Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Helping hand soothes shaken crime victims

Stress can alter lives: volunteer

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THERE were no physical injuries from the crime. No visible scars. But a city bank employee still struggles to describe what happened after a robber targeted him last year.

It was a typical day behind the counter until a man in sunglasses slid a note across saying he had a gun and demanded cash.

The teller's spine started tingling, his adrenaline pumping, and he shut down emotionally as he passed over the cash just before the robber fled the bank.

"It was that sense of being stuck under someone else's heel. And it takes a toll on you," said the teller, who did not want to be identified.

He said he was constantly stressed after the robbery -- surprised at the insensitivity of others who questioned him for allowing the robbery to occur -- and eventually took time off work.

"The fact there wasn't a gun showing, some people can be really ignorant about it. They'll say, 'Why didn't you call the guy on it, or something?' " he said.

"I almost felt ashamed of it because there was nothing to really show it happened. It's like this burden you don't want to share with anyone."

The teller is one of more than 10,000 people -- victims and witnesses of crimes -- the Winnipeg Police Service contacts each year through its victim services section.

Const. Julie Sproule, the section's supervisor, said victims grappling with emotional, physical and financial injuries in the wake of crime need help understanding the justice system.

The section is set up to offer emotional support and information on police procedures and the court process, automatically contacting victims and witnesses of certain types of crimes.

One of them is robbery, which the federal Criminal Code defines as a theft where violence or the threat of violence exists, including situations where imitation weapons are involved. Sproule said people cope differently with the stress of being victimized.

"Everybody reacts differently to trauma, and we can't judge them," she said.

The section also deals with victims of break-and-enters, who slightly outnumbered robbery victims from 2006 to 2008.

Victim services survives thanks to the work of about 50 volunteer caseworkers, who contact victims by phone and answer queries.

Hugh Ritchie, a retired schoolteacher who's volunteered for about eight years as a caseworker, said robbery victims often experience fear in the wake of an attack, sometimes in life-altering ways. That trauma can have a spinoff effect on secondary victims, like a victim's friends and family.

He recalls closing a conversation with a former bank employee who was threatened with a gun and asking her how he could help.

"This lady said to me: 'Give me my life back,' " he said.

He said his role is to listen to victims' stories about their experiences, and provide them referrals to other services if they request them.

"People really need a voice. They really, really need to tell their story," he said.

The section also works with victims of crimes like homicide, sexual assault and indecent acts.

The victim service section can be reached at 986-6350.

By the numbers:

How many robbery/break-and-enter victims in Winnipeg?

2009: 1,953 n/a *

2008: 1,600 1,949

2007: 2,179 2,639

2006: 2,205 2,952

--Source: Winnipeg Police Services Victim Service Section

(*Number of 2009 break-and-enters not available.)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2010 B1

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