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benefits for speakers
An ideal intervention would both reduce recidivism and assist victim recovery. In initiating the Victim Impact Panel program, MADD believed that victims might attain two needs identified by the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime: To know that someone cares, and to protect other people from becoming victims.
One of the most devastating components of impaired driving victimization is its random nature. Innocent victims of impaired driving crashes did not ask for what happened to them and they never expected it to happen to them. This random tragedy, they may have thought, was something that happened to other people. When it does happen to them, their previous world view -- that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people - can be shattered. Victims feel helpless and powerless, often expecting more bad things to happen. By attaching words to their experiences and feelings, MADD began to see victims lose some of the helplessness they felt immediately after the crash occurred.
Victims value opportunities to discuss their losses, and repeated discussions are regarded as necessary to the healing process. However, victims frequently have difficulty obtaining support from friends, family, and colleagues at home, work, and church. The joint experience of suffering may render the natural network unable to support the individual for whom the loss is most immediate and profound.
If victims are not allowed to participate in the criminal justice system, and many are not because they did not witness the crime or were too injured to make credible witnesses, their sense of powerlessness is enhanced. The most important determinant of anxiety and depression in family survivors of homicide victims is their satisfaction with treatment by the legal system. They can become disillusioned with the criminal justice system when they realize they are not needed or wanted in the criminal process. Finding some degree of balance and justice in the criminal justice system may seem to be all they have left.
By serving on a Victim Impact Panel, MADD believes victims:
Many panelists report that while it is emotionally draining for them to re-live the details of the tragedy, they are strengthened each time they retell their stories. Some have said that participating on a panel helped them move from depression about the past to hope about the present and the future, and begin to take charge of their lives again.
At the end of our presentations, many offenders come up to shake our hands, apologize for what they did, or just hug us and cry. We have even had standing ovations - which I will never understand. Not everyone reacts that way, but most are affected. I know we are having a strong impact on these offenders. I believe our work will stop other mothers from losing their children. That alone makes it worthwhile.
-- Shirley Anderson, whose son Mark was killed by a impaired driver
Speaking on the Victim Impact Panel has to be one of the hardest things I've done as a volunteer in MADD. I sometimes ask myself why I put myself through it, and here is my answer. I do not want my daughter, Amy, and what happened to her to be forgotten. I can't have her back, but I do believe that by telling her story, I am making a difference for my three beautiful grandchildren so they can grow up and graduate and go to college and do the things Amy's not going to do because of a drunk driver. When an offender walks up to me and says, 'Thank you. I never stopped to think about what I was doing . . .I'll never drink and drive again,' then the pain is well worth it.
-- Pat Keaton, whose daughter Amy was killed by a impaired driver
a letter from a victim impact speaker
It has been almost two years now that I have been speaking on Victim Impact Panels. Speaking in front of offenders always brings my emotions to a peak, and my hope is that we will get through to them and help stop a pattern. However, my most significant work seems to be speaking on panels for high schools. Most of them, thank goodness, have not been affected by unnatural death in their families. Many, unfortunately though, have friends who were hurt or killed.
My teenage son, Larry was killed by a drunk driver 3 1/2 years ago. It happened just two days after his high school graduation. I still cannot talk about him or what happened to him without getting emotional. When I speak, my pain comes to the surface almost as if he had died yesterday.
Not long ago, a very pretty and petite high school junior came up to me after the panel and asked, "Do you ever feel like you are going mad?" "What do you mean?" I asked. "I sometimes feel like I'm going crazy. It had nothing to do with alcohol or a car crash, but my mother died of cancer three months ago."
I asked this little girl to sit down with me and I assured her that all her feelings were normal because grief causes unusual thoughts and emotions; that our anger at God, at the world, at everybody who is healthy and complete can go beyond angers ever felt before. I asked if she had anyone she could talk to and she said that she did, but that she had felt afraid to tell them her inner feelings, fearing they would think she was crazy. Afterward I spoke with the school counselor to be sure she got into a grief group the school offered. I left that day feeling good about reaching and hopefully helping this suffering child.
A few weeks later, I was again on a high school panel. Afterward a senior boy told me how much he admired me for being able to talk about Larry and trying to help others through his death. I sensed that more was going on, so I asked if he had personal experience with drinking and driving. He told me that seven years before, he had been in the car with his mother when she killed a neighbor's child in a crash. His mother had not been drinking, but he had to run home to tell his father and the parents of the child. He said that for the next two years, his mother could not live with herself and started drinking heavily. Soon after, she left her home and family, and the boy had not heard from her for five years. He had moved in with his grandparents and, when they divorced, was placed in a government-run home for boys. He said he was the only one living there who was not a delinquent, and he could hardly wait until graduation when he could move out. He said he wanted to go to college. He said he could not believe the strength of those of us on the panel. I explained that we had had to make choices and so did he. He could choose to reject life, causing great pain to people who loved him, or he could gain strength by reaching out to others as we were doing. As I spoke, I realized that it had not been easy to make that choice either.
I am grateful that I chose to go on living and to use the story of my tragedy to try to help others. I hope I have the strength and ability to continue allowing my pain to touch others who are feeling their own pain. Thank you, MADD, for giving me the opportunity.
-- Abbey Yerys
MADD, Long Island, New York
research on panelists
Even after hearing from many speakers who shared the sentiments of Ms. Yerys, MADD wanted empirical assurance that speaking on panels did not harm victims. Therefore, Drs. Dorothy Mercer and Roseanne Lorden, through a three-year grant from the National Institute for Mental Health, sought the requested data between 1993 and 1996. This is the only study that focuses on the impact of panel participation on victim speakers. It found that 92% of victims who speak on panels for MADD are not hurt by doing so. In fact, most of them became emotionally healthier after speaking.
Mercer and Lorden compared 482 impaired driving crash victims who participated on Victim Impact Panels with 903 victims who did not. Bereaved victims made up a majority of the panelists, but injured victims, law enforcement officials, emergency response personnel, and remorseful offenders were also included. Of the 152 MADD chapter panels studied, the median number of panel speakers was 12 per chapter. Most panelists spoke six or fewer times per year.
In the study, 82% of the victims said that telling their stories to offender audiences was very helpful to them. They said the primary way in which it helped was in helping them to believe that they were making a difference, even if only one person in the audience was affected. Another 10% stated that speaking had been neither helpful nor harmful, and 8% said telling their stories felt more harmful than helpful.
Consistent with self-report, panelists showed more positive adjustment on pre-and post- psychological tests than victims who did not speak. Panelists experienced less anxiety and better overall well-being and life happiness. Panel speakers claimed life became "near normal" again in a shorter period than did non-panel speakers. Panel speakers reported their religious faith was strengthened more than non-panelists. They reported an added sense of life purpose or goal from their crashes. Panelists were more likely than non-panelists to seek the support of others and, therefore, reported greater social support. Panelists were less angry with the impaired driver at the time they completed their surveys than were non-panelists. They also reported feeling more in control of their lives.
Panel speakers reported:
The most common positive reaction was that participation on Victim Impact Panels made the trauma more bearable and increased their self-confidence.
On the other hand, panel participation can produce negative effects as indicated by the 8% who felt that speaking had harmed them. Pre and post-psychological testing also validated their self-report. Speaking on panels triggered at least a temporary return of negative experiences, such as intrusive thoughts for 22% of this group, nightmares for 10%, depression for 17%, and anger for 25%. For most, though, the benefit of speaking outweighed the occasional temporary setbacks. Only 1% felt that panel participation was "very harmful" to them. Slightly more (3%) reported their participation "harmful" and were more likely to use avoidance as a coping method, and to have lower self-esteem and well being. These individuals scored higher on measures of psychological maladjustment, thus validating their self-report. They were more concerned than the others with physical problems and were experiencing more anxiety, obsessive-compulsion, depression, intrusive thoughts, post-traumatic symptoms, and greater use of anti-anxiety medications.
Considering the characteristics identified in victims who said they were more harmed than helped by panel participation, the researchers developed seven screening questions to assist Victim Impact Panel Coordinators in screening potential panelists. This tool may be found in Appendix Twelve.
One possible explanation for better functioning in panelists could be that those who chose to speak on Victim Impact Panels were better adjusted in the first place. However, panelists and non-panelists did not differ on pre-crash functioning. Additionally, the non-panelist victims included many people who were active in MADD chapters that did not have a panel program.
The researchers tested two additional potential confounding variables. On average, a longer time had elapsed since their crashes for panelists than for non-panelists in the study. And although about 25% of both groups had sought pre-crash mental health counseling (the same percentage as non-victims), more panelists had attended counseling after their crashes than non-panelists (59% vs. 41%). Therefore, statistical tests were conducted to see how much of the positive outcome for panelists was a function of the lapse in time since the crashes and/or the increased use of counseling. The effects of counseling accounted for three initial differences between panelists and non-panelists: depression, self-esteem, and the total support received. Counseling clearly helped victims in those areas. Decreased avoidance and increased recollections for panelists were both accounted for by increased time since their crashes. The broader measure of post-traumatic stress disorder and differences in life satisfaction were accounted for by the combination of time passed and counseling.
However, even after statistically controlling for the effects of time and counseling, many positive outcomes remain. Decreased anger, increased self-confidence, and an increased sense of control over their lives were explained only by panel participation. Therefore, the differences between victims who speak on Victim Impact Panels and those who do not are highly significant.
Research suggests that panel participation fosters better adjustment by allowing victims to re-experience their traumas in a setting where they have a high degree of control, thus enhancing their sense of control over their lives generally. Participating in the program may help them build supportive relationships with other panel members, which can enhance their self-confidence. Finally, panel participation may reduce anger by providing a positive method of coping with the traumatic event.
Six Years After
Everything is filled with the
empty air of your presence.
Beyond hearing, we hear your soft tenor humming
and your guitar strumming.
You wrote and sang of rainbows and birds.
Your lyrics still loom, pure as canary notes.
You lived poetry born of faith and love
and nebulae nesting midst the mystery of the sky.
I know you wear your wings;
Yet, for me, seasons soar and sleep.
Like a battered ram, I bash filled audiences
On a mother's mission -Victim Impact Panel-
to purge "meaningless."
Sober faces listen.
Now completed, you make a difference.
-- Sally K. Wheeler,
South Haven, Michigan
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