What is the role of a family liaison officer?
By Elizabeth Whitehead a serious injury lawyer at Irwin Mitchell and Sarah, Butler, a collision investigator with Nottinghamshire Police
When dealing with serious and fatal injuries we often find that a family liaison officer (FLO) is appointed by the police to liaise with the family. However, it's not always clear what the role of a FLO is and what their responsibilities are. Elizabeth Whitehead and Sarah Butler, who is also a FLO with many years' experience in dealing with serious and fatal injuries arising from road collisions explore.
When is a FLO deployed?
A FLO will be deployed following a collision leading to fatal or life altering injuries. Life altering injuries would usually encompass the loss of a limb or a brain injury which results in the victim not being able to lead an independent life.
A FLO is deployed as an investigator with specialist skills in family liaison. They are usually deployed to the family of the deceased or injured person within 24 hours of a collision but sometimes can become involved even sooner if the family are at the scene of the accident.
They will assist the family in completing the identification of the deceased and will liaise with the coroner regarding any tissue samples and also discuss, if appropriate, organ donation that have been retained.
A continuous point of contact
They will be a continuous point of contact for the family throughout the investigation, whether that be a criminal investigation, or a coronial investigation following a collision. The family are likely to have many questions and a FLO will help to guide them through the process, explain what they can expect to happen and guide them through the legalities.
A FLO has an important role in the investigation into the circumstances of the accident and any eventual prosecution, as they will feed back information to the investigation team about who the deceased was and what they were like before the collision.
A FLO will also provide the family with links to other services and resources for help such as bereavement services. They will obtain a victim statement from the family in order to give a better idea of who the deceased was.
Strategic approach to supporting loved ones
When they are first deployed, a FLO will need to work strategically with the investigation team in order to understand what they are able to and what they are not able to disclose to the family, depending on the sensitive nature of the accident or the people who are involved.
They will act as a conduit between the senior investigating officer SIO and the family with the investigation team. They will complete risk assessments regarding any problems in the family and any hazards to be considered such as FLO’s complete risk assessments regarding their own and colleague’s safety, which includes understanding family dynamics, tensions that may arise as a result of the death, and managing their own mental health and wellbeing. They will liaise with the media on the family’s behalf and collect DNA swabs.
When the FLO is deployed they will appoint a single point of contact in the family to avoid confusion and mixed messages and having to repeat information several times. They will phone the family and make arrangements to go out to their home in order to open a dialogue with the family.
There can often be difficulties as there is a general distrust of the police in some families. These barriers are short lived once the FLO has explained their role on behalf of the criminal or coronial investigation and are able to build relationships.
The amount of deployments of a FLO can vary but on average, they will be deployed five times per year but should never be appointed to more than three cases at a time. If an officer is working as a FLO they cannot be part of the investigation team.
A FLO will stay in regular contact with the family during the investigation. Once the investigation has reached a disposal decision or conclusion FLO should complete an exit strategy the family would then be expected to liaise with the investigation team but in reality they often stay in contact until after the conclusion of court proceedings as they are a familiar face and this would be an extra burden for the investigation team as well as dealing with the court and barristers etc. This means that they could be in contact with the family on and off for years in some cases.
Naturally, often family members can become attached to a FLO as they are introduced into their life when they are at their most vulnerable so it is important that a FLO is firm in respect of boundaries and keeps their emotions in check.
The role is voluntary and on top of other duties
The role of a FLO is entirely voluntary and is in addition to an officer’s day to day job. The job requires an officer to work long hours over and above their core hours without pay (apart from in exceptional circumstances and any payments need to be authorised by an inspector) sometimes above their normal working hours.
You may ask why an officer would choose to be a FLO? The role gives an officer the opportunity to become involved in some interesting cases and it adds another string to their bow. It is not a role that is suited to everyone. On average a FLO will spend 30 to 40 hours each month in their role in addition to their day to day job.
A FLO is led by a family liaison coordinator (FLC). The FLC oversees all the FLO’s and arranges any necessary training. A FLO must make a log of every conversation they have with the family and send them to the FLC.
Sometimes, the relationship between the FLO and the family does not work due to a variety of reasons. Situations like this will be reported to the FLC who will arrange for the FLO to be exited from the family as each deployment is taken upon its own merits and sometimes the dynamic is flawed. It is not the fault of family or FLO and therefore no training is required.
Compassion and support at the most traumatic of times
When dealing with bereaved families, no size fits all. At the beginning of each month an FLO is expected to provide their availability for the month ahead to the FLC who will then coordinate deployment as and when necessary.
An FLO is therefore a very important tool for the police to use and families are very appreciative of having one point of contact throughout the investigation.
The following quote was obtained from a family member that Sarah has worked with and demonstrates the value of an FLO to distressed families.
“Sarah has been a brilliant support to me and my family following a serious accident involving my daughter.
"My daughter was seriously injured and was in a coma for a month. I didn’t have anyone to talk to and Sarah was brilliant. Her compassion and understanding meant that I felt supported in what was a traumatic time.
"Sarah also put me in touch with Brake who have arranged counselling treatment for me. I seriously don’t know what I would have done without her support.” #
Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and their families following collisions at our dedicated road accidents section.