The Forgotten Victims
*Speech to All Party Parliamentary Group for Road Safety, *
Wednesday 13 July 2005
Mary Williams OBE, chief executive, Brake
Given the Road Safety Bill is making its way through the House of Lords at present it may feel that Brake is running a side show to the main event by talking about issues of more concern to the Home Office and the Department of Health than the Department for Transport, but the timing of this meeting is most timely indeed.
This spring, Home Office funding for three very important projects - set up to develop best practice support of road crash victims came to a very untimely end. This meeting is called partly to bemoan that ending and lack of continuation funding.
So who is a road crash victim? It may seem an obvious question, but it is sometimes important to state the obvious.
Our primary concern is for the 10 families who are bereaved every day. On average, someone who dies on the road loses 40 years from their life expectancy this means that most people who die on roads are young or still in the prime of their life this means that they leave behind parents, husbands, wives, children. Families are torn apart.
Yet under civil law rules, if family members didn’t actually *see *their loved one die but were instead waiting at home for them to return from the shops, but instead had a police officer at the door the law doesn’t consider them to have suffered traumatic stress as a result of the death and they cannot claim compensation for their trauma.
This is one of many more injustices, but perhaps the worst of all is the continued lack of funding for support services for bereaved and seriously injured families, which I am here to talk about for a few minutes.
- THE CHARITY VICTIM SUPPORT IS FUNDED BY THE HOME OFFICE TO SUPPORT, THROUGH TRAINED VOLUNTEERS, FAMILIES BEREAVED BY HOMICIDE. THE HOME OFFICE PROVIDES NO FUNDING FOR SUCH A SERVICE FOR FAMILIES BEREAVED BY ROAD DEATH.
Every year, the extremely important charity Victim Support is funded to the tune of 30m by the Home Office to support victims of crime. These victims obviously include families of very serious crimes, homicide, rape and grievous bodily harm. But when it came, way back when, to deciding if funds should be released to pay for support for families bereaved by road death, the Home Office made a decision that was clearly based on their remit as a Department, rather than the needs of the victim. They took the view that road deaths are not always (although they frequently are) caused by a crime. As this Department’s remit is prevention of crime and support of victims of crime, road deaths didn’t qualify. Yet there are far more deaths on roads than murders.
The Home Office’s draft new Victims’ Code of Practice is riddled with get-out sub-clauses saying there is a duty to care for victims excepting road crash victims.
Of course, this is an example of disjointed government, not joined up government. Because, one would like to think, from the perspective of the Department of Health it is obviously far more important to support victims of road death, than, for example, support a victim of non-violent burglary.
This quote from a mother who called BrakeCare’s helpline summarises the current situation:
*”My husband and two children were wiped out by a drunk driver. I wasn’t offered any support worker or counselling. I was so alone. I went to my GP as I thought I might end it all. He didn’t seem to know what else to do other than prescribe drugs so I could at least sleep. I became addicted and so unable to cope that I had to give up my job and now I have nothing. No family, no job, no life. How ironic that I was burgled six months after my family were killed and the police officer put me in touch with ‘Victim Support’. Now which do you think was more upsetting being burgled or my family being killed? I am extremely angry and the system is crazy. Whoever makes these rules doesn’t know what it is like to have your family wiped out, doesn’t know what it is like to know your son was decapitated in the crash. It is offensive that victims of non-violent burglary qualify for support and I didn’t.” *
In 2004, after intensive lobbying by Brake’s care division BrakeCare, RoadPeace and other voluntary service providers, the Home Office agreed to fund 3 ‘pilots’ of volunteer-led services for bereaved and seriously injured families in Bedfordshire, West Yorkshire and Merseyside. These pilots were only funded for a paltry 18 months these 18 months are now over, funding has been stopped dead, (we had fought for a longer pilot than 18 months which really only enabled set up to take place) and there are no promises of any more funding any time soon. The pilots are currently been analysed by Surrey University but we are in no doubt that they will have been found to be of untold value to road crash victims.
BrakeCare coordinated the pilot in West Yorkshire, training over many weeks a dedicated team of volunteers, who were managed on a day to day basis by Victim Support West Yorkshire, to visit families bereaved by road death in their homes. These volunteers were on hand to emotionally and practically support families during a range of traumatic and procedural processes, ranging from identification of their loved one’s body, to laying flowers at the roadside, to understanding criminal and civil procedures. These volunteers are a vital life-line and an essential support to police Family Liaison Officers’ duties as well as the victim themselves.
All three pilots are attempting to keep going on no money, because they are staffed by dedicated professionals, although Victim Support West Yorkshire has had to withdraw and Brake now directly manages volunteers itself. But the Home Office hasn’t suggested where we can go for further funding - a promise of a ‘victim’s fund’ proposed by the Home Office last year is still pending.
Please support our call for Government funding for this important work in all three pilot areas and for services like these to be expand across the UK. Support the EDM tabled today on this topic.
- THE NHS HAS PITIFUL SERVICES FOR VICTIMS OF POST TRAUMATIC STRESS
If you are a family man or woman, as many of you will be, imagine your other half dying in a road crash, or imagine your children being killed. Now imagine being a child and one or both of your parents being killed in a crash. There is no doubt how traumatic such a death is, and often there are multiple deaths in one family.
The result can be severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms include agoraphobia, inability to communicate, uncontrollable anger and distress. A 1995 study on the impact of road death and injury by FEVR (the European Federation of Road Traffic Victims) found that “psychological suffering by the victims [of road crashes] and their relatives is often extreme and long-lasting.
Research by Mirza et al, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (1998, 172: 443-447), found that 75% of 8-16 year olds injured in a road crash met the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The FEVR report found that suffering often increases with time and is “frequently the cause of serious illness which may even lead to death.” FEVR found that trauma suffered by people bereaved in a road crash resulted in sleeping problems (49%), distressing nightmares (41%), anxiety attacks (46%), suicidal feelings (37%) and depression (64%).
Other conditions such as eating disorders, alcohol or drug addiction, are also widely reported. Sufferers of diagnosed PTSD may have difficulty holding down a job or relationship and place a largely hidden burden on social services and employers.
A death of a loved one in a road crash is a memory that will never go away, and a scar that will last forever. Brake firmly believes that early intervention by well-trained volunteers can, however, help prevent debilitating PTSD, as victims are helped through the appalling shock. But for those victims who go on to continue to display severe traumatic stress symptoms many months and years after the death, more help is needed.
Cognitive behavioural therapy which translates as talk-based, confidential one-to-one counseling with an experienced therapist is a proven method of care for people with PTSD and endorsed by the Department of Health. To be effective, these therapists should be both experienced and expert in working with victims who have suffered a traumatic, sudden, violent death. These are not normal deaths, but they happen to normal families who are thrown into chaos and darkness.
So where are these therapists? I was recently talking to one of the key personnel involved in the post-Tsunami support of families bereaved in that disaster, who was asking the same question. There is no NHS directory of these professionals, and a request by us for funding from the Department of Health to research and produce such a directory for health professionals to use was turned down last year. There is no automatic referral to these therapists who are out there in small numbers - when the worst happens. Instead, GPs try to mop up the broken pieces of people’s minds by referring them to generic counsellors who are not expert in this field at all. Or they go for a ‘quick fix’ of calming drugs that may prove addictive. Or they offer to refer the victim to a psychiatrist for a psychiatric assessment. The psychiatrist themselves may not be an expert in this area, and may not be available for a year due to waiting lists. What is the good of that if you feel the world is about to end and you can only think about making it through today, let alone into next year?
Where there are trauma therapists available through the NHS, they are run off their feet, and you are lucky if you know about them and can get to see them.
Ironically, as hinted at earlier, if you receive a minor injury in a road crash and the other driver was to blame, you may be able to pursue a claim for ‘traumatic stress’ and receive professional trauma therapy courtesy of insurance company pay outs. But not if you were at home when you received the knock on the door from the police officer that wouldn’t qualify you for therapy as you weren’t at the scene of the crash and you weren’t ‘hurt’. The cash is in the system for therapy, but it’s being misdirected by the law to the people who need it to a far lesser degree.
There has been much talk in recent months about the controversial Mental Health Bill, over its worrying proposals to enforce treatment. Trauma is also a mental health issue, and these very needy bereaved victims suffering from PTSD often receive no treatment where it is urgently needed.
Please support our call for Government funding for a trauma specialist in every area of the NHS, to help professionally counsel people of all types of traumas, from deaths by terrorism to deaths on the road. Please sign the EDM tabled today.
3. INFORMATION PROVISION IS VITAL
In 2000, Charles Clarke, then junior minister at the Home Office, posed in a photo call launching the Home Office’s funding of a bereavement guide by Brake. This is the guide five years on. This guide includes essential information that bereaved people urgently need ranging from information about police investigations to how to pursue a claim for compensation to details of voluntary support groups. We spend inordinate time fact checking and updating the guide every year and ensuring it is written objectively, empathetically and extremely clearly, getting a message across in a straightforward, caring manner using as few words as possible. It is widely applauded as excellent work. It came as no surprise to us that in 2003 the Home Office produced an almost identical-looking guide for families bereaved by murder - a huge endorsement for our guide.
But despite repeated requests to the Home Office to fund translations of the guide, and a version for people who are seriously injured with life-changing injuries, spinal injuries and brain injuries, the Home Office has not gone any further than funding our guide for bereaved people, and this year even slightly reduced our funding for this guide and the associated costs of distributing it.
Our bereavement guide is an invaluable tool for police family liaison officers, who hand it out to every family bereaved on the road on our behalf. Every force in the UK does this without fail and routinely grades the guide extremely highly in feedback reports. Liaising with the police to ensure they are distributing it effectively, including offering free training to police family liaison officers, all costs us time and money.
We also have a helpline (01484 421611) which enables us to verbally explain the guide further over the phone, to both victims and professionals such as police family liaison officers. But we receive no funding at all for this service. A Victim Support helpline is funded by the Home Office to support other victims of other crimes.
This pitiful level of funding given to BrakeCare and other agencies must be increased. Please sign the EDM.
4. ACTIONS BY REGIONAL BODIES AND COMPANIES
Finally, who else should be doing anything more, aside from central Government?
Obviously every day police officers, chaplains, hospital nurses, and counsellors and GPs, religious and community leaders, as well as voluntary sector organisations like Brake, are doing their best in trying circumstances and with many other priorities to support those bereaved by road death. Even with no funding, many Victim Support branches around the UK are trying against the odds and lack of central funds to effectively support road death victims.
Obviously at a regional level, these unsung heroes often need to be given more resources and leadership to do their jobs better. Police forces should never require police family liaison officers working on road death cases to also be the senior investigating officer, or to work with four or five bereaved families at once, at the expense of their own mental health and detrimental to their own personal life, or for a rookie PC with no training in such matters to break the bad news to a family. But while all forces are increasingly professional in their family care, these things do happen in some locations. Chief constables need to give best practice family liaison care the utmost priority.
There is much more that can be done by companies too. One in three deaths on roads involves a vehicle being driven for work purposes. Companies can be paying for professional trauma therapy for staff who are bereaved or seriously injured, or the families of staff who have died. Some do pay for this, but not enough. Many don’t even have procedures in place to offer appropriate help or even condolences in the right way. Such protocols have got to be a bare minimum. Brake can provide training to companies to help them set these up.
5. So where do we go from here?
- Support the EDM
- We have requested a meeting with Fiona McTaggart, Victims Minister
- We plan to pursue campaigning within the Department of Health, with Minister for Mental Health Rosie Winterton
- We want to activate MPs and Lords to raise these issues when you can in the House and to write to Ministers with your concerns
- We will be continuing to liaise with key civil servants to try to keep these issues on their agenda
- Any additional suggestions of how we can take this campaign forward will be gratefully received
A final note on the Road Safety Bill
At this time, it would be inappropriate not to mention the Road Safety Bill, which has made it half way through the House of Lords and will be back in the Commons in the Autumn.
Please find in your delegate packs Brake’s proposed amendments and do raise these if you can.
- Please support our proposal to reduce the drink drive limit in line with nearly all of the rest of Europe.
- Please support our proposal that the 30mph standard limit in towns and villages is reduced to 20, again in line with Europe.
- In particular, please strongly object to the Government’s proposal in the bill to decrease the penalty for speeding at up to 39mph in a 30mph zone. At 39mph a child who is hit stands a negligible chance of survival and this would therefore be a very bad law indeed given the message it sends to drivers. And, of course, 39mph is almost precisely twice the limit that Brake thinks is safe for communities.
Please contact us if you can support our work on the road safety bill or on road crash victim care needs. Thank you for listening.