I Was the Victim of a Crime. Then the System Left Me to Fend for Myself.

After a carjacking, I had to navigate a chaotic patchwork of resources in search of support. To heal, I would take recovery into my own hands.

I Was the Victim of a Crime. Then the System Left Me to Fend for Myself.

After a carjacking, I had to navigate a chaotic patchwork of resources in search of support. To heal, I would take recovery into my own hands.

Before moving to Omaha in 2021 to take a job as a local reporter, I spent hours on the city’s crime-mapping website, looking up the address of every rental I was interested in. It was my second job out of graduate school, and I was preparing to move to a new city alone.

Seven months after I arrived in Omaha, a carjacking turned me into a statistic on the map. In the aftermath, I was forced to navigate a chaotic system in search of help, all while in a state of terror, confusion, and frustration. The entire experience was isolating. Although I did receive some support from city-funded victim services, I encountered major obstacles that make these services difficult to access.

After taking some time and distance to recover from the trauma, I began to see the bigger picture: This system fails many victims of crime, leaving them to struggle largely on their own.

It started with a knock on my passenger-side window last summer. It was around 9 a.m. I was stopped at an intersection near my home, waiting for a pedestrian to cross the street. He had his shoes in his hand. After making eye contact, he approached my car and asked for a lift to a gas station up the street.

I hesitated, but I knew I’d probably feel bad if I said no. Part of me wanted to help a fellow person of color. I had never given a stranger a ride before. “What’s the chance something bad happens the first time?” I asked myself.
Another knock on the window.

It’d be really shitty if I just drove off, I thought.

I unlocked the door. He opened it and slid into my back seat.

We didn’t talk. Two minutes later, I pulled off the busy road by the gas station and put my blinkers on.

“We’re here,” I said.

Instead of thanking me and getting out, he said, “Go to Domino’s, get out of the car, and leave the key inside.” He was nervously holding a snowbrush he’d picked up off the back seat of my car.

I knew I was in trouble. My next thought: I didn’t have comprehensive insurance and couldn’t afford to lose my car.

I made a split-second decision and pulled into the gas station instead of the empty Domino’s parking lot. I ripped the keys out of the ignition and ran as fast as I could.

He caught up to me and tried to pry the keys out of my hands. I yelled for help, hoping I could stall him until someone intervened.

He shoved me to the ground, called me a “bitch,” and yanked at the key ring, before biting my finger hard enough to crack my nail. I was too terrified to fight back.

Finally, he was able to tear the keys out of my loosened grip. He got into my car, but bystanders surrounded the vehicle. He got out and took off on foot. Someone called the police.

Officers came a few minutes later. They quickly tracked down the suspect and took him into custody. The police would later tell me that the person I thought I was helping was actually a 14-year-old who was living at a nearby shelter that served system-involved youth.

I asked an officer what would happen to the teenager. Along with the question, a jumble of words came out: I blamed myself for having given him a ride. I worried about running into him again, knowing we lived in the same neighborhood. I hoped he could get the help he needed.

Seeing my distress, an officer eventually handed me a card with the number for a trained mental health professional embedded in the Omaha Police Department. He told me I could call within the next 90 days to get free counseling.

With that, the police let me go, with no further instructions or information about what to expect. I clutched the business card and a slip of paper with a case number on it. The door of my car was still covered in the black dust the officers had used to lift fingerprints.


Officers inspect the author’s vehicle after a carjacking in 2022.
Yanqi Xu

When I got home, I was overcome by feelings of guilt, stress, and sadness. I called the number on the card the officer had given me and started crying immediately. Talking to someone after this traumatic incident helped immensely. I realized I may have never known about this resource had that officer not handed me the card.

In the following days, I tried to go back to my normal life. But I started having flashbacks and panic attacks. I was too afraid to go past the scene of the crime. I called the police department’s mental health provider a second time, and she told me about crime victim advocates, who counsel victims and provide them with resources and information. I was able to track down the Nebraska Crime Victim’s Reparations program, a state initiative created to help people cover expenses in the aftermath of a crime, such as medical and mental health costs.

I reached out, but a program administrator later told me that I didn’t qualify for services because of my immigration status. (I was on a student visa at the time, in the process of transitioning to a work visa.)

This is a common problem, according to Misty Rowley, the program director of a regional office of the nonprofit Bright Horizons, which provides support to domestic and sexual violence survivors in Nebraska. She said in an interview that more than a third of their clients don’t qualify for the state’s victim compensation program because of their immigration status. As a result, the organization has had to look for alternative funds and programs to assist them.

The failure to support crime survivors is a much broader problem in Nebraska. As my Flatwater Free Press colleague Sara Gentzler reported this year, the Nebraska Crime Commission approved only 118 of the 215 applications for assistance submitted between 2019 and 2021. In some cases, the commission denied applications after concluding the victim had played a role in the violence against them.

In the midst of loss or trauma, being told that you don’t qualify for help can be demoralizing and disruptive to an already destabilized life.

Gentzler said victim advocates have told her that they sometimes hesitate to tell victims to apply for assistance because of the program’s stringent requirements and high rates of denial.

After the letdown of speaking with Nebraska Crime Victim’s Reparations, I was forced to accept that I was likely on my own. I would have sought out in-person therapy if I had qualified for the program, but instead I tried to bury my thoughts and feelings and focus on other things.

The carjacking was just bad luck, I told myself—a freak incident not worth dwelling on. But, as time passed, I thought more about what I’d been through and realized that my experience of neglect after victimization was far from uncommon.

A 2022 national survey of crime victims found that 96 percent of respondents didn’t receive compensation. Only one in four said they found law enforcement helpful in providing information about recovery and support services. Despite high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among victims of crime, about 74 percent of respondents said they didn’t receive any counseling or mental health support.

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Months after my ordeal, a friend of mine, Aarushi Sahejpal, who was pursuing a master’s degree in data science at American University, was carjacked at gunpoint in Washington, D.C. Upon seeing trans flag pins on his bag, the perpetrators spewed hateful slurs, threw him out of his car, and drove off with his computer and phone, he recalled.

As Aarushi was sitting on a curb, feeling traumatized and alone, responding police officers kept asking him why he didn’t look like the photo on his government-issued ID and why he was driving on that street at night.

Instead of telling him that they would try to find his car, the police officers read him a disclaimer stating that they might not be able to recover his property. It felt “robotic in the worst way,” Aarushi said. The police questioned him for four hours, and then told him to take a cab home, even though it was past midnight. They eventually agreed to give him a ride, but he essentially had to beg, he said.

In recent years, many law enforcement agencies have ramped up trauma-informed training for officers, which involves identifying and understanding trauma responses in victims, guiding them through the investigation process, and connecting them with resources for recovery. Still, victim advocates and mental health professionals told me that victims often describe feeling retraumatized during police investigations, especially when officers fail to reassure them or make them feel disbelieved.

A victim advocate might have been able to help Aarushi, but he hadn’t even heard the term until I mentioned it. Officers didn’t tell him about mental health support or victim assistance resources, he said. Instead, he used up the eight free counseling sessions his university offered. After that, he was on his own.

“Survivors typically have to seek out the resources and information for themselves following a crisis or emergency situation,” said Kathryn Welsh, vice president of programs at the Women’s Center for Advancement, an Omaha-based organization that supports survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

The systems that do help victims work best when they’re fully integrated to provide a full spectrum of services, Welsh said.

“We try to take a holistic approach … so that our clients don’t have to think of every single thing that they’ll need as a result of being victimized and then seek them out,” she said.

Weeks after Aarushi’s carjacking, police pulled over someone driving his car. The exterior was busted up. Inside, it looked like the perpetrators had thrown a party. Aarushi drove it back from the tow yard. In order to get his insurance to cover repairs, he had to submit evidence that the damage had resulted from a crime.

When Aarushi went to the police station to pick up a copy of the police report for his insurance claim, he saw a flier about the Crime Victims Assistance program. The police told him he probably wouldn’t qualify. They didn’t say why, but it was enough to dissuade him from looking into it further. He had enough on his plate as it was.

“Maybe I qualified,” Aarushi said. “But after something so traumatic, the act of trying to go through five steps to get support was … the last thing on the list.”

Rowley, of Bright Horizons, is a survivor herself and understands the struggle. The culture expects you to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps … suck it up and deal with it,” she said.

Aarushi was able to bounce back. He rewrote his thesis after losing it in the carjacking, graduated, and became one of the youngest professors at American University.

But he felt frustrated about the lack of support he received, he said. “You can set up a program, but it’s a program within a system that has failed,” Aarushi said. “It’s like a Band-Aid over the bullet wound.”

Soon after my case, I checked the crime map near my apartment. A yellow dot had popped up on the corner where I had become a victim and a survivor. The description under it read, “carjacking attempt.”

But those two words didn’t capture the entirety of what had happened that morning. A struggling kid had committed a desperate act of violence. And I, in turn, had been left to fend for myself as I tried to work through the resulting trauma.

I was eager to find closure and move on. In some sense, I did. I regained most of the function in my finger after multiple physical therapy sessions, which my health insurance covered. My nail grew back. I replaced the scratched glass on my watch. I moved to a different part of town.

But moving forward mentally was a longer process. As a journalist, I wanted to know what had happened to my attacker. As a survivor, I was terrified of asking these questions.

It took a year before I finally mustered the courage to call the county attorney’s office to ask what had happened to the teenager.

He had received a psychiatric evaluation and treatment at a residential care center, Laura Lemoine, the prosecutor who handled his case, told me. It turned out that he had suffered from past abuse and intense mental health struggles. In many ways, he was also a victim who, like me, had fallen through the cracks in the system. This sort of history is quite common, according to Lemoine.

“It’s very rare that we have a kid who commits a robbery and they haven’t experienced some kind of trauma,” she said.

After proper treatment, the teenager seemed “like a totally different kid,” Lemoine added.

She told me that she could ask the teenager to write to me to apologize and tell me how he’s doing. I haven’t decided what to do. But it’s comforting to know that I have an opportunity to pursue a form of restorative justice. After a year of healing, we now have the potential to address the harm caused and to change the dynamics between a victim and perpetrator.

Just hearing that I had options helped me take a big step toward reclaiming my autonomy and getting closure. Though, once again, the victim support system did nothing to offer this proactively. It was entirely on me to search out those options.

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