Universiteit Leiden

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While doing research on victimhood, Criminology student Sara suffered a serious injury and became a victim herself

In the middle of doing research for her master’s thesis, Sara Kalf (24) was hit by a car and got seriously injured. After a long period of rehabilitation and hard work, this week she can finally add her signature to the wall of the Academy Building’s ‘Sweat Room’.

‘From day one, I felt at home in Leiden. I was looking forward to studying, but wanted to enjoy everything student life has to offer. I joined Njord rowing club, did various part-time jobs, and became a student ambassador for the Criminology degree programme.’

'Nearly all survivors of homicide victims feel they are not heard and not taken seriously by the police and the judicial authorities'- Sara Kalf

Unsolved homicides

After completing her bachelor’s degree, Sara started a master’s in Forensic Criminology (MSc). As part of her studies, she did an internship with the cold case and missing persons team of the Police in The Hague. Up till then, Sara had mainly been interested in studying offenders. But during her internship, her focus shifted more towards victims. ‘It’s good that there’s more attention for victims in criminology. But there’s not nearly enough research done on victimhood, so there’s a lot to catch up on in that area.’

Sara decided to write her thesis on the topic of how survivors of homicide victims experience the criminal justice system in cold cases. ‘For my research, I interviewed 24 surviving family members in unsolved “homicides”. This is about unsolved cases, so you can’t use the term murder or manslaughter yet.’ Sara discovered that no scientific research in the Netherlands has been conducted on this group. ‘Nearly all survivors of homicide victims feel they are not heard and not taken seriously by the police and the judicial authorities. They face prejudice, a lack of communication, and there was nowhere they could go with their questions. What each and every one of them wanted was better communication and professional support.’

These relatives had all been confronted with a devastating event, the consequences of which still affected them daily. Their lives would never be the same.’ ‘The interviews were really hard to do: we’re talking about the unsolved death of a brother, father or son, for instance. But I gained valuable experience.’

‘I don’t think you’ll ever walk again’

Having completed all the interviews and worked out all her notes, Sara was ready to start writing her thesis. But first, she wanted to go on holiday. It was August 2021. Covid was still around, so the plan was to tour round the Netherlands on a racing bike with a friend. On 3 August, Sara sets off for a trial cycle ride including baggage through the dunes in Wassenaar. It’s almost 14.45 hrs when she’s hit by a car on the Haagse Schouwweg. She was nearly home.

‘I remember seeing the car out of the corner of my eye. It was coming at such a speed. I heard the tyres screeching … and then I hit the ground. I felt pain everywhere except in my legs – I felt nothing at all there. Then everything went black.’

'The friends I’d made over the years in Leiden were there for me when I needed them most, something I’ll never forget.'  - Sara Kalf

She came to in the ambulance. ‘I had a drip in each arm. There was a paramedic sitting beside me. You know what he said? “I don’t think you’ll ever walk again”. I was training almost every day with my rowing team, wanted to graduate, and was just about to start work as a trainee detective – my dream job.’ And in a single moment – over which I had no control – I suddenly found myself in a wheelchair. Of course that has a huge impact on you. I had to learn to live with a new version of myself. And accept that I’d never go back to being the Sara from before that one moment.’

Friends, family and supervisors

Eventually, she decided to finish her thesis. ‘It might sound odd, but when I was writing my thesis, I sort of learned what it feels like to be the victim of something out of your control. I could understand the people I’d interviewed for my research much better now.’

Friends and family helped her through this traumatic period. ‘The guys from my rowing team took me round a zoo in a wheelchair. That was really special. The friends I’d made over the years in Leiden were there for me when I needed them most, something I’ll never forget. And I really appreciated the help I got from the university – especially from my thesis supervisor and study adviser. This marks the end of a special period for me. I hope my research will help improve the position of survivors of homicide victims. It’s mainly for them that I did this research.’

'The legislature must act to give this group of survivors a voice and acknowledge them'

Maarten Kunst, Professor of Criminology: ‘For survivors of the victims of homicide, it’s vital they are heard during the criminal proceedings and that the suffering they have had to go through is acknowledged. This is clear from various studies that have been published in recent decades. So it’s good that the legislature has granted rights to survivors to provide for this. At a trial, for example, they can use the right to speak to tell the judge and others present what impact the death of their loved one has had on them. Unfortunately, this does not apply to the next of kin in cases that have never been solved. After all, these 'cold cases' never make it to court, which means that making use of the right to speak and other types of procedural rights are simply not an option.

Sara’s research shows that the legislature must act to give this group of survivors a voice and acknowledge them, to help them in the complex grieving process they are going through. Currently, this is not being sufficiently achieved and for some next of kin the contact with the police and judicial authorities is downright frustrating and disappointing, for instance because they are not properly informed about the investigation. Sara makes some valuable recommendations in her thesis to improve this.’

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