Chapter V
Long-term Victim Needs

A Summary of Victims' Long-term Needs

The years following the Oklahoma City bombing have revealed the often ravaging emotional effects of exposure to traumatized victims and the importance of providing ongoing intervention and emotional support to disaster victims, including secondary and tertiary victims. The following victim needs have been recognized during this phase of the bombing recovery:

  • Long-term mental health services for posttraumatic responses to the criminal event.*

  • Education of managers and employees to understand posttraumatic stress disorder and to support victims who are returning to the workplace.

  • Recognition of restitution for victims.

  • Participation in decisionmaking processes when possible.

  • Ongoing information about posttrial events.

*Long-term posttraumatic responses can be triggered by anniversaries, memorial events, reminders of slain colleagues in the workplace, birthdays, or birth of a second child.

Ongoing Mental Health Support

For many individuals associated with the events of April 19, 1995, the bombing was a life-altering event (Kight, 1998). Long after the last piece of rubble was hauled away, the disaster continues to propel many primary, secondary, and tertiary victims17 into grief, bouts of severe depression, substance abuse, rage, domestic violence, and stress-related physical disorders. Nightmares, loss of short-term memory, hallucinations, and a recurrent sense of "going insane" are among the symptoms reported by individuals whose lives were relatively untroubled and productive before the bombing.

An often overlooked population affected by the Oklahoma City bombing includes those who responded to the crime and offered some measure of assistance with the rescue-and-recovery efforts. Along with working under very difficult and dangerous conditions, some rescue workers were injured and many handled bodies or body parts. As a direct result of their experiences in Oklahoma City, experts predict as much as 20 percent of the 12,984 rescue workers and volunteers may need help in dealing with the psychological impact (Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, May 31, 1998).

New emotional pressures arose when the pace of work with bombing victims slowed and employees returned to "normal" work and family conditions. The difficulty of this transition is widely acknowledged by mental health experts (Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, May 31, 1998) but considerably less recognized by employers and supervisors.

Quote from American Psychological AssociationWith research confirming the intense psychological impact of intentional disasters on communities and individuals (Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, May 31, 1998), Oklahoma City faced a long-term need for mental health services. Mental health specialists identify four phases of recovery from a disaster. The experiences of many Oklahoma City bombing victims seemed to mirror these phases. The first phase is the "Heroic" phase. It occurs at the time of impact and is marked by courageous efforts. The second phase is the "Honeymoon" period. During this time individuals receive attention and assistance and feel somewhat optimistic. The third phase is the "Disillusionment" phase, and it is marked by the realization that things will never be the same and loved ones are not coming back. Experts say that every effort should be made to ensure victims arrive at the fourth phase, the "Reconstruction" phase, within 5 years. After 5 years, it is far more difficult for individuals to overcome the psychological impact of a criminal disaster (Faberow and Frederick, 1978).18

Efforts to help with these long-term symptoms included special services for first responders, consideration of some form of restitution for the victims, and postconviction notification of victims.

Assistance to First Responders

The Critical Incident Workshops began in 1996, and OVC awarded $356,000 through a Victims of Crime Act grant in June 1998. These workshops are designed to help first responder victims address the difficulty they may feel in acknowledging their emotional needs.

Participants in the Critical Incident Workshops come from fire, police, and sheriff departments; the Highway Patrol; federal and state law enforcement; and FEMA search-and-rescue teams. Workshop participants have also included chaplains, mental health professionals, survivors, and family members of victims. For 3 days, workshop participants work through "the ravages of trauma" in small group settings. Sessions are offered in safe, supportive environments in which everybody present has an opportunity to share their similar experiences. The ability to talk about traumatic experiences with colleagues appears to be very helpful to rescue and other public safety personnel who are traditionally reluctant to acknowledge the profound effects of what they have seen and done.19 Sometimes this reluctance to acknowledge and address symptoms of stress is reinforced by agency policies that penalize employees who seek psychological help, labeling them "unfit for duty." Twenty-eight workshops have been held since the VOCA grant in 1998 began with a total of 255 participants: 168 rescue workers, 27 survivors, 28 family members, 26 volunteers, and 6 others (King, January-March 2000).

Many of the rescue personnel, for whom the workshops were primarily designed, reported overwhelming relief at the opportunity to unburden themselves and to voice the guilt they felt for "not doing enough" to save those who died in the bombing. Often the response of rescuers is to keep silent, believing their families should be protected from the horrible images imprinted in their memories. It was reported that after sharing at the workshop, many returned home with new hope for healing and recovery.20 A surprising benefit from the workshops, which was reported by participants from different agencies, was that, as they expressed similar fears and hardships, they discovered a kinship and a bond not shared before. OVC funding is making it possible to offer free workshops in Oklahoma, Maryland, and California, allowing all the rescue team members who came from distant states to attend.


Restitution for victims presented complications for both victims and the prosecution team, given the number of victims, the lack of defendant assets, and disparate criminal sentences. No monetary restitution was sought in either the McVeigh case in which Timothy McVeigh received a death sentence or the Nichols case. Defendant Terry Nichols had some assets in property, but the total value was too small to permit valuable distribution among eligible victims. Nichols' sentence of life imprisonment, however, presented the possibility of financial earnings in the future through publication of a book. In addition to 18 U.S.C. 3681, which does not allow criminals to profit from their crimes, prosecutors proposed a restitution plan calling for the donation of any funds earned by Nichols to the U.S. Department of Justice's Crime Victims Fund. The sum, $14 million, allocated for Nichols' restitution obligation represented the cost of rebuilding the Murrah Building.21 To determine an equitable solution to the question of restitution in this particular case, prosecutors polled the victims for answers. The victims agreed to waive their statutory rights to individual restitution payments, acknowledging no amount of money could conceivably restore them.22

Postconviction Notification of Victims

The end of a trial and sentencing are not the end of the criminal justice process. Federal law requires federal officials to notify victims of a defendant's posttrial status including parole hearings, any type of release of the defendant (including escape), and the death of the defendant while in custody. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) operates a notification program to meet this responsibility. The BOP notification program is strictly voluntary, and victims can enroll through the U.S. Attorney's Office. In addition, the 2000 edition of the Attorney General Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance states that prosecuting offices should make reasonable efforts to inform victims about post-sentencing legal proceedings including appeals and habeas corpus petitions. In the Oklahoma City bombing case, the Attorney Liaison continued to notify victims about the status of the appeals and habeas petitions filed by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

Quote from "The Blast Fallout," USA Today, August 4, 1998Newly drafted U.S. Department of Justice regulations also include victims in the pardon and clemency processes followed by DOJ's Office of the Pardon Attorney. The regulations provide for victim notification of the filing of a petition for pardon or clemency, the opportunity to submit a written statement or make an oral statement to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and notice of the final decision. At the time of this report, those regulations had not been finalized. In cases involving the death penalty, such as that of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, victims may request the opportunity to be present and observe the defendant's execution. In a terrorism case with hundreds or thousands of victims, developing a fair procedure for victims to view the execution presents another challenge to ensuring victims' rights.

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Responding to Terrorism Victims: Oklahoma City and Beyond October 2000