‘Empathetic Pioneer’ Retiring
Kathryn Turman Led Creation, Expansion of FBI’s Victim Services
On the eve of her college commencement in 1976, Kathryn Turman and her roommate—like many of their fellow seniors—pondered how their lives would unfurl in the years ahead.
The roommate dreamed of being a teacher and followed that path. Turman, who majored in sociology, wasn’t as certain about the way forward. But she had an earnest goal: “I knew I wanted my life to be more than just long,” she said. “It was a desire to make a contribution.”
Now, on the verge of her retirement as assistant director of the FBI’s Victim Services Division (VSD), Turman is arguably the Bureau’s most consistently called-upon contributor. She presided over the FBI’s victim-centered responses to every major case since 9/11, including the Boston Marathon bombings, multiple mass-casualty shootings, international kidnappings and murders, and scores of federal crimes.
Her division ensures that crime victims in FBI cases are tended to and provided resources—as required by federal law. It has grown under her watch from a handful of well-intentioned staff to a world-renowned corps of more than 300 specially trained personnel.
“I’m very proud of where VSD has come and the people that are a part of it,” said Turman. “I think building the team that I have—and I haven't done it alone—and professionalizing and hiring good people and letting them do their work and develop the program—that’s what I’m most proud of.”
9/11 a Turning Point
Turman, who retires at the end of the month, joined the FBI in January 2002 at the urging of then-Director Robert S. Mueller, who was immersed in the FBI’s response to the 9/11 attacks. At the time, the Bureau’s victim assistance team was a small, mostly ad hoc group and was ill-prepared to adequately support the thousands of victims of the terrorist attacks in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Turman and Mueller had worked together in the mid-‘90s when she ran the Victim Witness Assistance Unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, where Mueller was a prosecutor. Their paths crossed again for the trial in 2000 of two suspects in the bombing of a U.S. airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, which Mueller had prosecuted in the early ‘90s. As head of the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) at the time, it was Turman’s charge to make sure the families of the bombing’s American victims were well-served during the eight-month trial, held in the Netherlands. Turman arranged for travel for family members and secure closed-circuit viewing in the U.S., which at the time was unprecedented.
Having seen Turman’s work first-hand, Mueller hand-picked her to shepherd and modernize the FBI’s under-resourced victim assistance program.
Director Robert S. Mueller brought Kathryn Turman on board at the FBI in January 2002 to help expand the Office for Victim Assistance in the wake of 9/11. Mueller and Turman had worked together in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., and again during the trial in 2000 of suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
“The victim assistance plan she developed for the Lockerbie prosecution became the backbone of the FBI’s approach to supporting victims of terrorism and federal crime.”
Robert S. Mueller, FBI Director, 2001-2013
“Kathryn already understood the unique challenges of a global terrorism investigation with victims all over the world,” Mueller said recently. “The victim assistance plan she developed for the Lockerbie prosecution became the backbone of the FBI’s approach to supporting victims of terrorism and federal crime.”
While at the Justice Department, Turman had helped the FBI lay the groundwork for a more expansive victim-witness program using proceeds from seized criminal assets under the Victims of Crime Act. The funding stream—still in place today—included hiring dedicated victim specialists in all 56 field offices, along with a smaller number of specialists trained to interview children.
Before joining the FBI, Kathryn Turman led the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) under Attorney General Janet Reno.
In 2000, as head of OVC, Turman ensured families of victims in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie Scotland, had access to the trial, in person or over remote video. The eight-month trial was held in a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands.
In 2018, Turman and FBI Director Christopher Wray presided over the dedication of a plaque at FBI Headquarters marking 30 years since the bombing over Lockerbie. The case remains open, and VSD continues to keep victims' families informed of updates. Also present were (from left) Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable Johnny Gwynne, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Scotland Solicitor General Allison di Rollo, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, and FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.
A Culture Change
While the immediate challenge in 2002 was serving the victims and families affected by the 9/11 attacks (which continues to this day), establishing the new Office for Victim Assistance (OVA) ran into some early hurdles. Turman, a trained social worker, established new criteria for onboard and prospective victim specialists that included, at a minimum, a college degree in a social or behavioral science and three years of experience serving victims. Requiring everyone to re-apply for their jobs was not wholly embraced; some felt forced out of positions they loved. Others, meanwhile, rose to the challenge and pursued and finished degrees.
“It was a little bit controversial,” Turman said. “It was painful for some people. But we tried to be as fair as possible, and I think the results have spoken for themselves, because we have a highly professional workforce of victim service providers. They’re well-respected, and the reputation of the program is pretty high. And that’s the quality of people we have and the way they work.”
With the structural pieces coming together, OVA also had to overcome a less tangible but nagging obstacle: culture. Some agents fretted that victim specialists would impede their investigations or drain resources.
“I had one special agent in charge tell me, ‘We are not a social work agency. We’re law enforcement. We lock people up. We don't hug people,’” Turman recalled. “We had a big fight with some offices because we hired the victim specialists and they would start giving them all these other duties.”
Michael Mason remembered being among the early skeptics, even as an executive assistant director.
“My first thought was, ‘Is this really a core function of the FBI?’ I just initially thought it was in the social services bucket,” said Mason, who spent 23 years with the Bureau before retiring in 2007. “I felt like after we interviewed victims, we were basically done.”
After meeting with Kathryn and learning about how deeply victims can be affected by law enforcement interviews and death notifications, he realized the program’s value. Meanwhile, evidence has shown that good victim-oriented programs can result in better witnesses, which can translate into stronger cases and outcomes.
“I came to a whole different understanding of the program and its objectives,” Mason said.
“My first thought was, ‘Is this really a core function of the FBI?’ I just initially thought it was in the social services bucket.”
Michael Mason, retired FBI executive assistant director
For Robert Anderson, Jr., an executive assistant director who retired in 2015, developing and nurturing a program supporting crime victims was a no-brainer. In 1987, when he was a Delaware State Trooper, two of his close relatives were killed and their child was kidnapped. He said that his interactions with investigators, including the FBI agents who helped arrest the suspect and return the missing child, had a profound and lasting effect on him, including his interest in a career in the Bureau.
“I told Kathryn when I first came into the FBI that I had a unique perspective on it,” said Anderson, an agent for 21 years. “Obviously, I was extremely supportive of the program.”
Growing and Evolving
The program has continued to grow and expand, spinning up a rapid deployment team of victim specialists, analysts, and agents in 2005 who can fly anywhere in the U.S., on short notice, to manage on-scene victim services and support. A mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017, for example, required an unprecedented response because of the large number of victims—59 killed and more than 850 injured.
OVA evolved into the Victim Services Division, which has managed 30 mass casualty responses and served more than 1.8 million victims since 2005. The most frequent cases include violent crimes against children, bank robberies, financial crimes, and violent crimes on Indian reservations. In addition to ensuring victims are connected to direct services, the Victim Services Response Team also cleans, catalogs, and manages the return of personal effects—which can number in the thousands—left behind at crime scenes.
“People have different time frames that they recover or cope with these things,” said Turman. “But it’s that immediate aftermath—if you do it well—it helps people on the road to coping and to kind of adjusting to life afterwards.”
Kathryn Turman at FBI Headquarters with VSD staff and Linda Milanesi (left) and Jill Felice (right), whose non-profit trained the division's crisis response canines, Wally and Gio.
Today, about 171 victim specialists work out of 56 field offices, while teams at FBI Headquarters manage programs for families of terrorism victims, child sex-abuse victims, and a national Victim Notification Service that provides ongoing and timely updates on cases. In 2015, Turman added two crisis response canines to the VSD ranks to help ease stress during call-outs.
Michele Stewart, a victim specialist in the Salt Lake City Field Office whose responsibilities include large swaths of rural Montana, was one of the Bureau’s original victim specialists. She has seen the full sweep of changes since Turman’s arrival in 2002 and her influence at the highest levels of government.
“Kathryn’s charge when she came to the FBI was to build a highly capable, professional workforce,” Stewart said. “And more than just a letter—I mean really having an ability to do more, not less, and not the bare minimum. To have that kind of vision to create change on a macro level inside an organization that’s very old and sometimes archaic and sometimes male-dominated—and to do that from a non-agent perspective—was really significant.”
Achieving Her Mission
FBI Headquarters is a long way from the University of Texas at Austin, where the young idealist wondered more than 40 years ago what kind of contribution she would make.
Former Director Mueller called her an “empathetic pioneer,” a trait that may have revealed itself in Turman’s youth—when she volunteered at women’s shelters and camps for disabled kids—and set her on a career of public service for those who need it most.
“It’s been the greatest honor of my life to lead this program,” Turman said. “And I’ve had great support from people across the Bureau who understand why it’s so important.”
“Kathryn has touched so many people in a profound, meaningful, and lasting way.”
Christopher Wray, FBI Director
Kathryn Turman speaks at an event at FBI Headquarters in 2018.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said Turman and VSD are reminders that serving victims is always at the heart of the FBI’s work. Wray invoked novelist Ray Bradbury to describe Turman’s lasting impression on the Bureau. The author wrote:
“It doesn’t matter what you do … so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and the real gardener is in the touching. The lawn-cutter might as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
“Kathryn has touched so many people in a profound, meaningful, and lasting way,” Wray said. “She’s a true gardener who has cultivated kindness, caring, and professionalism throughout her career, and her legacy will be with all of us long after she leaves the FBI.”
Mueller, who served as Director from 2001 to 2013, said helping others is part of Turman’s nature.
“She is compassionate in the fullest sense of the word,” said Mueller. “Kathryn doesn’t observe the suffering of others; she enters into it. She accompanies victims both outwardly and inwardly. She has borne witness to the unimaginable pain of countless victims.”
“There will always be suffering,” Mueller added, “but Kathryn will not rest until she has done her best to prevent and prepare for it. She’s a trailblazer, undaunted by the challenge of creating something from nothing, and turning that something into the best in the world.”