Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Most people have no idea there’s free counseling and funds available to them after a crime.

The information came as a surprise to Lisa Thomas Muhammad. It’s been a month and two days since the Strawberry Mansion resident lost her daughter Angela to a gruesome act of domestic violence. Along with her grief, Muhammad also had to deal with the sudden responsibility of organizing a funeral and arranging childcare for Angela’s three young kids.

But as the 56-year-old grandmother struggled to pick up the pieces, she received some unexpected help.

She got a call from Melany Nelson, executive director of Northwest Victims Services, who visited in person at 6:45 a.m. the very next day. Thanks to that interaction, Muhammad now receives free grief counseling, and will be reimbursed in full for her daughter’s funeral costs.

Both those services are available to all American victims and family members under the federal Victims of Crime Act — but the standard method of letting people know about them is via a pamphlet mailed to their home address. How many people sift through their paper mail these days? If Nelson hadn’t called, Muhammad doubts she would ever have found out about the assistance programs.

In North Philly, a new coalition is trying to make personal connections like that the norm.

Three agencies have teamed up with Temple University Hospital’s trauma unit to inform victims about services personally rather than via letter. Not only is the in-person method quicker, it’s been found to be a lot more effective in getting help to those who need it.

Making it personal

It was November 2017 when Scott Charles started to wonder how he could improve victim outreach to reach more people.

Charles, a trauma outreach coordinator at TUH, decided to contact Jonathan Davis of North Central Victims Services, and the two came up with an idea: the hospital would work with three nearby groups — North Central Victims Services, Northwest Victims Services and Congreso — to staff the trauma unit every day with at least one victims services volunteer.

They called it the Victims Services Collaborative — and so far, it’s worked like a charm.

From November 2017 to July 2018, the collaborative has helped 120 people take advantage of the federally-provided services via personal outreach. That’s 17 percent more than previously took advantage at her center, Nelson said.

“We take our time to go there every day, to sit by their bedside,” said Ramona Peralta of Congreso. “We spend as much time as needed. Sometimes we sit there and we talk to the victim for 40 minutes.”

A bed in the trauma unit at Temple University Hospital Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

To the best of Charles’ knowledge, there are no other victims services agencies or hospitals in Philly that work together like this. The Victims Services Collaborative is unprecedented.

“It definitely makes a difference,” said Muhammad, the grieving grandma. “Human contact is very important to me. I’m used to looking in your eyes and sitting in front of you. I want to know your vibe.”

How it works

In Philly, money allocated under the federal Victims of Crime Act is distributed to a network of nearly 40 victims services agencies. People who’ve been through (or witnessed) anything from gun violence to domestic abuse to bank robbery are matched up with an agency based on location — usually where they live, sometimes where the crime happened.

Services offered include:

  • Compensation if you’re out of work as a result of the crime (and even more if a loved one is out of work to look after you)
  • Money to relocate if you feel unsafe in your home
  • Reimbusement of funeral costs — which can be tremendously expensive
  • Legal help
  • Counseling services

When a crime occurs, the Philadelphia Police adds it to a daily list that’s sent out to appropriate victims services agencies. Then, the agency reaches out to the victims to offer help — via a pamphlet mailed to their home address. That’s problematic, Nelson noted. “A month later, coming home from the hospital, no one is going to read that information.”

The pamphlet offering them services is probably sitting in their mailbox under a huge pile of past-due bills that they’ve missed while seeking treatment.

“There’s just a ton of people who fall through the cracks,” Charles said. “The goal of this collaborative is to widen that safety net.”

Of course, the free services aren’t perfect. Muhammad’s assigned counselor is only available on Mondays — a day she’s often scheduled to work — and the funeral reimbursement could take months to actually come through.

A thank you card sent from Muhammad to people who attended her daughter’s funeral Credit: Courtesy Lisa Thomas Muhammad

Even if the services were perfect, they’d hardly comfort Muhammad in the wake of her 33-year-old daughter’s premature death. Angela loved to cook for her family, and she taught her younger brother to play chess, according to her mom. A graduate of Strawberry Mansion High School, where she had joined the mock trial team, Angela has earned a bachelor’s degree from Kutztown University last May, and was preparing to take exams to apply to law school. She was even planning her son’s birthday party at Dave & Buster’s.

Muhammad received her daughter’s official death certificate last Saturday.

“With the death certificate, that’s like finalized,” she said. “I’m still having a problem digesting it.”

But the services have made a difference. Muhammad has taken comfort in her conversations with Nelson, and she’s eager to continue counseling.

“Melany has really been the hook,” Muhammad said. “In regards to helping me, she has been excellent.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...