Psych Services: COPS’ retreats a Godsend for line-of-duty death survivors

Lisa Garmezy

There is a place where bereaved kids can go just to be kids. The advocacy group Concerns of Police Survivors offers camps for children and spouses of fallen officers, retreats for family members and co-workers, free training on trauma, and a variety of other services. Among us there are HPD officers and family members who could use their support.

A colleague of mine, licensed clinical social worker Nora Druepple, got involved with COPS when she spent close to 10 years as a victims’ services counselor at the Austin Police Department. She helps at the camp for children and spouses of officers who lost their lives in the line of duty. The annual week she spends with the families is the best work she does all year, she says.

COPS offers specialized programs that address the needs of everyone left behind after a line-of-duty death. There are separate programs – all free – for parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses, co-workers, and partners or fiancées.

An Outward Bound adventure program is designed for teens aged 15-20 who feel they’ve outgrown camp. This year, they’re going whitewater-rafting in Utah. But there’s also a separate Young Adults Camp for the teenaged kids or younger siblings of fallen officers who aren’t the Outward Bound type. Other programs support the adult children of the deceased, and make a Wyoming hunting trip available to families.

A Child’s Experience

Nora told me that when an officer dies, his or her family may seem to lose their “family of blue.” These camps and retreats bring back that support.

What’s amazing, Nora says, is that often, young children come to Kids’ Camp who have been sleeping with Mom since the tragedy happened. “A lot of widows overprotect and over-cling to their kids, understandably,” Nora said. But at camp, Johnny is going to bunk with other six-year olds, and Mom will sleep in a cabin that also houses other adults. As the week goes on, the child who was timid at first will be seen running and screaming as wildly as the other children.

The children can shake off the identity that plagues them in every other setting—being the one who is different, the one whose parent died. At Kids’ Camp, they fit in.

Although Salvation Army volunteers staff the camps, police officers from all over the United States lead activities for the kids and bunk with them as “mentors.” They can’t replace parents, but they can put a police officer role model back in the children’s lives. Moms are glad to have an officer teach their children to fish or throw a football.

The housing for surviving parents or guardians is assigned geographically. For example, one cabin might shelter eight to 10 survivors from California and Oregon. Most, but not all, are widows. The system makes it easier to take the relationships home with you when camp ends, and stay in touch when the losses get too hard to bear.

Since folks do return year after year, widows coming for the third or fourth time reach out to the newcomers. The “seasoned survivors” are living proof that healing is possible.

The children also help each other. Nora, who always has the nine-year-olds, tells returning campers to “take a new kid under your wing.”

My colleague leads daily therapeutic activities aimed at helping children understand family changes and grief—through physical and creative activities, not sitting in a therapist’s office. Classic camp stuff like the Pledge of Allegiance and singing around the campfire is part of the routine. Counseling is available, if it’s wanted.

The Partners Left Behind

I called the national office to get an overview of COPS programs. Sara Slone, director of public relations, said officers are at times a little leery of the retreats: “They think they’re going to sit around and sing Kumbaya.”

She said the organization’s relatively new program for coworkers affected by line-of-duty deaths helps attendees mourn without taking their rage and sorrow out at home. The affected coworker can bring his or her spouse, so that the avalanche of emotions caused by the death brings the couple closer instead of dividing them.

A Broader Perspective

I’ve been around law enforcement since the eighties and I recalled COPS as a small charity. In 1984, COPS served 110 survivors. Today, they are serving 37,000 survivors, and the number continues to grow, boosted by the approximately 150 deaths each year of active officers. More than half of funding comes from the Department of Justice.

Again, any reader troubled by the on-duty loss of a colleague or family member may be eligible for a COPS program. The next co-workers’ retreat will be at a YMCA lodge 90 minutes away from St. Louis, Missouri. All interactions are confidential and no photos are ever posted—but the lodge itself shows up on-line, and it’s stunning.

Others may want to get involved in helping the kids. Both Nora and Ms. Slone said there may not be a significant need for volunteers for camp programs at this time. Help is needed, however, with the trainings and conferences COPS holds, including the upcoming national convention scheduled for Grapevine, Texas, Nov. 11-13.

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