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Family Liaison Officers – what they really do

Emotional support
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When a person disappears for no apparent reason, their loved ones will hold their breath – praying that person will come back safe and sound. But sometimes the outcome isn’t so happy. New true crime series When Missing Turns to Murder delves into cases where the worst did happen, charting the dark trajectory from police initially being alerted, to the realization that a crime has occurred, to the killer’s conviction.

One of the cases covered in the series is that of Lorraine Benson, a young woman who went missing in 1988 after going to a works Christmas party in London. The story of the desperate search for Lorraine, the awful discovery of her body, and the eventual apprehension of her chillingly remorseless murderer, highlights the importance of a certain member of the investigating team: the Family Liaison Officer, or FLO.

For Lorraine’s parents Michael and Lyn, the FLO in question was DC Jenny Woods. Now retired, she provides her insights in When Missing Turns to Murder. Officers like Woods play a crucial and very difficult role in murder cases throughout the UK, and one that’s not generally known to most members of the public lucky enough to have never required their help.

There’s a common misconception that FLOs are more akin to counsellors than police officers – we think of them as the sensitive, softly-spoken ones who are there to calm and reassure families while the other coppers get on with the gritty business of snaring the killers. This perception even exists within the police: a Guardian article on FLOs quotes an FLO as saying, regarding fellow officers, “Some people don’t like what we do… they think it’s all candles and sandals.”

It’s true an FLO will act as the main point of contact for family members, keeping them in the loop on the case, answering their questions, explaining what’s happening during the complex and exhausting investigation, and referring them to victim support workers if necessary. But, throughout all of this, an FLO will never lose sight of the fact their primary task is to gather hard evidence and aid the investigation.

Family Liaison Officers are in fact experienced police officers who’ve chosen to undertake further training to become an FLO. The job is hard, requiring warm human empathy and cold, forensic attention to possible clues – whether that’s inconsistencies in what family members and friends of the victim are saying, or suspicious behaviour that reveal the truth of what happened.

The FLO involved in the notorious Shannon Matthews abduction of 2008 is a case in point. DC Christine Freeman was assigned to keep Shannon’s mum Karen abreast of developments when her young daughter Shannon vanished during one ordinary school day.

Freeman immediately noticed how weirdly apathetic Karen and her boyfriend Craig Meehan were. Far from being fraught and frantic, Karen seemed almost jovial at times – even breaking into an impromptu dance when she heard Freeman’s pop song ringtone.

Freeman was also puzzled at Karen’s seeming certainty that Shannon would return unharmed – a far cry from most parents’ terrified pessimism. Karen’s odd behaviour also rang alarm bells among her friends, and – breaking down under scrutiny – she admitted that she and Craig Meehan’s uncle, Mick Donovan, had orchestrated Shannon’s abduction to get their hands on reward money.

The work of an FLO also played a key part of the investigation into the lethal stabbing of hairdresser, and special police constable, Nisha Patel-Nasri at her London home in 2006. Sid Shenoy was the FLO assigned to the case, and he developed a close bond with the victim’s brother, Katen Patel.

Katen later admitted he had a distrust of the police ('I thought they were just there to give you grief'), and his natural loyalty to his family meant he was wary about saying too much to detectives. As Sid Shenoy put it in a later interview, 'Family members often feel loyalty to the person they have just lost. They don't want to be seen to be dishing the dirt on them or on any other family members.'

But thanks to the rapport Sid Shenoy built up with Katen over time, and the sensitivity he showed during the grief-stricken aftermath of the murder, Katen came out of his shell, even finding himself confiding more in the FLO than his own wife. As a result, he eventually relinquished the information that the victim’s husband, Fadi Nasri, had bought a new mobile phone just after the murder.

Police ascertained the phone was used by Nasri to confer with the men he’d hired to murder his wife for insurance purposes. By providing moral support to one of the bereaved, Sid Shenoy had helped crack the case. It’s a testament to the importance of Family Liaison Officers, and how they can make all the difference in the darkest moments of people’s lives.