Dan Burdan is the man who helps keep the justice system from forgetting about the victim.
As the Mansfield police department’s victims assistance coordinator, he makes sure they know about available social services, about financial help from the Texas Crime Victims’ Compensation fund, about upcoming court proceedings for the suspects in the crimes that changed their lives.
But he says he never feels as useful as he does this time of year, when he brings those families together to grieve and reflect as one in front of the Tree of Angels.
“Anybody who has been through it knows you always remember,” Burdan said. “They understand each other. I hate to use the word healing, but it is a healing process. It helps them to move on.”
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The 7 p.m. service Tuesday, Dec. 3 at St. John Lutheran Church, 1218 E. Debbie Lane, will be Mansfield’s 10th year in the Tree of Angels program, founded in Austin in 1991 to reach out to violent-crime victims and their families whose struggles with loss seem magnified during the holiday season.
Several years ago, Burdan also opened his program to families of people who died unexpectedly, as of a heart attack or traffic accident.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.
Mansfield’s Tree of Angels program is open to Tarrant County families, because it’s the only program in the county, but no familes are turned away, Burdan said. There are 37 counties in the state that have at least one such program, according to People Against Violent Crime, an organization that founded Tree of Angels.
Mansfield’s victims assistance program started 11 years ago with a grant that funded a part-time position, for which Burdan was hired. He said the city made room in the budget for a full-time position the following year, and the unit now includes eight volunteers, he said.
Police Chief Gary Fowler said Burdan’s group “bridges a gap between the criminal side and the court side.”
“The criminal justice system sometimes, even for law enforcement personnel, is not easy to navigate through,” Fowler said. “We don’t want the system that’s trying to help a victim to victimize the victim. (Burdan) is a point of compassion and a point of contact.”
The Tree of Angels ceremony is a simple one. Each family brings an ornament representing their loved one to place on a Christmas tree. Then an officer escorts each family to the front of the sanctuary, where they light a candle from the Tree of Angels candle.
“Some people have made their ornaments, and some have bought real nice ones that they have engraved,” Burdan said. “And some just bring pictures in frames. Whatever they want to do is fine with us.”
Last year’s ceremony was the largest to date, hosting about 15 families with 175 individuals, he said. As of Friday, 24 families had responded to his mailed invitations. Families who have never attended can sign up when they get to the church, he added.
They will have a new Christmas tree to hold their ornaments.
“We had to get a new with this year,” he said, “because we just wore out the other one.”
Afterward, the police department provides refreshments to encourage families to get to know each other.
“That’s the most important part as far as I’m concerned, people staying over and talking and sharing stories with each other,” Burdan said. “It’s a healing process.”
There’s no better time of year to provide that opportunity, he added.
“The holidays are especially hard,” he said. “There are some places that some people just don’t want you to talk about people who passed away. They think that’s morbid. This is an opportunity for them to express their continued grief, to talk about their loved one, and be in a safe environment where they know it’s OK to do this.”