Coordinator of Aid to Victims Program : When a Family Cries Out, She Answers

March 17, 1986|JERRY COHEN | Times Staff Writer

During a typical day, Norma Johnson's job is an endless grind of emotionally draining collisions with society's dark side.

She dispenses funds to the aggrieved and the grieving, helps arrange funerals, visits courtrooms with victims and survivors to help them through the ordeal of reliving a murder, rape or beating.

Working inside the police station in the city's most violent police jurisdiction, Johnson performs her gut-wrenching job as the coordinator of a program that provides help to victims of crime and their stricken survivors--who number too many in the South Los Angeles territory she covers.

"The main thing I want to get across is that I don't feel people in this community have to live under a state of siege the way they do now," said Johnson, sitting at a desk in her office--a tiny cubicle separated by a thin partition from the rooms where police interrogate the suspects they arrest.

"Take the gangs. The gangs not only kill one another, but they kill innocent people too," she said. "I don't know how to solve it. But I do the best I can to help those who are victimized salvage their lives.

". . . When there's a homicide, I can't bring that person back. The best I can offer is to hold the wife or mother's hand while they cry."

Johnson is one of about 60 coordinators of the state's Victim-Witness Assistance Program who work out of police and sheriff stations in Los Angeles County.

The 20-year-old program provides crime victims and their families with funds for medical bills, psychotherapy, lost wages--and, as is frequently necessary, funerals. Money comes from a restitution fund financed by fines and penalties assessed against criminals.

"Norma is one of the best. She walks around with her heart in her hand and yet is able to avoid what we see too much of among coordinators, what we call 'burnout,' " said Alex Vargas, who heads the program for the city attorney's office.

Her day begins at 7 every morning and is supposed to end at 3:30 p.m. It rarely does. She often works weekends, volunteering her own time in moments of crisis.

She attends trials and autopsies, studying each case and committing to memory details of how and why a victim met death.

She pores over coroner's reports to provide exact cause-of-death facts to the family of a murder victim because "just a little bit of information can put a family at ease. Even though their loved one is dead, it is important to them," she explained.

Nighttime Calls

It is not uncommon for her to be awakened at home in the middle of the night by a phone call from a victim or survivor seeking advice or consolation.

"The trauma beyond the actual incident is so severe, people need to talk incessantly about what happened. It drains me. But they have no place else to go for an immediate crisis," she said.

It was Johnson who helped bring together as "Loved Ones of Homicide Victims" several South-Central Los Angeles families who had lost members to violent crime. The year-old group meets monthly to talk about the pain and frustration that its members share.

"The first session was really so emotional," Johnson recalled. "We finally had someplace for people to go so they could just talk about how upset and angry they were."

Like the police officers she works with, Johnson is often confounded by the sheer number of crimes she must confront. "My work never catches up," she said. "I just tread water. But I can't let it get to me. Because if I'm overwhelmed, then I don't serve (the families) properly. I've got to keep a perspective on it."

For the last week, she has divided her time between her office and a courtroom where the trial of a young man accused of murdering his 6-month-old daughter to spite the child's mother is being held.

Emotional Response

"I'm used to seeing adults brutalized. But this was a baby. A defenseless, innocent little victim," she said, her voice thick with emotion.

Nevertheless, Johnson believes her presence is necessary because prosecutors "are so barraged with cases" they often don't have time to comfort or explain proceedings to victims' families.

"These people's feelings have to be taken into consideration. Nobody ever has explained to them before about a court case. It's something prosecutors don't learn in law school. Too often, the victim's survivors don't have an identity, just a number," Johnson said.

"These are people who don't do anything to deserve what happens to them," she continued. "They are good people leading good lives and then they get brutalized for no reason at all.

"So many people hold life so cheaply . . . have no regard for life. Most (criminals) I see have no remorse. They just look at you with empty eyes."

Johnson raised her own two children--now grown--in Southeast Los Angeles, and still lives just minutes away from the 77th Street police station where she works. She knows how the neighborhood's mean streets can make a life of crime seem like an easy way out of a hard life.

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