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  • July 2016 Client Newsletter banner

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Setting Expectations for Family Members

The importance of and how to explain the processes of search, recovery, identification and repatriation of the deceased to families

By Robert A. Jensen
Chief Executive Officer

One of the primary functions of family assistance is setting expectations and explaining processes. Families now have access to as much information as the company employees or Special Assistance Team (SAT) members. What they don’t have is an understanding of what the information means or how to effectively use it.

A good family assistance program recognizes this and helps the families make sense of the information that is being provided so that they can make decisions on how to proceed. Foremost in the minds of most families who have missing or deceased loved ones is what is the process for the search, recovery, identification and repatriation of the deceased? pull quote

In a recent major loss, families travelled to the family assistance center expecting that they were going to collect the remains of their loved ones, to bring them home within days following the fatal loss. In another very recent incident, families were still hopeful that survivors would be found and therefore they would be reunited with their loved ones. In both cases, the reality was much different. In both cases, our clients’ expectations were that the governments involved would brief the families. Again, reality was very different in that because no single government agency is responsible for the entire process, no government agency was willing to commit to explaining the process. So Kenyon provided those briefs, with the governments’ approval and support.

It is important to understand that legally establishing that a person is deceased following a mass fatality incident can be very challenging. In a very practical sense, it is a critical step. It is vital in the transition a family will need to make from what was their “normal” to what will be the new “normal.”

How the death is established will determine how quickly and easily the death is documented. Documenting the death is the process needed to register and record the death. In many countries, the absence of a proper identification can result in a period of up to seven years without a formal death certificate being issued, and therefore no legal adjudication of an estate or insurance payments can be issued. For example, a death certificate is required to access bank accounts, claim life insurance, probate an estate, sell property or settle business affairs. It is almost impossible for anyone to move forward until these practical matters have been resolved. Therefore, it is key to identify the deceased, or in the absence of identification, get a court order death certificate that is accepted by the families as proof of the death of a loved one. This all has to be explained to the families.

The first step in explaining this is to Set Expectations. On television, the process of identifying a dead body is quick and easy. DNA identifications are made in a matter of minutes or by the end of the episode. We call this the “CSI” effect. It is often the only exposure affected families have had to forensic and justice systems; the systems most often involved in the recovery and identification processes. This fiction creates a harmful set of unrealistic expectations for families affected by a mass fatality incident.

The process of setting expectations begins by explaining five key points to families. The specifics you are communicating to them depend on the situation, but the topics remain the same. They are:

1. Establishing the expectation that there are no survivors. For many families if there are no human remains, then there is hope for survivors. If there is no chance of survivors, then we need to explain why this is. For some families this is accepted immediately. For others this acceptance comes over a period of days or weeks, and still for some the death is never accepted.

2. Establishing the condition of the deceased. Even when there have been media images of the destruction involved in an incident, families often have an expectation that the loved one is in a similar condition to those of the living. Because the condition of the remains has a direct impact on the time it takes to make an identification, it becomes part of the conversation.

3. Establishing an expected timeline for identification. Once we have explained to the families about the chance for survivors and the challenges of making a positive identification, we can then start to establish a timeline. Using examples from previous events, we should quickly have an idea of what to expect and the potential timeline for the process of recovery, identification and repatriation of the deceased. It is very important to communicate this to the families as soon as possible.

4. Explain the actual identification process. Using and showing practical examples of the forms and folders that are created, we explain the process of completing the INTERPOL ante mortem questionnaire, the need to collect familial DNA references, and medical / dental records, all of which can then be matched against the post mortem reports, and DNA profiles generated during the examination of all human remains that are recovered. Then we go into detail on the actual process used to match DNA, including the number of loci (markers) that are typically used.

This part of the briefing, which often takes several hours, includes a lot of questions from families about the “what ifs.” Often, questions are very detailed and demonstrate a real desire to understand the science behind the process and how the identification will be made.

5. Explain the options for formal government recognition of the death, without a body. In some jurisdictions this is called a court ordered death certificate. Historically, governments are hesitant to issue such documents without a physical body. However, governments have realized how difficult it can be for families of mass fatality victims, so many have enacted legislation or moved to provide death certificates more quickly. However, this may not be what all families want. So part of the briefings is explaining what the document means and the consideration families may want to think when deciding to ask for the documentation.

DOJ Family Guide
During briefings and as part of the private family websites, Kenyon shares timely information updates, and also useful references like the above guide to understanding identifcation by DNA prepared by the US Department of Justice.

These five key areas are briefed over series of days. The briefings often last for several hours. Because they are technical in nature and often must be translated, it is important to make sure that the translators have a full understanding of the terminology and concepts.

Once you have shared this information, the second thing to do is explain what all this information means and what are the practical things that families can do with the information. For example, it means the families need to decide if they wish to remain at the family assistance center and wait for the process to be completed or that they want to go home. In the two recent cases, that option was available. However, because the process would take months, all families chose to return home. They then needed to make the decision about which documents to request prior to the formal identification. For some that decision is straight forward - in that to them they have accepted the loss. So a death certificate is needed to begin settling the estate. For others, they do not want documents until there is physical proof – identified human remains.

The reason some families don’t wish to have formal documents until a recovery is made is very simple. For them that means there is still hope that their family member may be alive. To accept the documents means to accept that their loved one is deceased and not coming home alive. Accepting the documents means giving up hope without evidence. For those families they will not begin settling the estate or making any transitional plans until the identification is complete.

Finally, because not all families may want to or be able to travel to the family assistance center, they will still want to understand the process. Providing written documents – via a private family website is extremely important. Additionally, for those that do attend the briefings it helps them to explain the process to members of their families who do not travel with them, but will expect feedback on what is happening. It also serves as a good reference point for them.

By nature, mass fatality events become global headlines. Headlines typically focus on the numbers involved. It is critical to remember that to those involved, it is a painful individual process that does not end with the media coverage. It is also important to remember that for each deceased there are often multiple family members and friends who will become involved in this process. When leading the response to a mass fatality situation, keeping the affected families and friends at the top of mind will help guide a responsible and effective response.

The below image is an example layout for a family briefing area, where the practical and technical briefings discussed throughout the article would take place. This is often a conference room in a hotel, with every effort made to ensure comfort and ease of understanding the provided information.
Family layout