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Rod Watson: Homicide survivors' group fills a need no one wants to have

Rod Watson

They possess an expertise they wish they didn’t have.

They are part of a group they wish there was no need for.

And they often have to combat a stigma no one facing what they face should have to endure.

They are the parents of homicide victims, who came together in 2003 to support one another and raise awareness about unsolved murders.

Hundreds of homicides later, PEACE Inc. is celebrating – if that’s the right word – its 15th anniversary of "striving for peace" with a dinner Saturday night.

Composed completely of volunteers, Parents Encouraging Accountability and Closure for Everyone offers grief workshops, referrals to grief counselors and advice on how to navigate the criminal justice system, something survivors are thrown into at the worst possible moment.

But perhaps most important, they offer support – the kind of support that can only come from someone who’s been where the survivor is now.

"Unless you’ve really gone through it, you don’t know," said Sandra Green, who joined the group in 2007 after losing two sons to homicide. "Unfortunately, that’s one of our assets," she said of the understanding parents of homicide victims can offer one another.

PEACE evolved from a small support group that realized survivors couldn’t really talk about their grief because they were so caught up in the investigation of their loved one’s death, said Teresa Evans, president and one of the founders. That led to a meeting with then-District Attorney Frank Clark, who suggested an organization to meet with both families and law enforcement.

Fifteen years later, our society is no closer to putting them out of business.

"It would be nice if we were not needed," said Green. "But the truth of the matter is, the way society is going, we’re going to need a lot more than this."

Evans’ only son was killed in 1993 at age 17 and his murder was solved. Green’s 31-year-old son was shot to death outside an Atlanta restaurant in January 2007 after accidentally stepping on someone’s foot, and that killer was sentenced to life. But she’s still waiting for justice for her other son, who was 21 when he was shot to death 10 months later on Walden Avenue.

Unlike parents whose children died in other ways, parents of homicide victims also have to face the suspicion that, somehow, the victim brought it on himself.

"Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going out and get killed today,’ " said Evans.

Green has encountered that stigma, too, much of it based on stereotypical conceptions of the city.

"Because somebody lives on the East Side of Buffalo does not make them a bad person," she said. "Innocent people get murdered daily, too. They need to realize that."

Unbearable loss, a mother's pain and healing through sharing

PEACE helps survivors overcome any feelings of shame that might creep in because of such stereotypes, as well as how important it is to maintain communication with investigators and not be intimidated by the prospect of dealing with police or prosecutors.

"I make it my business to stay in touch with the Buffalo Police Department," said Green, referring to the unsolved murder of her younger son and emphasizing that survivors have a right to know what is going on with their case. Investigators can be just like anyone else in that they take more of an interest when they see that someone else is interested, too.

"They play a role in keeping me and law enforcement accountable for never giving up," said District Attorney John J. Flynn, who will keynote Saturday’s dinner.

Flynn said he meets every month or so with Detective Mary Evans of the cold case squad to review any possible new leads or evidence as part of his effort to make sure survivors "get the justice that they deserve."

In pursuing that justice, PEACE members have even gone to court with survivors to provide moral support. And it does all of that without imposing on family members, often working through intermediaries to see if a survivor needs help or waiting for the survivor to reach out when ready.

"When it first happens, families have hundreds of people around them," Evans said. "But two weeks later, there’s no one there." That is often when PEACE puts out feelers.

It also reaches out to other similar organizations, holding a recent retreat in the Poconos with groups from around New York as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland to share ideas and help one another. One idea is finding ways to help the children of homicide victims, especially with more women being killed and their children ending up in Family Court.

Saturday’s event – at 6 p.m. in SS. Columba-Brigid Church Hall, 75 Hickory St., with tickets at $30 – also will remember deceased PEACE members David Collins, the former Masten Council member; Bobby McRae, who lost a brother; and Sister Karen Klimczak, the Bissonette House nun killed by a resident she was trying to help.

But mostly it’s a reminder – a reminder that we as a society are moving much too slowly to eliminate the root causes behind so many murders. And a reminder of the support that survivors need as they try to both cope with their loss and achieve justice for their loved one.

"We haven’t given up on our loss," Green said. "Yes, it’s a loss. But it’s not a lost cause."

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