Death notification: Breaking the bad news

Why does so little training exist for the most grim job in law enforcement?


     "The problem with having chaplaincy involved in death notification after a homicide, for instance, is you are involving a third party less acquainted with investigative procedures in the investigation," Morgan says. Since many homicides involve spouses or family members, the danger is a chaplain is not trained to be sensitive to something the family might say or do during notification that could change the course of the investigation.

     "Suppose the family says something about the victim planning to visit someone," Morgan says. "That might not mean anything to the chaplain, but to the detective the entire case might hinge on that one piece of information — so it's essential that you try to handle notification within the bubble of people directly involved in the case."

Trauma intervention

     Police and hospital emergency departments in several states have begun using volunteers from an organization called the Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) to assist with notifications. TIP (www.tipnational.org) was founded in San Diego in 1985 by a mental health professional named Wayne Fortin to provide immediate support to citizens traumatized by personal tragedy. Twenty regional TIP chapters now exist in eight states (Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Washington), serving more than 250 communities.

     In these communities, TIP is dispatched on certain types of calls at the same time as fire and police. The volunteer meets the police officer, goes to the home with him or her, then the officer gives the notification and leaves. If it's safe, the volunteer stays with the family for the next several hours to provide emotional and practical support, something police have little time for.

     Susan Rutherford, RN, the executive director of the Arizona TIP chapter in Prescott Valley, says her chapter responded to 314 death-related calls in 2007. "Often, we end up giving notification to other arriving family members when it is too difficult for the family on the scene," she notes.

     While police usually do the notifications, some police departments are beginning to utilize TIP to make notifications because the volunteers have received specific death notification training whereas some police officers have not. Nelson, for instance, says his department has the officer go out with a TIP member and the TIP volunteer makes the notification.

     "TIP volunteers are trained in crisis intervention and work out of one of the Portland fire stations," he says. Volunteers receive 55 hours of training, part of which covers death notification.

Other assets

     Several death notification assets are available to police departments interested in honing their death notification protocols.

     Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has developed a training curricula titled "Death Notification: Breaking the Bad News With Concern for the Professional and Compassion for the Survivor," available free of charge by calling the Office for Victims of Crime Resource Center at (800) 627-6872.

     This four-volume MADD series contains training curricula and planning steps for developing and conducting training seminars for those responsible for making death notification. The course is aimed at law enforcement personnel, medical professionals, crime victim advocates, members of the clergy, and funeral directors. Each volume includes suggestions for planning a seminar, tips for training adults, an annotated literature review, and copies of the training curriculums, overheads and handouts.

     Also, the ICPC has a training module available to anyone in law enforcement on how to make death notification. Typically, the existing department chaplain will use this material to teach notification techniques to officers, but the ICPC can also dispatch trainers if departments don't have their own chaplains.

     Death notification procedures are also documented on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Web site. Enter "OPVS (Office of Prevention and Victims Services) Bulletin — Death Notification Procedures" in any search engine for URL.

     Douglas Page writes about science, technology and medicine from Pine Mountain, California. He can be reached at douglaspage@earthlink.net.

Best practices in death notifications

     Next of kin are due the respect of having the death notification done by an official, and to be given the news straight, with kindness.

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