The needs of an investigation cannot excuse the undignified treatment of relatives bereaved by murder, says Joanna Perry
Two powerful and upsetting experiences of people bereaved by murder and manslaughter appeared in the recently published report In the Aftermath.
One reads: “My husband went to kiss him goodbye and the mortuary attendant grabbed his arm and said ‘you can’t touch him, he’s evidence’.”
In another, a woman, Paula, is quoted: “They refused to let me kiss him…I said that they could tell me where I could kiss him and they could watch me. They pinned me down like a bag of shit. That makes me feel more angry than about the actual murder. It hurts so bad.”
Our job in the policy department at Victim Support is to use such experiences to challenge and change these hurtful and insensitive interventions and to argue for better support for people who are bereaved by murder or manslaughter.
One of the first things to look at is the messages given to professionals on how to do their jobs. Here, it appears that the overriding message is that the needs of the investigation are more important than a person’s right to be treated with dignity.
The government’s criminal justice policy usually focuses on measures that will protect the investigation, thus improving the chance of a successful prosecution and bringing offenders to account. While many people who have been bereaved by murder or manslaughter will agree with this aim, this research shows that meeting the needs of the investigation should not be prioritised to the extent that the importance of meeting their emotional and practical needs is ignored.
The best solutions come from people who have been through the process themselves. As suggested above by Paula, the police could have been much more flexible and, as a result, been able to allow her to kiss her husband goodbye as well as protect the “evidence” by telling her where she could kiss him. Paula’s solution shows how the two priorities – emotional and investigative – can both be met.
This focus on the important distinction between the needs of the criminal justice system to gather and preserve evidence on the one hand and the wider needs of people bereaved by murder and manslaughter on the other helps to identify the role of support services like Victim Support.
The report recounts the array of issues that those who contributed to the In the Aftermath research were confronted with after the violent death of their loved one. For example, where a murder occurred in the home, relatives had to pay for redecoration and the cleaning of bloodstained carpets and furniture.
Grandparents had to deal with the bereavement of a loved child at the same time as taking on caring responsibilities of their grandchildren. Funerals had to be arranged and mundane tasks such as shopping and cooking had to be done.
All these issues are faced during the criminal justice process as well as way beyond. Research such as this helps support services such as ours to tailor their service to help people cope.
Joanna Perry is policy manager, Victim Support