work for what they’ve just experienced.
Every community’s going to think, “This isn’t for us.”
But someone gave me a pin once that says, “If you know me, you’ve been through hell.” You don’t want Angie and me, to really meet us because that means that there’s been some, an event. But preparedness is key. And figuring out who your partners are going to be, talking about how to work within the community, with your school, with your first responders, with your CAC, having those partnerships now before a crisis happens, it’s absolutely critical.
And that was one of the key pieces we found as we work with multiple communities. And also thinking of those partnerships that may not be your initial MOU or the main things that you think of. So in talking to different communities, you know, having partnerships with shelter locations or having partnerships with places that could provide water or could provide, you know, support in ways beyond just the mental health capacity. Because all of those other ways do impact mental health and resilience as well.
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And I think we’re out of time. So with that, thank you guys for letting us be with you today. And I hope you have a wonderful, great day. And don’t forget your PRN.
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