Written by By Katie Blumberg, CNN
A day after the school bell rings and the lights go out in much of America, volunteers set to work. These volunteers spend the week bearing witness to the symptoms of an often dark and painful subject.
While they may never know the story behind the story, they may be able to reduce another one.
“Every time you hear a story, sometimes we find the cure to the disease,” explains Stacy Smith, a marriage and family therapist and member of the Vida Project Inc., a volunteer family life counselor and volunteer forensics team.
The Vida Project, based in Baltimore, Maryland, also works with victims of stalking and the victims of domestic violence.
Criminologist Barbara Owens, a research professor and clinical associate professor of family studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and Vida Board member, adds that “It’s not uncommon for people to come to their counselors with an offer of financial assistance to attend college.”
Volunteers give expert insight
The volunteer forensics team is charged with reviewing the 911 calls, interviewing witnesses and collecting forensic evidence. Volunteers comprise about a third of the team and serve as a forensic pathologist, a victim advocate, a social worker and a police investigator.
However, many of the survivors and the witnesses are often shy and unwilling to open up.
“They may just want to go home and hide,” says Nicholas Serna, a member of the team. “Most often they don’t know how to talk about what they’ve been through. They are like flying blind. So you can’t tell them how to get out of a bad situation or why something happened, unless you’ve been there yourself.”
Forensics experts were first used in 1979 to investigate violent murders and sexual assault cases in Florida, with help from the FBI. Since then, various law enforcement agencies and forensic trainers have developed systems for the forensic study of homicide and missing persons.
Serna believes that forensics are an invaluable tool in helping police and organizations reconstruct the events leading up to a homicide or missing persons case.
Members of the team at work in the forensic laboratory. Credit: Courtesy Vida Project Inc.
“Usually the police are the ones to bring to forensics. These are the first responders to the case, so they tend to ask us questions first,” explains Serna. “Then we start to take it in, but it takes time to get a really good picture, especially if this is a very violent crime.”
Members of the team visit the crime scene, collect evidence and speak with witnesses. Then, if the case has already been classified as a homicide, the team takes on the role of an expert investigator, combing through the evidence and interviewing witnesses.
Finding the disease through the story
Part of the crime scene takes place in the world of poetry and music, seen through the eyes of Tiffany, a volunteer forensics and psychotherapist.
“For a while, the evidence is mixed up with the music or that becomes the backdrop. And you see the darkness of the narrative and what it means to the victim, but you also get a sense of how they are feeling in the present, to get a sense of what they were thinking or feeling,” Tiffany says.
She adds that trauma and stress affect the emotional and cognitive functions of the brain.
“If you’re not processing pain and trauma and you’re feeling that you’re getting better, then you actually are getting worse. And so you get worried and anxious and depressed. And so they are all going at once,” Tiffany explains.
As the team works on cases, families also benefit.
Erika, a volunteer forensic pathologist and psychotherapist, has taken on a particularly difficult case involving a woman named Angel who, at one point, was homeless.
“She was seen out in the streets with her kids but no one would help her,” explains Erika.
Angel would often stay in shelters after days when her children were with their father, says Erika. “She kind of felt like she had no one and all these people were ignoring her.”
Erika says that sometimes people neglect to get to know their neighbors’ emotional situations.
“People tend to be too busy with their day, too busy to even get to know each other or check and see if they’re doing ok,” she says.
“That happens all the time.”