Victim’s Impact Panel Helps Healing Process

Many participants are sullen, angry, perhaps quietly complaining when they report to the auditorium. They also are short $50 — their admission fee to the seminar. They are there because they are following a court order as part of the restitution they must make.
Failure to comply would mean even more penalties resulting from their DUI offense — Driving Under the Influence.
Despite their initial attitude about attending the 90-minute Victims Impact Panel session, most have changed dramatically at the end, according to Penny Gooch, assistant director, who has dual roles as offender coordinator and school coordinator.
Sessions are held on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at the Tulsa Fire Department Training Center, 1760 Newblock Park Drive.
Gooch is a regional director with an office in Drumright.
Other offices are in Ada, Guthrie and Atoka. The home office is in Edmond.
The organization’s mission statement is: ‘‘to prevent young people from making dangerous choices; to reform offenders through awareness, and to promote healing in panelists who participate.’’
The program is a combination of a video presentation and a panel discussion.
Three people serve on the panel. One is a family member of someone killed in an accident involving a drunk driver. The second is a member of the emergency team called to wreck sites. The third is a person driving the vehicle that was involved in the fatal accident. The single purpose is to promote healing for all involved, including those in the audience who might have been involved in a wreck where someone was killed.
‘‘We want people to see the impact of bad choices they made,’’ Gooch said. ‘‘This is a hard program, extremely hard to go through. It generally is not open to the public, but an offender can bring a guest for a $5 fee.’’
Since this is a court-ordered attendance, it is hard to really determine the overall atmosphere, she continued. Some participants probably are a more hard-hearted than others. Most of the time those attitudes soften and change when the program ends.
A video is shown to open the meeting, she said. They do not see pictures of fatal accidents or related gore. They do see relationships of life and love and how one bad choice change the lives of many people.
Gooch’s voice softened and her eyes misted as she talked about her own experience.
Her identical twin sister Paula was killed by a drunk driver, six weeks before graduation from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.
The time, 8:33 p.m., March 29, 1993, is forever burned in Penny’s mind. They had grown up in Poteau and together attended Northeastern. Both were married. Penny had a child, a nine-month-old son. Paula had no children.
Paula and her husband had moved to Miami where he had a coaching job. As a result, the twin made the commute each day to attend classes.
‘‘Paula got out of my car in Tahlequah the evening of March 29 as to go to her home in Miami,’’ Penny said. ‘‘I was the last member of the family to see her alive.’’
The fatal crash occurred as she was driving through Grove.
Gooch endured a deep personal pain for more than two years after her sister’s death, getting involved in VIP in October, 1995. It was a year later that she made her first presentation to an assembly. It would be 2000 before she became an employee.
This Victim Impact Panel seminar is a time for healing for victims, she said. It is an opportunity to meet someone who is truly sorry for that bad decision. The healing process continues even though the individual causing the crash might not have expressed any remorse.
‘‘It always has puzzled me why a victim needs to hear the ‘I’m sorry’ from someone, but they do,’’ Gooch continued.
Input from emergency personnel are a vital part of the picture because they often are the last people providing care and comfort to the crash victim, she said. It is wonderful to know others give a loved one the wonderful support, especially in the last moment of their life.
An offender participating on the panel provides relief and healing to victims because they are able to show and say they are sorry for what a family has gone through. They realize that because that but for that bad choice, a person would still be alive.
Gooch, who also coordinates public education generally through school assemblies, says the Victims Impact Panel program also is open to anyone interested in the discussion.
‘‘We just want people to come and be informed about the tragedy an drunk driver can cause,’’ she said. When the program is presented to high school students it is possible to hear a pin drop in the auditorium. Students have called the presentation ‘‘intense.’’
Several admitted they had been drinking and driving, adding ‘‘I will never do it again.’’
There is no way to know how many people might have changed their action in the future, Gooch said. But it does give them something to think about.
Recalling Paula, Gooch said she continues to think about her sister.
‘‘Just because someone is dead doesn’t mean you don’t stop loving them,’’ she continued. ‘‘She was and is my twin.’’
Many of those first coming through the door with those surly, angry demeanors leave with their attitudes softened, she said. Some left vowing never again to make the bad decision of drinking and driving.

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