Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Families of murder victims discover they aren't only ones hurting

Willoughby Mariano

Sentinel Staff Writer

August 14, 2008

Lucy Ramos said she could not help it. Since the murder of her teenage son, her heart has been screaming, and Ramos wanted everyone to hear it.

Ramos told friends who have lost loved ones that their grief was not as bad as hers. She yelled at relatives who tried to help. Before joining a group for families and friends of Orlando-area murder victims, she wanted to die.

Sometimes, she still does.

"When I came here, I was furious. I was delirious," Ramos, 53, said at a recent meeting of the group, Bereaved Survivors of Homicide. "Then I learned, I'm not the only one hurting."

In Orlando, where killings have hovered at record levels for more than two years, Ramos' case is not unusual, and experts think people like her are not getting the help they need.

Since the beginning of the year, 76 people have been slain in Orlando and unincorporated Orange County. Typically, for each killing, 10 people are stricken by serious grief, according to the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, which means that hundreds of people have joined the ranks of the bereaved this year alone.

Locally, few groups specialize in helping loved ones of murder victims with their emotional turmoil, and despite the efforts of victim advocates and law enforcement, few of those who need help are getting it.

Two other people attended the survivors meeting where Ramos spoke. Sometimes, no one comes.

Three local groups that do exist survive on little funding.

A federal grant of $26,400 goes in part to pay for a licensed counselor to attend Bereaved Survivors of Homicide meetings this fiscal year. The rest goes to two counselors at Hughes Counseling Service who provide the area's only free one-on-one sessions to the loved ones of homicide victims. They served 57 clients last year.

Orlando's other support group, Mothers Against Homicide, runs without any outside funding, said founder Regina Clark, whose son Thessalonis Clark, 20, was Orlando's first murder victim of 2007. Families of two victims regularly attend that group.Similar programs struggle nationwide.

In Miami, Victim Services -- The Trauma Resolution Center, a well-respected group, slashed its staff of 25 to nine this spring because of insufficient funds. Mothers Against Murderers Association, an all-volunteer West Palm Beach support group, pays its $1,800-a-month office rent by pooling money from the founder's family members.

"Many of these efforts are led by survivors, and often they are overwhelmed by the effort," said Kerrin Darkow, director of victim services at The National Center for Victims of Crime, a Washington-based group.

Even though violent crime often makes headlines, there's little public awareness of how bereaved families struggle, advocates said.

"Society as a whole is more educated about crimes against women, or domestic violence, or rape, than they are murder," said Nancy Ruhe, executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, the only national self-help support group for such families.

"There's a stigma. Like AIDS," she added.

Monica Mahtani, vice president of Bereaved Survivors of Homicide, suffered years of panic attacks after her mother, Rajini Mahtani, was kidnapped from the parking lot of Orlando Fashion Square and slain in 2001. Mahtani also lost her best friend of 10 years because the woman found the grief too difficult to deal with, she said.

Most people "are emotionally inadequate to deal with this," Mahtani said.

Ramos said counseling helped her after her son, Jose "Joey" Vera, 18, was shot and killed while leaving a barbershop in east Orange County in 2006, but she is far from recovered. She has alienated friends and relatives and worries that if she returns to work, she will clash with co-workers.

Her husband, Milton Maisonet, 52, said he has not sought counseling because he fears it will make him feel worse. Her daughter, Jacqueline Ramos, 36, who has three children, is seven months pregnant and often works 11-hour days, said she doesn't have time for counseling.

Although it might make her feel better, "There's no counseling that could make it go away," Jacqueline Ramos said of her brother's death.

Her mother feels that burden keenly. Simply getting out of bed remains difficult, Lucy Ramos said at a recent survivors meeting at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Orlando.

"I feel when they murdered my son, they murdered me," she said. "I do want to feel better, but this was my little boy, my hope."

Others nodded. Donna Everly, 53, whose son was killed in a 1999 home invasion, described how she dreamed of becoming a special-education teacher to help children at risk of becoming violent criminals.

They all said that during the worst of their grieving, they thought they were going crazy.

Mahtani joined a church to find peace. With counseling and time, she forgave, she said.

And on Mother's Day, she dreamed about her mother as if she were alive. They were shopping, trying on new outfits. Her mother's clothes were too large, and they laughed.

"The dream was so vivid and tangible that I actually felt her," Mahtani said. "It was so wonderful."

Willoughby Mariano can be reached at 407-420-5171 or

No comments: