Help for the helpers: mental health support following a murder-suicide

June 7, 2024

As the town reels from such sad news as the murder-suicide that occurred in Acton on May 30, people ask questions to try to put order and predictability and, most of all, a sense of safety, back into place. They wish they could turn back time. They wonder what could have been done to change the outcome.

In addition to the acute pain felt by the family and friends, the first responders and the providers who counsel survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse are also deeply disturbed by the events. The Acton Exchange spoke to some of those staff and mental health providers about their work.

Beth Van Emburgh is Acton Police Department’s first full-time Clinical Responder, hired more than two years ago. Van Emburgh has provided ongoing support to Christina’s family and immediate community in the week since May 30 when Juliano Santana apparently killed his stepdaughter, Christina Wilson, and himself. According to a press release published by Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan’s office on the same day as the incident, Wilson had an active restraining order against Santana since 2021 when she had reported that Santana had sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions. The restraining order had been issued by Malden District Court. The trial was scheduled for July 29, 2024.

“First responders are human. They have questions with no answers as well,” Van Emburgh said this week. Following the incident, a process called “Critical Incident Stress Management” took place with the police, fire, and dispatch staff who responded to the call. The two-part process included an initial defusing, on the night of the incident, to allow responders to process the secondary trauma that can be debilitating; and a debriefing Saturday morning, to continue to support the staff in working through the traumatic experience. Specially trained staff from nearby police and fire departments assisted with this process. Police Chief James Cogan said that Critical Incident Debriefs have been done in Massachusetts for about twenty-five years as a necessary first step to allow first responders to deal with their own feelings and stay healthy as they continue to serve the community.

“Frustration is part of the job,” Cogan said. “This incident has taken a huge toll on everyone who works here”–dispatchers, patrol officers, EMT’s, firefighters, and clinicians.

Superintendent of Acton Boxborough Public Schools Peter Light responded to a request for comment from the Acton Exchange about how the schools were handling the painful news. “It was heartbreaking to have learned that one of our high school students died. Our thoughts have been focused on the student, their family, friends, and our staff. We are fortunate that our schools have long worked with regional and national experts in grief trauma to help inform how we can best support our students and staff through this challenging time. We are committed to supporting everyone in the schools. We have been working with counselors at the schools, to support students and staff. This included identifying students and adults in the schools who may need additional support and having communication with them and families. Our school mental health staff will be providing ongoing assistance to anyone who needs it. Our hearts go out to all of those involved with this tragic death.”

Many flowers, stuffed animals, and other items have been placed near the entrance to Christina's home at Pine Hill condominiums.
A memorial to Christina Wilson Photo: Kim Kastens

Jacquelin Apsler, the Executive Director of the Domestic Violence Services Network or DVSN, interviewed this week as well, spoke more generally about domestic violence in our community. She said that people don’t really believe that domestic violence exists in our upscale suburban communities. “ ‘It’s not in my neighborhood/block/town.’ But it is everywhere and it is prevalent. The misogyny in our society is pretty intense. It leads to domestic violence. The abusive person has a sense of entitlement, ownership, believes that everything they do is right. And the message from them is that somehow the victim is doing something wrong.”

She said that coercive control is just as damaging as physical abuse. Her clients report that psychological abuse is often harder to recover from than physical. “The victim feels humiliated, demeaned, second-guessed, never believed…they feel responsible for their own abuse. It defies logic, but this is what our clients tell us: they feel responsible for their own abuse. Children feel helpless and responsible themselves for victimized parents.” Apsler described the toxic environment in a home where there is abuse. That toxicity has long term ill effects on family members’ health. There is also a high correlation between partners abusing their partners and also abusing the children in their care.

“The sadness for me is this young girl had the gumption and courage to report her stepfather. For her to be able to have done that is courageous. The system let them down.” Apsler said that it is hard to get to court. “There had to be good evidence to get to court. The system is not bad in terms of the constitution,” she explained. “We want the accused to be tried fairly.” But, she said, the system is “played” a lot. “Defense attorneys get delays. It is in their client’s best interest to delay, delay, delay. Then the victim and witnesses don’t remember details as well.” Apsler went on to discuss the laws related to reporting, witnesses, and a proposed law “still languishing” in the legislature that would add sexual abuse of children to those situations that trigger a dangerousness hearing that can lead to pretrial incarceration of accused abusers. She discussed the pros and cons of expanding the types of reported crimes that trigger a dangerousness hearing. The Boston Globe reported on the dangerousness hearing legislation on June 6, referring to the Acton murder.

“To report abuse is not common. It is difficult for anyone of any age. Shame is a huge barrier in domestic violence and sexual assault. Your body is the crime scene.” Apsler explained that the victim is the witness. A criminal court case is the Commonwealth against the defendant. “I am amazed by the courage of this girl to be able to accuse him in a way to get it into court.”

“Let’s not let this discourage us from reaching out.” Apsler encouraged people to pay attention to family and friends, and respond to red flags. Then, reach out to the resources with specialized staff. Confidential agencies like DVSN (888-399-6111) can help those living with abuse. For anyone suffering sexual assault, help is available from agencies like the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and the Center for Hope and Healing in Lowell. Those resources can help family members think through questions of advocacy and disclosure, and offer free and confidential support to survivors.

An important message from Apsler to people suffering from abuse: “They do not deserve it. They are not responsible for it, and they are not alone.”

Friends of Christina Wilson and her family have set up a gofundme online fundraiser for financial donations, and have used social media to seek support. In an online obituary, they announced a celebration of Christina’s life on Sunday June 9 at Acton Funeral Home, with public visiting hours from 2-5 pm.

Franny Osman edits, and sometimes writes, for the Acton Exchange.


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