An interview with Sarah Chaikin, cold case program coordinator with the Denver Police Department Victim Assistance Unit.
What services does your program provide?
Chaikin: Cold Case Victim Services provides outreach to victims in homicides, sexual assaults, and felony kidnappings that have not been solved. Colorado recognizes cold case victims in the Victim Rights Act, which was amended in 2006, and requires law enforcement to provide notifications to victims of those crimes if they are not solved within one year of the crime. Our unit is responsible for the Denver Police Department's (DPD's) compliance with the legislation, which is designed to provide services to victims in cold cases. I send letters to all those victims, and I provide outreach and intervention with those victims when they have contact with the police department. If we get a CODIS hit that identifies the suspect and we are contacting the victim, I participate in that process. In cases where there is no progress, of course, receiving that one-year notice is often disconcerting to victims because there is the hope and belief that these cases are being worked on until they are solved. So we need to be highly sensitive to victims and very careful about the language we use in speaking to them at this point.
I am also part of the larger police department victim assistance division that does outreach and crisis intervention on other cases, in addition to cold cases. I am part of that unit although I am housed within the Denver Police Department Cold Case Unit. The Cold Case Unit consists of the supervisor, Sergeant Anthony Parisi and nine dedicated cold case detectives.
What is the history of the program-how did it come about?
Chaikin: Originally, Denver received some National Institute of Justice funds that were used to review cases to see which ones had biological evidence that could be forwarded to the crime lab for further testing. In early 2005, through the ongoing evaluation of the emerging DPD Cold Case Unit, DPD Division & Bureau leadership determined that including a victim service unit in the Cold Case Unit would be in keeping with the Department's historic commitment to victim services. The original vision for the role of the victim service component in the Cold Case Unit focused on victim notification. Cold cases were coming back from the crime lab with new leads. These new leads created the need for additional detectives to reopen the cases. By 2006, there were nine full-time detectives and a sergeant, as well as one cold case program coordinator, my position, supported by the Denver police department.
How does your program differ from other programs of its kind?
Chaikin: We have a large cold case unit with a full-time victim program coordinator dedicated just to cold case issues. Other departments use victim advocates specifically for cold cases, but it's not common to have a full-time victim program coordinator. Sergeant Parisi and I are doing some innovative things that are above and beyond solving cases through DNA. We do a lot of community outreach and try to engage co-victims in homicide cases. We try to get the word out to let them know that we are here and to encourage them to contact us, which can stimulate activity on our part. We may go talk to co-victims; sometimes we uncover information (either evidence or suspects that have been overlooked) that causes us to look into these cold cases to see if there is anything we can move forward with. Or we may find that there is nothing that leads anywhere. We have 700 unsolved homicides, and not many of them yield information that leads to solvability (such as intact evidence or available witnesses). In a case that's 25 years old, for example, evidence may be destroyed or degraded beyond testing capacity. Witnesses or suspects may be dead. But whatever the status of the case, our goal is to be as transparent as possible with co-victims and to let them know exactly where we are on these cases. I work hard to educate the detectives to understand that people want to know the truth, even if it's not what they want to hear, and my colleague Detective Anthony Parisi really does get how important this is.
How do you do your outreach?
Chaikin: We send a standard form letter to victims or next of kin that says the case was reported a year ago and has not been solved. The letter provides my contact information. About 10 percent of sex assault cases and about 50 percent of homicide cases bring a response, wanting to know what is going on. Another form of outreach is our cold case Web site. Every unsolved homicide in Denver County since 1970 has a dedicated Web page that is a memorial to each victim. On each page, we post a photo and other information that we might receive from the families. On the older homicides, we usually have only a few lines of information about the crime. I ask the families make to a personal statement about the victim. Posting that information gives the families support and a connection to us, which starts a dialogue that in some cases can lead to some useful information. It may also lead to a dead end, but we can tell the families truthfully, this is where we are. We let them know why the case isn't on the detective's desk or why there is no further work at the lab.
What are the main challenges in running the program?
Chaikin: We work in a police culture where there is a sense that it's really important to protect the progress in cases by sharing as little as possible about the case. Of course, there is a great deal of information that detectives can't share. But at the same time, they should be able to say why they can't discuss certain information. Sometimes it's very hard to help detectives understand why a victim might call over and over again. A detective might ask, "Why are they calling when I told them two months ago I'd contact them if anything changes?" I try to explain why people want to feel connected and that we should do what we can for them. At the same time, though, it's been very easy here for me to implement any idea that I have because I have had tremendous support from the victim assistance unit and from the police department itself, which really does understand the big picture. My ongoing challenge is to help the police to better use my services and understand the positive impact they can have.
What kind of training is needed for the staff?
Chaikin: The victim assistance staff needs the usual law enforcement victim assistance training. But my role requires more skill in conflict resolution than in crisis intervention and advocacy than is typically provided by victim advocates. I mediate between the police department and the victims or victims' family. There may be anger and grief, but it's not crisis intervention. It's more subtle, so some skill is needed in acknowledging and supporting the victims' feelings, getting past that and finding ways for them to work with the department. Except for the day-to-day work I do with the detectives, I don't do formal training in the department, but I have done a lot of training to share our work in other places. Sergeant Parisi and I recently did training at the Colorado Organization of Victim Assistance annual conference for law enforcement, prosecutors, probation officers, and victim advocates on working with co-victims in homicide cases. We do training with other organizations, for example-the training we're doing with the National Center for Victims of Crime's DNA Resource Center, and sometimes people come to me informally for information, based on what they have found on the Internet.
What personal characteristics do your staff members need?
Chaikin: We need skill in dealing with conflict. By the time we are in contact with victims, there are no more crises but a sense of conflict and uneasiness because the case has not been resolved. Resolution doesn't always look like we think it should. For example, we recently had a case where a serial rapist was in custody as a result of DNA hits in two different cases. The perpetrator committed suicide when the charges were announced. We notified both victims-one in person and one on the phone. The victims were very different in many ways-where they were in their lives, how they had experienced the original sex assault, and how they had recovered and worked through it. There was so much to deal with in this situation, and the detective and prosecutors were as upset as the victims that there would be no resolution. But with this new development in this case, there is an opportunity for some closure-a starting place to move forward. We are still working on this case, and we are going to have a meeting to bring the victims together to meet one another and hope that will be useful to them.
Why is your work important to victims?
Chaikin: It gives them something to move forward with, whatever that might be, by acknowledging either the progress or the limitations in the case. Victims have the right to know what is going on because their lives have been shattered in so many ways. Our work shows respect for victims where they are, and we help victims feel that they matter-that they are being heard. I tell them I am sorry. Victims can help me improve what I do for them and for other victims. One survivor called, and she was very angry when she received her notification letter. My first reaction was to be very defensive, but then I realized she was giving me a gift by calling, and I asked her how we could have done things better for her. I asked her to help me figure out how she would have preferred to learn there was no progress. I asked what I could do about what has happened to her in the last year. It ended up being powerful for her because even though she had no control over the case, someone was listening to her. The cases that are not cold cases that are still being worked on are a particular challenge. One of my plans is to formulate a more streamlined process where the victims meet with the detective at the one-year anniversary. This will give victims a little more sense that there are people paying attention. I do give them some elementary information on what DNA is because victims need to know how, in general, a DNA profile is determined and how CODIS works. I provide written materials as well. The National Center for Victims of Crime brochure "DNA & Crime Victims: What Victims Need to Know" is a useful resource that I use. Depending on the crime, I also provide the Denver Police Department brochure, "Sexual Assault Cold Case Investigations: A Guide for Victims and Their Families" or "Homicide Cold Case Investigations: A Guide for Victims and Their Families."
Can you share an example of how a particular victim was helped?
Chaikin: We had a 1978 homicide which was particularly terrible. A woman was raped, strangled, thrown out a window, and set on fire. The only piece of evidence was a shoelace that the perpetrator had used to strangle her. With 1978 technology, all they could do was type the blood on that shoelace. They arrested the perpetrator but did not have enough evidence at the preliminary hearing to move forward, and he was released. Everything in the case was handled poorly. The death notification was a phone call to the victim's father from the coroner, telling him that his daughter's body had been in the morgue for ten days. The victim's sister fought for 10 years for some action on the case. In 1990, a detective pulled the case and saw that the property related to the case had been destroyed, and he noted in the file that the property was gone and nothing more could be done. In 2010, the sister called again, and Sergeant Parisi and I discussed how to deal with the sister and what we would tell her. She knew there was blood evidence and that it would have been possible to test it with current technology. We knew we had to tell her the truth and that she should have been told years ago. She was upset, angry, and irate, but she came full circle and thanked us for telling her. She was in town a month later and met with us to go over the case file. We answered her questions, and we took her over to the crime scene. The suspect had died. It's hard to go back and admit the department's mistakes and that the damage was irreversible, but that was the truth, and that helps. That sister has become an advocate for the kind of truth-telling mission that I am on.
How have advances in forensic DNA affected your work?
Chaikin: Advances in DNA technology have increased victims' expectations of what science can do and have also created an avenue to solve cases and interact with victims we never would have contacted before. We now have a tool to help solve old crimes, even in cases that are 20 years old or more. Many sexual assault cases have been cleared. It's a challenge to pull together a 12-year-old case, but it is being done, and the prosecutors are very careful to make sure the evidence is used effectively. Because of the advances in DNA technology, the department has cleared over 200 cold sexual assault cases and 15 cold homicide cases.
What obstacles have you encountered to the success of your program?
Chaikin: The number of unsolved cases is overwhelming, and how do we, the police department, set priorities? The more successful we become, the more calls we get, and the more work we have. The police have to decide which cold cases to investigate, based on the information in the files, and we always have to deal with the victims and co-victims.
How have you dealt with the challenges?
Chaikin: I have found that the more I do on the front, the better it is on the back. If we set up a family meeting and have the family talk to the detective, it creates a smoother future for that particular family. We do that even though it takes more resources up front. It shows we are acting in good faith and doing everything we possibly can. It helps minimize the future impact of what the victims might need.
What have you learned from doing this work?
Chaikin: I've learned what makes me uncomfortable: It's not just the detectives who don't want to say "we have nothing for you." I have learned that I also don't want to tell victims we haven't made any progress. It makes me uncomfortable, just as it does for the detectives. But I believe I don't have a right to decide for people how they will feel. If I tell them the truth, they can decide how they are going to react. I am not interested in changing anyone's mind about where they are. It's not my job to talk them out of that. If they are upset, they are upset.
If you had one message to share with victims and their families about your work, what would it be?
Chaikin: First of all, we want to solve all these cases. Of course, that is our hope. As many victims discover when we work with them, the detectives almost always do everything they can, and it helps victims to know that. Although detectives must protect certain information, our job is to explain the status of the cases and also to help victims be where they are. As an advocate for a victim in a cold case, I always try to remember that not only is the victim dealing with the actual victimization but also the passage of time and the disappointment the case was not previously solved. No one has chosen to be the victim of a cold case or to be in the position of not knowing what has happened in the investigation-sometimes for years. I believe that law enforcement has a responsibility to meet the special needs of these victims. Telling the truth, owning up to the limitations of the department, owning up to the limitations of the case are ways to be responsible to victims.
Sarah Chaikin, the cold case program coordinator with the Denver Police Department Victim Assistance Unit, has worked since 1992 in various victim services capacities, from on-scene crisis intervention for crime victims to investigating abuse and neglect of the elderly. In her current role, she is responsible for maintaining the Denver Police Department's compliance with the Victim Rights Act (C.R.S. 24-4.1-301), and she also works in conjunction with the Cold Case Investigations Unit, providing outreach to victims of cold case sexual assault or felony kidnapping and to family members and co-victims of homicide.