Special report: families of murder victims need greater support

The families of murder and manslaughter victims need greater support, a report published by Victim Support this week has found.

The charity conducted the research in order to review its services for people bereaved by homicide, including addressing the scope of the service, standards and consistency, the service model and work with other organisations.

One impetus for change was “the criticism of our services by some of the more specialised organisations working with bereaved people,” says the report.

Peter Dunn, head of research and development at Victim Support said the research “gives us a new insight” into the support needed by bereaved people and will have a “major impact on the re-development of Victim Support’s services”.

Recommendations for action include:

• A need for more active, practical help for bereaved people, including updated training for volunteers. Support to victims by the charity is mainly delivered by unpaid volunteers.

• Closer work with other organisations supporting people bereaved by homicide including social services, other voluntary organisations, probation victim liaison officers and the police

• Considering whether to employ more paid staff

• A need to provide more consistent and better managed services

Forty one bereaved people and professionals including Victim Support staff and volunteers; probation officers; and the police contributed to the research.

Unsurprisingly, Victim Support says “bereavement by homicide is emotionally and psychologically devastating”. Some of the wide-ranging issues covered in the report are outlined below.

1. People with complex needs

For people already in difficult situations, the effects of homicide makes their needs even more complex.

Examples in the research include:

* Carer responsibilities

A man whose wife has Alzheimer’s felt there was more concern about her coping than him, after their son was murdered and that he had no outlet for his emotional needs.

A mother who cared for her older disabled parents had to support them after her son was murdered.

* Immigration status

A woman who fled violence in her own country entered the UK illegally and was forced into prostitution. One of her sons killed his brother in a fight. He is now in secure local authority care and her daughter is on the at risk register. She feels social services have not acknowledged her trauma.

* Mental health problems

The father of a 15-year-old girl missing for a year before her body was found had searched for her incessantly. Separated from the girl’s mother, he got into rent arrears and was evicted. Now homeless and suffering from mental health problems, he cannot talk about his grief. His illiteracy is another barrier to accessing support.

2. Children and families

The report says it is a “widely-held view that support services for children bereaved by homicide are inadequate”.

It intends to commission further research into the subject

Families and professionals interviewed referred to a shortage of specialised services including therapy and counselling.

“A man caring for his two nephews, who had witnessed their father kill their mother, waited six months for an appointment with a child psychologist to address the older boy’s extremely challenging behaviour, which was affecting his own children,” says the report.

Victim Support staff are hesitant about supporting children, feeling specialist training is needed. The charity refers service users to children’s bereavement services where possible, but long waiting lists are common, it says.

Children often have problems at school following a murder, the report says: “Some schools and education authorities’ responses showed an appreciation of the trauma that children were experiencing and offered sympathetic and positive support, but others did not.”

School issues mentioned by parents following bereavement included
truancy, bullying, malicious gossip, an exclusion, and prosecutions for non-attendance.

However other schools were more helpful, “making allowances for children’s needs and emotional state, and not pressuring them”.

Members of bereaved families can find themselves unexpectedly responsible for children, says the report. Statutory services can be unprepared for offering support in such situations, perhaps because they are rare.

One man tells Victim Support how he received a loan from social services to build an extension to his home to accommodate his two nephews. But he and his wife had to become official foster parents to qualify for the help.

One man caring for his sister’s baby and toddler after her death had to take them to meetings with social services, police, lawyers and housing agencies.

A single mother who was admitted to hospital shortly after her son was murdered said: “I was on a wild goose chase looking for help. I phoned up the social services and they did nothing. I ended up in hospital for a week. My 15- year-old pregnant daughter had to look after the young ones. Nobody asked me who was looking after the children.”

3. Lack of information

Many bereaved people interviewed “spoke of difficulties in finding out about resources for support and information, and being dismayed by the limited support available,” the report notes.

For some the main way of finding information was “time-consuming and frustrating internet searches”.

Most people who had received the Home Office information pack for bereaved relatives found it useful, and it led them to contacting SAMM or Victim Support.

4. Minority groups

There is currently little research on the support needs of people from ethnic minorities and gay couples affected by homicide. One man’s partner in the study was excluded from funeral arrangements by his immediate family, and another felt anxious and isolated after the murder of his ex-partner which he feared would out him in his small community.

5. Role of probation service victim liaison officers

The probation services must consult with and notify victims about release arrangements for violent or sexual offenders.

Victim liaison officers interviewed for the research said their services are patchy. They said the police are not aware of their role and often don’t return calls.

Officers suggested that greater definition of the roles played by different agencies would improve services.

For more information:- www.victimsupport.org

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