Several Naperville police officers spent part of a late August morning comforting a young Olivia Dworakowski, who had gotten lost on her first day of kindergarten.
They never imagined two months later they would find her again, this time as a victim to one of the city's most horrific crimes.
Police Chief Bob Marshall said 20 to 30 Naperville officers were sent to Brookdale Elementary School on Aug. 23 to help find the 5-year-old, who had become separated from her class. Marshall said investigators eventually found a frightened Olivia in a nearby classroom and reunited her with her class.
"They were successful, and several of our officers met Olivia on that day and they had lunch with her," Marshall said. "Those officers told me she was a sweet, loving little girl."
Some of those same officers immediately recognized Olivia at the gruesome crime scene they encountered late Tuesday night on the 800 block of Quin Road.
Olivia was stabbed 50 times and her throat was slashed in the Tuesday night rampage that also left 7-year-old Justin Plackowski and two dogs dead in her home.
Elzbieta Plackowska, 40, of Naperville, is charged with both murders and is being held without bail in DuPage County jail.
"Several of the investigators who went to Brookdale on that August morning are the same investigators that are working this case," Marshall said. "They were not the first to find her, but they were working the crime scene throughout the day."
As if the crime weren't tragic enough, Marshall said the officers' connection to Olivia only made matters worse. He called it the "most gruesome and horrific crime scene" he has ever witnessed.
"This is a very stressful time for our department, as you can imagine. This was a horrific crime scene, and we're processing that," he said. "It takes time. We do have a crisis team that will meet with all of us."
In times of immense stress and trauma, including this one, the department calls on the Northern Illinois Critical Incident Stress Management Team. The nonprofit group of mental health professionals and fellow law-enforcement workers serves departments throughout nine counties in the Chicago region, including DuPage.
The organization will aim to help officers who may experience emotional, behavioral or even spiritual problems, such as withdrawing from others, guilt, muscle tremors, poor attention span or doubting their faith.
"Often we may experience something that has an affect that we may push off as being unrelated, only to find out that it is related," Sgt. Lou Cammiso said. "When the crisis team comes in, it's not like therapy but it's more about talking to us to let us know that the different feelings we are experiencing are normal."
The Journal of Traumatic Stress published a study this year that suggests both physical and emotional reactions to such crimes is quite normal.
Michelle Lilly, a Northern Illinois University psychology professor who specializes in mental health and trauma, co-authored the study, which focuses on 911 dispatchers. Most reported significant emotional distress related to handling calls, and this type of distress is associated with increased risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder or similar symptoms.
Lilly also has conducted other research with police and said they are prone to similar reactions.
"You are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder when you walk into a crime scene and see things so inconsistent with how you think the world is and should be," Lilly said. "In our study, calls involving children were consistently identified as among the worst calls people ever have to handle."
Such scenes can leave first responders prone to symptoms like headaches, sore muscles, depression and more.
Departments that are supportive and bring in agencies like the Northern Illinois Critical Incident Stress Management Team are doing the correct first step, Lilly said.
"It not only gives people the opportunity to talk, but the agency support helps people feel more validated that they experienced something that could be very difficult," she said.
The Rev. Jerry Leake of St. Joseph Catholic Church has been the chaplain for the Aurora Police Department for nearly 40 years. He said while the public may think of police and firefighters as tough or hardened, they are still human.
"Any of us can be affected or become discouraged, even as a police officer" Leake said. "But it becomes very important that we not be afraid to discuss what we are feeling."
Leake said there's no one solution to helping first responders cope with crime-scene trauma. While many Aurora officers come to him, he said others visit their own chaplains or deal with counselors who are often brought in by the department after an especially troubling case.
"I think all of those services working together help people get through that difficult time," Leake said.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.