The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 26, 2018

We need to do more for homicide co-victims

A single homicide affects countless lives, and the survivors left behind—known as homicide co-victims—are often overlooked in the aftermath.

An estimated 1 in 10 Americans will lose a loved one to homicide during their lifetimes (PDF): an immediate family member, a friend, a neighbor, or someone in their social circle. Urban Institute researchers are working to understand and elevate co-victims’ needs through our work with the Center for Victim Research (CVR).

A joint effort by the Justice Research and Statistics Association, the Urban Institute, and the National Center for Victims of Crime, funded by the Office for Victims of Crime, CVR aims to build a community of victim service providers and researchers who collaborate to improve practice through effective use of research and data.

As Survivors of Homicide Awareness Month comes to a close, we reflect on what we learned as we developed the first comprehensive review of national research and practice evidence on homicide co-victimization (PDF).

Research is limited but shows co-victims face serious challenges

The sudden and violent loss of a loved one is one of the gravest experiences anyone can have. CVR researchers have identified three major challenges co-victims commonly experience:

  1. They can experience substantial psychological harm. Losing a loved one can be devastating, and when that loss is because of violence, it can lead to prolonged or complicated grief.
  2. In the aftermath of the homicide, co-victims must often interact with the criminal justice process, which can be lengthy, cumbersome, and difficult to navigate. Co-victims sometimes look to the conclusion of a criminal trial for a sense of closure, but that doesn’t always happen, even once the case is resolved.
  3. Media and society at large react to homicide cases in ways that are often sensationalized or lead to heightened interest from co-victims’ communities. This can force co-victims to deal with increasing attention as they are experiencing grief, leaving loved ones isolated from or stigmatized by their community at a time when they need support the most.

Black, Latinx, and Native American co-victims are most vulnerable

Black and Latinx communities are at higher risk of losing a loved one to homicide, and they are more likely to live in communities with less access to necessary support services. Some national advocacy organizations also draw attention to the issue of missing Native American women, indicating that homicide rates among native and indigenous women in some US counties are 10 times higher than the national average.

Homicide co-victims need wraparound support from service providers

With the exception of some grief support groups, self-help groups, and police and court services, limited services are available to address homicide co-victims’ unique needs. The most effective wraparound services provide support and assistance at multiple stages and address the multifaceted harm associated with losing a loved one to homicide.  

These services include immediate support, such as making sure that co-victims are informed about a loved one’s death by law enforcement in a respectful way, guidance to psychological counseling or support groups, and information on where to seek assistance with funeral costs. They also include ensuring loved ones are respectfully included throughout the criminal justice process.

Another service is therapy or counseling available from a practitioner trained to deal with grief and experienced in cases of traumatic loss, which can be different than bereavement under normal circumstances.

Promising examples of support groups for co-victims include the following:

  • Criminal Death Support Groups: These groups provide training on navigating media and the criminal justice system, paired with Restorative Retelling, a group therapy model that has shown promise at improving participants’ psychological wellbeing.   
  • Fairfax County Police Department’s Grief Support Group: This group is led by law enforcement and includes assistance in grieving, navigating the homicide investigation process, and support from spiritual or religious advocates.
  • Chicago’s Mother’s Healing Circle: Created in 2013, this group of 50 women who have lost children to gun violence gather for counseling and group discussion.

Moving forward, we need a better understanding of what services best help homicide co-victims heal. At the same time, we need to develop and expand services for vulnerable communities and remove barriers to access.

Men attend a group therapy session, run by coach Arkia Jenkins (l.), as part of READI Chicago, a program to help at-risk men, on June 25, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The program engages men who are most highly impacted by gun violence, and connects them to paid transitional jobs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and support services. Chicago has one of the highest homicide and gun violence rates in the country, but in recent years, efforts by local police, community groups and a program to help violent offenders has helped bring the number of violent crimes down. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

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