A new support group, founded by women who understand the loss of a loved one to homicide, is coming to Chattanooga.
“Grieving is a process that has many stages, and it’s a long, hard, difficult journey to create a new normal for your life after it’s been torn apart by murder,” said Verna Wyatt, co- founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims. .
“Chatanooga’s goal is to have a homicide loss support group that can offer all that support and friendship from other people who understand your pain because they’re going through it, and to do ensure that your grief journey is led by a counselor who can help you avoid getting stuck in a phase of grief that could further complicate your recovery.”
Wyatt, who is originally from Ohio but has lived in Nashville since 1974, began working in victim advocacy after his sister-in-law and best friend, Martha Wyatt, was sexually assaulted and murdered.
Martha Wyatt, a teacher, was killed by the boyfriend of the mother of one of her students. Her body was found three days later in the Cumberland River. The accused pleaded guilty to that case and to the rape of another woman two weeks earlier.
When the Times Free Press asked Verna Wyatt how long it took her to overcome her grief and start working in victim advocacy, she replied that it had been years. Wyatt said that although she had support, she still struggles with the loss.
“I would say the first year after Martha’s murder, I was really in shock. The first year is tough,” Wyatt said. “But the next three years were hell as the shock wore off and the reality of the situation set in. I don’t think I really felt any joy for the next five years. I loved Martha, c was my best friend, but I can’t even imagine if the loss was a child.”
Wyatt continued to struggle until she became involved with a homicide victim support group. Wyatt dove headfirst into the group, eventually becoming so involved that she decided to become executive director.
The “support group helped me with anger management because I had a safe place to deal with a counselor who could guide me through the journey,” Wyatt said. “But it rears its ugly head from time to time, especially when it’s evoked by some sort of injustice.”
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Wyatt has worked to educate people about domestic violence, child sexual abuse, sexting and cyberbullying for 10 years. During this time, she meets Valerie Craig, who will become co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims.
According to Wyatt, Tennessee Voices began at the state Office of Criminal Justice Programs when officials saw a gap in services for families of victims in Tennessee.
Wyatt said Tennessee Voices was able to secure a government grant and his support group also reached out to district attorneys general to raise awareness of counselor support.
As his program expands across the state, already serving Shelby and Davidson counties, Wyatt’s goal for Chattanooga is to provide a support group that understands the same kind of loss and enables healing.
These services will be provided in addition to those already offered by the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County Attorney General’s Victim Services Units.
“The [police] the department has its [program], and we have our victim/witness coordinators,” said District Attorney General Neal Pinkston’s communications director Bruce Garner in an email to The Times Free Press. “Our support more or less ends when the legal process is over. Tennessee Voices for Victims will provide ongoing support.”
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Caroline Huffaker, director of victim services and police department chaplains, worked with Wyatt and Craig to expand Tennessee Voices in Chattanooga. She said the new initiative had been in the works for “over a year”.
“[They] I’ve been working on it for a while,” Huffaker said in a phone interview.
Huffaker said the difference between existing programs and Tennessee Voices is that the latter can offer families long-term support that the city cannot.
“We are what is considered a systems-based advocacy program. So our unit is based within the police department, a government system, and we provide support and advocacy services related to…criminal victimization” , Wyatt said. “But we are unable to provide in-depth therapeutic work because that is not what this program is designed for.”
In addition to victim advocacy, Wyatt and Craig run Victim Impact Classes, which, in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Corrections, teach incarcerated people how their actions have affected their victims while helping them find the root of the problem.
“We do this because we know the reality, 98% of incarcerated people return to our community, we want them to return as good citizens,” Wyatt said. “Our class is about responsibility, understanding our actions and the impact on others, and hoping to change behavior.”
“In our class [they are] learn about child sexual abuse or domestic violence, and they begin to understand the impact on the individual. We see them begin to connect the dots of their own offensive behavior,” Wyatt said. “Not an excuse, but an explanation. Instead of working on the symptoms that landed them in jail, they see a deeper problem.”
Pinkston also worked to bring Tennessee Voices to Chattanooga. He said he was trying to publicize the program for the benefit of those affected by homicide.
“Our victim/witness coordinators work with them throughout the court process, but it’s hard for people who have lost someone to homicide to ever be truly right,” Pinkston said in an email to the Times Free Press. “That’s why we want them to know about this support group so they can get the support services they need in the years to come.”
Hamilton County residents interested in participating in or supporting the Homicide Victim’s Family Support Group can visit the District Attorney’s website at tndagc.org/support or call 423-209-7400.