Debate on support for bereaved families

We asked:- What sort of professional support should be
available to families whose children have been

These are the comments we received.

“I relived an 18-month period of my life when reading the
book written by Kevin Wells, ‘Good-Bye  Dearest Holly’.
The Community Care book review, in my opinion, rightly
praised the book but noted that it offered a one-sided account that
failed to identify where changes to family support services need to
be made.

Taking the opportunity offered following lasts week’s
article ‘Unthinkable, Unbearable’ I would like to offer
some thoughts on the professional support that should be available
to families.  I have worked in several family support settings and
am currently working as a social worker in a multi-agency team for
children and families, however my comments are also likely to be
skewed. As the mother of a much adored son who was murdered,
academic considerations on the subject come second to raw first
hand experience.  

I was a mature student in the third year of a four year degree
and Dip. SW course when my 16-year-old son George was murdered by
Darren Colling.

It was Friday 29th January 1999 and I had recently completed my
first social work placement and handed in the portfolio. I had no
outstanding work and was enjoying a relaxed evening with George,
his brother Sam and their friend Dan. Sam was cooking our meal. The
phone was constantly ringing. The boys were arranging, rearranging
and adding to their plans. There was good-humoured teasing, loud
music and laughter.

There was absolutely no preparation for the awful event that was
about to change my life and the lives of my family forever.

George never arrived at the party he had arranged to attend.
Phone calls early in the evening from his friends wanting to know
his whereabouts started to fuel my anxiety. Over the next few days
my husband Barry’s and my anxiety reached an unbearable

Four days later George’s abused and dreadfully injured
body was found, by a police search team, face down in the canal a
15 minutes walk from our home.

From the moment we reported George missing on the morning of the
30th we received support from the police. For the Devon and
Cornwall Police the role of Family Liaison Officer was in its
infancy. The two officers assigned to our family supported us
working long hours, witnessing our raw grief and, despite no
specialist training, got it right most of the time. Not an easy
task, as overwhelming grief makes one defensive and very prickly at

Like Kevin Wells, Barry and I needed to feel involved at all
stages of the process.  We wanted information on all aspects of
George’s death and the legal process that finally was to
convict Darren Colling, in April 2000, of murder.

For 15 months the two assigned police liaison officers supported
our family acting as liaison between senior officers, court
officials, lawyers and the CPS. They also provided grass root
support, making cups of tea, providing transport to the many
pre-trial court appearances in various parts of the country,
arranging our traumatic visit to the chapel of rest, and just being
there to offer practical and sympathetic support on numerous other
occasions and throughout the two-week trial. In addition they were
able to provide us with information about Darren Colling, who had
kept his identity from us and groomed his association with George
with tragic consequences.

The intimate role of police liaison officers supporting families
of murdered children must of course vary according to individual
circumstances, particularly so when the murderer is a known family
friend or member. However my own experience highlighted a conflict
between the investigative priorities of the inquiry, with
statements being taken from family members by the liaison officers,
which were subsequently read out in court during the trial, and the
personal unguarded confidences shared with the officers at a time
of acute grief and shock, which were to culminate in an uneasy
acceptance of our individual roles of police and parents.

It is for this reason that I feel the role of liaison officers
should be performed by, independently funded multi-agency
personnel, trained to advise accessing benefit funding, and
informing on trial and legal procedures, who would be best able to
provide the support so appreciated by those families who experience
the devastating loss of a child.
Professionals as well as the public have enormous empathy towards
the emotional impact murder of a child is likely to have upon a
family. Practical issues however, such as how do the bills get paid
when grief renders the main provider unable to work, are often

 Although the need for emotional support is widely recognised,
services to support families’ emotional wellbeing, are in my
experience, very limited. Immediately after the event family
members are usually in shock and counselling often offered at that
point is unlikely to be appropriate or helpful. Many months later
at the point when the awful reality of the murder had sunk in, I
was offered anti-depressants and a long wait for time limited
counselling through my GP. I was not offered or able to fund the
alternative therapies I would like to have tried to ease my
emotional distress.

Family Liaison Officers support families in the period up to and
throughout the trial, but our experience was one of being left
unsupported in the acutely difficult time immediately after the
trial.  Research highlights this as a time of emotional
vulnerability for co victims. For the police a guilty verdict is
the culmination of their work on the case and marks professional
closure. If the police continue to be the lead agency in family
liaison services, their training and policy procedures need a more
sensitive approach to exit strategies.

Support services recognise the need for parents and close family
members to continue receiving information, for example, the tariff,
applications for appeals, parole and release dates. The probation
service now has a duty to provide these details if requested by the
families, but support from other agencies is not so readily
available and fails to respond to long-term post traumatic effects
experienced by bereaved families.”

Alice Mortimer

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