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A guide to help victims of crime express themselves

The Quebec association for the families of missing and murdered people has just released a guide for victims of violence and their families on how to prepare and present a victim impact statement.

Guide for loved ones on how to write and present a victim impact statement in court is now available

Darlene Ryan has prepared three victim impact statements since the death of her stepdaughter, Brigitte Serre, in 2006. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

It's one of the most difficult things a family member of a victim of crime can do — stand up in court, face the person who was the source of their trauma, and talk about how their life has been torn apart.

That's exactly what Darlene Ryan had to do in December 2007 when she delivered her victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing for Sébastien Simon, the man who killed her 17-year-old stepdaughter, Brigitte Serre.

"Brigitte was not killed by a simple blow, but rather in a violent way that even an animal would not do. Seventy-two stab wounds is barbaric. We must not give [Simon] the opportunity to kill another innocent victim," wrote Ryan in her statement.

Writing the statement was an unenviable and painful task for Ryan, who would later write two more in a bid to keep her stepdaughter's killer in prison.

"I'm used to speaking in public, but I've never been so terrified in all my life to deliver that message," said Ryan.

"It took me three days to write it, to proofread it, to edit it, to crumple up the paper, throw it in the garbage. Three boxes of Kleenex. It just drags everything up."

Ryan is also a spokesperson for a Quebec association for the families of missing and murdered people, known by its French acronym, AFPAD. Her organization has just released a guide for victims of violence and their families on how to prepare and present a victim impact statement.

She says it's an important step for victims and their families to be able to process an injustice.

"It's our final time, our only time, where we say how we feel. To put a loving face to the crime photo," said Ryan.

Guide has tips on how to write, deliver statement

The 65-page document, funded by the federal Department of Justice, was released this week in conjunction with Victim and Survivors of Crime week. The English version of the guide is in the works and will be available this summer.

The booklet involved the collaboration of victims groups, psychologists, and retired a Quebec court judge.

It has chapters on the history of the victim impact statement, as well as information on how to write the document and, if they decide to do so, read it in court.

There are also examples of actual victim impact statements delivered in court and before the Parole Board of Canada.

Quebec's crime victims assistance centre (CAVAC) helped with the writing of the guide. The group accompanies victims of crime through the judicial process.

Marilyne Cléroux-Desmarais, a councillor who works on homicide files with CAVAC, said it can be an important tool for people having difficulty expressing themselves.

"It's a syndrome of the blank page. People did not know what to write," she said.
Victim councillor Marilyne Cléroux-Desmarais says the guide can help victims get past the blank page when writing their victim impact statement. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

Cléroux-Desmarais says the guide will act as a tool to help people focus their thoughts and emotions into an effective document.

Understanding the situation

Retired Quebec court judge Nicole Gibeault penned a section on the rights of victims to deliver a statement and the impact that statement can have.

Gibeault says she remembers early in her career on the bench when the victim impact statement was two yellow forms, filled out front and back, that the Crown prosecutor handed over before sentencing.

Sometimes she would get it, but other times she never saw it, she said.

"[Judges] wanted to know what [the impact on the victim] was," said Gibeault.

"Sometimes, we read the next day in the paper that the parents, or the husband, or the wife, they had a reaction to the sentence, and they were never asked to be in court. They were never asked for anything, and I was astonished."

Gibeault says the statements allow judges to understand what family members and loved ones have lived through. Judges can use the statement when determining aggravating factors during sentencing but not when determining the length of a sentence, she said.

Retired Quebec court judge Nicole Gibeault, who now works as a columnist, wrote a section of the guide. (Submitted by Nicole Gibeault)

"We all need that as judges, to understand what is their situation — the impact of that kind of loss. It's not a disease, it's a shock," she said.

Gibeault still she still gets the shivers when she recalls the case of a mother reading her victim impact statement after her son died in a drag racing accident. The teen was the passenger in the vehicle of the youth found guilty of dangerous driving.

The mother told the story of finding her severely injured and dying son at the hospital.

"He was asking the mother 'Please, please, don't let me die,'" said Gibeault. She said she had to stop court because everyone in the courtroom was in tears.

"That helped me understand … the impact on the mother that specific day."

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