Center provides support to survivors of violence

| Sunday, July 14, 2013, 10:15 a.m.

Tony Bock of Baldwin lost his older brother Albert to murder six years ago.

On July 5, Bock, a professional comedian, used humor to commemorate his brother's July 11 birthday and to generate support for the Center for Victims, the East Liberty-based organization that helps survivors of crime rebuild their lives.

He performed at Altar Bar in the Strip District, with a portion of proceeds going to the center. The event coincides with the center's production of a short documentary film — “Life After” — aimed at calling attention to the services it provides to victims of rape, domestic violence, assault and other crimes.

Bock, 29, says the center was pivotal in helping him and his family cope with their tragic loss.

“They give you a sense that you're not going through it alone,” he says. “We received pro bono counseling, and they offered my mother help with funeral expenses, although she declined.

“We sent younger members of our family to the center, including my nephew, who was there when my brother was killed, and just 13 at the time.”

Albert “Gumba” Bock was shot to death on his own front porch, where he was entertaining friends. Bock says a 17-year-old approached with two accomplices and demanded money. “I'd just gone into the house with my nephew when I heard the gunshots,” says Bock, who raced outside to find his brother gravely wounded. “He died in my arms.”

Bock says Albert was killed trying to keep the robbers from entering his home in order to protect him and his nephew.

“It's something I relive every day,” says Bock, who described the emotional stages that followed his brother's death. “At first, it was disbelief. Nothing felt real. I was numb. Then anger followed … anger about what happened and anger toward the people who did this.”

Bock's upset was heightened when, a year and a half later, he attended the trial of the young man who pulled the trigger and who now is incarcerated for his crime.

Albert's birthday is a painful time that Bock tries to balance by arranging celebrations, such as Pirates games or picnics, for family and friends.

Doing something this year to benefit the center will be especially meaningful, he says. “The feelings kind of lessen over time, but I'm not sure they'll ever go away. The center has helped us manage as best we can, and I want to give something back.”

Counseling is one of dozens of services provided by the center, which expanded a year ago after merging with Woman's Place, a McKeesport-based organization that offers victims of domestic violence emergency shelter and transitional housing.

“We're there solely for the victim, so they feel thoroughly safe and informed and know what their rights are,” Tracey Provident, the center's chief program officer, says.

“We serve all of Allegheny County — last year, it was more than 13,000 children and adults — with services ranging from legal advocacy to therapy and counseling to victim compensation.”

About 80 percent of clientele has been referred by police or the Allegheny County district attorney's office, which looks to the center to help victims and their families navigate the legal system.

“They are dealing not only with the impacts of abuse and violence, they're asked to go into a system unknown to them, which can be frightening and intimidating,” Provident says.

Some of the center's programs focus on crime prevention, particularly among at-risk youths. Expect Respect helps teens understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy behavior in dating relationships, while the Victim-Offender Dialogue Program provides eligible juvenile offenders with an alternative to court.

“If their crime wasn't serious, and the victim is willing, they are given an opportunity to sit down together with a trained facilitator and engage in dialogue about the impact of their crime on the victim and the community,” Provident says. “The victim gets a say in what sort of restitution the offender should make, and the offender is given a chance to turn his life around.

“If he genuinely takes responsibility for what he has done, it can be very powerful.”

But crime prevention is a relatively small part of the center's overall mission, and often the first to suffer from funding cuts, which are a constant threat to the agency's $3.5 million operating budget, says Provident, who notes that the center serves clients free of charge.

“Most of what we do is respond to the needs of people who have been victimized by crime,” Provident says, “particularly those involving physical injury.”

Many programs are provided for under the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act of 1987, although the center has been assisting victims of sexual assault since 1983.

Services include 24-hour telephone support, individual and group counseling, and financial assistance with costs incurred by victims, such as crime-scene cleanup, funeral and burial expenses, transportation to and from trial and medical treatment.

The center's victim advocates accompany survivors to court. After a case has been adjudicated, victims can register through the center to be kept informed of a convict's whereabouts and eventual release from prison.

Those who have lost loved ones to crime find their lives are changed forever, and it can take years to process the fallout, says Molly Burke, a licensed social worker and center spokeswoman.

“We help them find a new normal.”

Candace Foster of Homewood-Brushton is receiving center treatment for the trauma she suffered when two nephews were gunned down within a month of each other in 2008. One was killed in front of her in July of that year.

Their deaths reflect a homicide rate among young African-American men in Pittsburgh that is 60 times greater than the city-wide average and 50 times the national average, according to Allegheny County statistics.

“You no longer have a comfort level. You lose that,” Foster, 45, says. “I want to feel normal again, but I can't. I still have anger, and I live in fear for my own children. I need to know where they are at all times.”

Foster only learned of the center this year from the family of another victim, and she says the specialized therapy she now receives has been more effective than help she sought elsewhere.

“They're helping me find answers and understanding,” she says. “They're a blessing, and I thank God they're there, because I needed them.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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