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Repairing the Trauma of Violent Crime

6 Feb 2007

By Tamar Kahn

Late one Sunday night, Constable Tony Penso stumbled while entering the front door of his Johannesburg home, dropped his gun on the floor and shot himself in the stomach. Eventually his neighbours came to investigate the bang and drove him to a nearby hospital.

While the doctors debated whether to transfer him to another facility, he was left frightened and alone to ponder whether he would live or die.

That trauma, still vivid in Penso's mind decades later, propelled him into an unusual role for a cop. Now a senior detective at Rondebosch police station in Cape Town with 39 years of service under his belt, he dedicates much of his spare time to helping colleagues and members of the public repair the psychological damage wrought by violent crime.

"My experience turned me from a laaitie to a man … it opened me up to see other people's pain," says Penso.

"By helping people you get so much back," he says.

There are about 50 murders, 35 car hijackings, and 150 rapes reported each day in SA, according to official police figures for the year to March 2006, yet few victims of violent crime have access to specialised counselling services.

Rondebosch police station is a leading example of what a police station can accomplish with the right combination of in-house commitment and community involvement. Since the late 1990s it has provided a "comfort room" for debriefing crime victims, in line with national policy.

This is a safe place, removed from the bustle of the charge office, where victims can begin to come to terms with the traumatic events they have experienced before moving on to specialised services such as rape counselling and psychological counselling.

"It's important to be able to tell your story to someone who can help you order it from A to Z," says Heleen Louw, a clinical social worker who supervises the lay counsellors who debrief victims at the station. "Talking helps people work through the stuff that happened, and make sense of it. And it helps them prepare for the process they will have to go through with the courts."

Rondebosch police station's light and airy comfort room is scattered with soft teddy bears and toys, a discreet box of tissues is placed near the faded blue armchairs, and cheery artificial flowers grace the small coffee table - all touches intended to create a nurturing environment. But there's also a punch bag for victims to vent their feelings.

"Even I use it sometimes," says Penso, who, even after almost four decades on the job, has not become inured to trauma, and still finds many of the crimes he investigates deeply disturbing.

He seeks solace in his family and the Catholic church, and tries to maintain his wellbeing with regular debriefing sessions with Louw. He is open with his colleagues about seeking psychological support, in the hope that if they see a tough old cop like him talking about his feelings with no ill-effect on his career, they will be encouraged to follow suit.

There are huge discrepancies in the resources on offer in comfort rooms across SA's police stations, says Dr Anthony Minnaar, an expert on police and criminal justice from the University of SA. Without dedicated funding from the South African Police Service, the extent of the services provided to crime victims depends largely on the commit-ment of station commanders, com- munity policing forums, nongovernmental agencies and volunteers, he says.

The Rondebosch police station's comfort room is staffed by 20 lay counsellors, trained volunteers who provide services to about 80 people a month. They generally counsel victims of crimes reported to the station who are contacted by Penso and his colleagues within a day or two of laying charges. But they also help people from further afield, who have heard through the grapevine of the services on offer, or because counsellors have approached them directly to help police stations lacking such resources.

One such crime victim is 53-year-old Fuff Kirsten, who was bludgeoned with a flat iron, stabbed 17 times with a screwdriver, and left for dead on her neighbour's floor by an intruder two years ago. Kirsten had entered the property to investigate screams, unaware they were her neighbour's dying cries.

Penso and a colleague visited Kirsten while she was recovering in hospital, an encounter she says helped her begin to talk about her ordeal.

"They helped me enormously. They were gentle and understanding, and they brought me a teddy bear - and I can't begin to tell you how comforting it was when I was lying alone in hospital," she says. She still has the soft toy, and is now considering offering her services as a lay counsellor, convinced her experience may help others in a similar situation.

Kirsten's attacker was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 25 years in prison last December.

Rondebosch station commissioner Supt. Henry Hubbard says debriefing crime victims also helps police officers. On a practical level, counselling helps crime victims prepare for the legal process they will go through in bringing their perpetrators to book, thus increasing the chances of a successful prosecution. But the services also help the police in an indirect way. Previously, officers might have attended a crime scene, collecting evidence and taking statements with confidence, but feel helpless in the face of victims' distress, says Hubbard. Now at least they can give them pamphlets and phone numbers, and refer them to helping hands, he says.

"When we see victims leave the building after counselling, they are definitely not the same people we saw at the crime scene," he says.

This story is part of an occasional series on mental health and the police, supported by a fellowship from the Atlanta-based Carter Centre. The reporter can be contacted at:

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from Business Day.

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