Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Ann Coffey MP: How the Government can Make a Difference

I recently chaired the UK's first ever Parliamentary Inquiry into support for the families of missing people.

Listening to the stories of devastated families of missing people is a very sobering experience. You can literally feel the pain in their voices.

They told us from the heart what families left behind need the most to help them at such a traumatic time – in terms of emotional, practical and legal support. We must listen closely to them and reflect their views in our inquiry recommendations.

It has been a privilege over the last couple of weeks to chair this inquiry and it has made me more determined than ever to fight for help to make life more bearable for families.

During our four sessions we also received very detailed evidence from the agencies involved.

What emerged strongly from the testimonies from parents, siblings and partners was the strong need for emotional support and counselling and how important it is to have the same standards throughout the country. That is why I hope that one of our recommendations will be for all families whose loved one goes missing to be “signposted” or put in touch with organisations that can provide both practical help and emotional support.

I would also like to see a recommendation that each family will be assigned a named police officer as a single point of contact. One of the mums, Nicki Durbin, told us of her horror when she heard a body had been found nearby and she could not get past various police answer phones to check if it was her missing son Luke. If she had had a named officer she would have been able to contact him or her direct for help and support.

We also want legal processes that enable families to manage their affairs easier, including a Presumption of Death Bill. Peter Lawrence, the father of missing York chef Claudia Lawrence, also spoke eloquently about the need for a guardianship mechanism, which would allow family members to manage the mortgage and bank accounts of a missing person.

We must also have improvements to the system of matching missing people reports to unidentified bodies. We need to ensure as many matches as possible take place. There are currently about 1,000 unidentified bodies, which means a thousand families left in limbo, not knowing if their loved one is dead or alive.

It wasn’t just me who was moved by the families’ stories. James Brokenshire, the Home Office minister, said he was acutely aware of their pain and Nick Gargan, the Chief Executive of the NPIA Missing Persons Bureau, said: “There’s not a police officer in the country who wouldn’t change how they respond to missing person reports were they to listen to the testimony of the three mothers we just listened to.”

Let’s hope that when we put in our recommendations to the Government in the summer that they will listen to the voices and wishes of the parents and the professionals, which will be reflected through our report. None of our recommendations will be particularly costly but if implemented would make all the difference in the world to the families who suffer what we all fear the most – someone we love going missing.

By Ann Coffey MP

To show your support for the families of missing people, please leave a message on Missing People’s Wall of Reminders at www.missingpeople.org.uk/wallofreminders.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Rachel Elias: Everyone Deserves a Name


Last week I joined Peter Lawrence, Jacqui Hoyland and other families to give evidence at a Parliamentary Inquiry into missing people and the support for the families left behind when a loved one goes missing. Our belief is that no family should have to face the trauma alone of having a missing relative, and that legislation must be passed so that families have access to specialist support to help them deal with the unique legal, financial and emotional challenges they face when a loved one disappears.

My brother Richard Edwards went missing from London on February 1, 1995. He was 27 at the time. My family and I live in limbo. I describe it as a ‘suspended loss’. When a loved one dies you can find peace in a resolution. But I feel guilty if I grieve, as if I’m giving up on him. Mum and Dad still live in the house we grew up in – hoping one day Richard will come back to find them. It took me years to stop jumping up every time the doorbell went or the phone rang, hoping it was him.

Richard and I were extremely close growing up, even sharing a bedroom until I was 11 and he was 13. He was always looking out for me – the typical overprotective older brother. In May 1991, his band the Manic Street Preachers signed a record deal. Richard was thrilled. But over the next three years, while away on tour, he pushed his body to the limits. In 1994, I was relieved when he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, but he discharged himself early, so he could go back on tour.

In February 1995, Richard was due to fly to New York for a gig but didn’t turn up for the flight. His manager reported him missing straight away, but the police didn’t take his disappearance too seriously at first. People miss flights all the time…but alarm bells went off in my head. Richard was Mr. Reliable. In those first hours I kept hoping Richard would walk through the door. But as the hours turned into days and weeks, a feeling of cold dread settled in my stomach. Yet even in my darkest moments, I never dreamed I’d still be wondering where he is today.

It was two weeks before the police found his car, abandoned in the Aust Service Station car park of the Old Severn Bridge. While conspiracies and theories rage – there have been alleged sightings of Richard in India and the Canary Islands – I concentrated my search in practical terms. I investigated every lead I could think of. I phoned the hospitals and coastguards, and wrote to monasteries in case he’d run away to a retreat.

After the initial desperate search, my family reluctantly tried to find a body. I contacted coroners around the Severn Estuary to see if any unidentified bodies found in or near it matched Richard’s. I spent days just driving around Cardiff, looking for any clues. I’d climb down to the riverbank and just stare at the water, wondering if my brother’s body was under there submerged in its sediment.

There were many articles in the press about skeletons and body parts that the reporters said belonged to my brother. And then there was the time the police approached us directly as a family to bring us news of the bodies without forensically reviewing the body parts beforehand.

Tomorrow’s final session of the inquiry is an opportunity to explore the systems currently used to cross match unidentified bodies and missing person reports, and I’ll be urging improvements in these processes to ensure as many matches are made as possible. Families of missing people should know that everything possible is being done to find their missing loved one. Whilst this might sound like a very simple objective, many families do not have this basic reassurance. At the moment, there are an estimated 1,000 unidentified bodies at any one time. This represents 1,000 anonymous dead - the un-named and the un-mourned - and the 1,000 families left in the dark about the fate of their loved one.

Cross matching reports of people who remain missing with unidentified bodies or body parts provides an important means of bringing an end to tragic cases. Successful cross matching can also assist criminal investigations, can allow civil procedures to be completed but most importantly of all can allow the deceased - the unknown victims - to finally have their identity restored to them.

I’m giving evidence on behalf of all those who have faced a painful struggle against bureaucracy following the disappearance of a loved one. I urge the Government to take some very simple steps to ease unnecessary heartache and confusion.

By Rachel Elias
Sister of Manic Street Preachers lyricist and designer Richard Edwards
Family Representative of Missing People

To show your support for the families of missing people please leave a message on Missing People’s Wall of Reminders at www.missingpeople.org.uk/wallofreminders.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Families of missing give evidence in Parliamentary Inquiry

On Monday, three mothers of missing children – Kate McCann, Nicki Durbin and Sarah Godwin – gave evidence at the UK’s first ever Parliamentary Inquiry into support for families of missing people. Each came to Parliament to talk about their own devastating experience of having a missing loved one, as well as the support families in this situation need and what they themselves could not find.

As Policy Advisor at the charity Missing People, I am constantly overwhelmed by the generosity of families facing the most unimaginable trauma as they try to make things better should you or I face a predicament as terrible as they have. Helping the All Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults to prepare the inquiry has been no different: families have eagerly agreed to share their painful stories in Parliament in hope of helping others.

The committees of Parliamentarians hearing their experiences will assess alongside other evidence whether current support measures for families are enough, or whether improvements are needed. Any recommendations they make will then be passed onto the Government for consideration and, we hope, implemented to help families.

The case for improving support is compelling. As Nicki, mother of missing Luke Durbin, said in Monday's opening session: “There isn't an hour of a day that goes by without me thinking about Luke. If my house was burgled, I would have got support... when I reported Luke missing, there was nothing. And there still isn't anything."

This landmark inquiry has the chance to change this injustice. And with the reactions vocalized in the first session, we have reason to believe that real progress will be made.

In terms of Government policy, Home Office Minister James Brokenshire stated: "We are acutely aware of the pain caused when a loved one goes missing and we are working hard to ensure the best arrangements are in place to support families.”

And on a police practice level, Nick Gargan, Chief Executive of NPIA Missing Persons Bureau, said: “There’s not a police officer in the country who wouldn’t change how they respond to missing person reports were they to listen to the testimony of the three mothers we just listened to.”

It is Missing People’s job to represent the stories of all families left behind, so that every agency does their utmost to support these families. This is what my colleagues and I will be seeking to do when we give evidence at the inquiry when talking about the Missing Rights campaign, which was organised in cooperation with families.

The three aims of the Missing Rights campaign call on the Government to ensure that:
  • Families of missing people know everything possible is being done to find their missing loved one.
  • Families affected by a disappearance have access to support.
  • Families left behind are spared the pain of unnecessary financial and legal bureaucracy.
We realise that what families really want is to have the person they love back with them, safe and well. And whilst they do not have this, we believe they should at the least have their agony eased by having basic reassurances around their search for their relative and access to support. Yet as it stands, there is no legislation in place to protect missing people and their families left behind.

Nicki was right in that if your house is burgled you are automatically offered victim support with emotional, practical and legal assistance, whereas if your child goes missing you may get nothing. This Parliamentary Inquiry has the potential to put this shameful situation right.

By Holly Towell
Policy Advisor at Missing People

To show your support for the families of missing people please leave a message on Missing People’s Wall of Reminders at www.missingpeople.org.uk/wallofreminders.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Avoiding the Void

Nineteen years – an eternity and a few short years; how can it be both?
On 20 May, 1992, my son Quentin (better known as Q) went ‘missing’. What’s the relevant definition of that word ‘missing’? In some countries they’re called ‘The Disappeared’, a more accurate description of how it feels perhaps but with overtones of politics and violence – something that happens in South America, Africa, Iran, but not culturally what you expect to happen to a white boy, age 18, walking out from his normal family home one afternoon and never to be seen again.
In the days, weeks, months and years that follow his disappearance, what happens to those left behind? At first there’s bewilderment, anguish, chaos and confusion. Feverish searching, shreds of possibilities, hopes pounced on and shattered, guilt, fear, doubts, hopelessness and helplessness. In fact almost every painful and passionate emotion is passing through the thoughts and feelings of family, friends, loved ones at any one time. And this goes on relentlessly, an emotional roller coaster without any true highs.
Daily life starts to reshape itself in the shadow of this disappearance; practicalities demand attention, we have to look after ourselves and each other again. The flurry of searching, the involvement and compassion of those around us slowly recedes. Anniversaries start to tick by – the first birthday, Christmases, the date he disappeared. Each one is different and has to be managed in its own way. At times it’s hard to accept this ‘normality’ because life isn’t normal any more; at the centre of everything, in the corner of every waking moment, is the knowledge and the pain of your child just not being there.
Where is he?
How is he?
Is he?
That last question is the hardest thought. But humans have survival instincts embedded in our genes so even at the times of greatest difficulty we find ways to hang on and keep functioning. Each person will find their own way and sometimes you lose it, wanting to numb the pain, escape the anguish, step off the endless circle of questions with no answers. Anywhere but here please.
Over the years since 1992, it has become a process of ‘managing’ my thoughts and feelings, knowing that to stay in the pain of it all is like living in a big black hole, without lightness or relief. I can’t stay there in that void anymore. I have learnt to gradually pull myself out of the emotional hole, accept the possibility of never seeing Q again, and accept the knowledge that I might never know the facts of his life or death. I have to honour his life whilst living with his and our loss.
There are not the right words to explain how this emotional journey has evolved; it’s been a long, slow and lonely task but after so many years I can usually keep painful emotions in a fairly secure part of me. I can now talk more freely about Q and our story and I can start to work with others in similar situations, although this interaction is both cathartic and difficult.
As a ‘technique’ for myself I have an image of the painful stuff being like a deep, dangerous ravine – to look over the edge into the blackness is to tempt vertigo and falling into those dark depths. I know I have limits so the skill is in gauging how near to the edge I can go without tipping over.
That’s what I have taught myself over the last 19 years. I am a long way from being an adept practitioner but at least I’ve got this far and I am thankful for that. But I would give anything not to have had to learn all this.
By Sarah Godwin
Mother of missing Quentin Godwin

Family Representative of Missing People
Sarah will give evidence at the UK’s first ever Parliamentary Inquiry into the rights of families of missing people on Monday June 13.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Big Tweet: How did it go?

It’s already a week since International Missing Children’s day and the Big Tweet. This was a bold experiment by Missing People to see if a new medium - Twitter - could be used to communicate an important and not always easy message to a wider audience. It was an approach with the potential to reach many people who were not previously aware of the issue and to create a new channel to be used in the search for the 100,000 children who go missing in the UK every year.

So was it a success? And what did Missing People and the families they support gain from this new tactic?

The results speak for themselves:
  • Visits to the website were up over 600%.
  • There was also significant press coverage, including stories on the homepages of Yahoo! UK and Sky News, and interviews with Kerry Needham, mother of missing Ben Needham, on ITV Lunchtime News, Radio 5 Live and ITV Yorkshire.
In other words, every goal was hit, if not smashed! Twitter proved itself a hugely valuable tool for spreading the word, and the event generated more buzz than could ever have been hoped for.

But it isn’t just about one day.

Cynics might point out that, in spite of all the buzz, coverage, and celebrity support, the Big Tweet didn’t help find any missing children on the day itself. But I’m convinced it will.

The real success of the campaign was the way that many followers old and new engaged with the issue, calling out to their friends and to celebrities for their support, keeping the tweets flowing through a solid 24 hours and beyond. What’s more, they’ve maintained their involvement, retweeting the ongoing daily missing appeals, and in some cases asking how they can get involved in other ways.

The Big Tweet was a resounding success on the day, and Twitter is now a key channel for Missing People. Most importantly, however, it has helped to create a platform for the future, and this is what social media does best. Now, when an appeal is sent out via @missingpeople, it reaches over 5,500 more people than before, all capable of spreading it still further. Followers can also provide other forms of support that are so crucial to the charity, such as volunteering or conducting local fundraising.

If you’re not already following @missingpeople, I urge you to do so and to pass on the message to your friends, as there is definitely more to come. This is a perfect and very simple example of using social media to make a difference.

I can’t wait for the headline: “Charity finds missing person by using Twitter” – it’s not as far off as you may think. One tweet by the right person at the right time is all you need.

By Gifford Morley-Fletcher
Director of Strategy, Inbound Marketing

Around 250,000 people go missing in the UK each year. The Missing Blog aims to give a voice to all those affected by this issue.

Written by families and friends of missing people, supporters working to raise awareness of the cause, and volunteers and staff at the charity Missing People, we hope that this blog will offer a window into the issue of missing.

The charity Missing People is a lifeline when someone disappears. To find out more about Missing People and ways that you can support the charity visit www.missingpeople.org.uk.

Call or txt the charity Missing People for free on 116 000, 24/7 if you or anyone you know is affected by a disappearance.