Thursday, March 22, 2007

Criminal Profiling Topic of the Day: Suspended Grief

Sometimes when a perpetrator is apprehended for the abduction and murder of a child or adult, it is reported that they are a suspect in the disappearances of other victims. What is it like for the families of these victims who have no answers? Their heartbreak is something I call “suspended grief”.

Currently, there are few resources and little information available to assist families of missing persons cope with the specific elements of their “suspended grief”. Traditional victim assistance services are not available to these families because a criminal case hasn’t been filed. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in the U.S. there are an estimated 58,200 child victims of non-family abductions, 50,930 active missing adult cases, and 6,218 active cases of unidentified persons. However, most investigators and law enforcement agencies agree that this represents a fraction of the true number of cases since it is not mandatory for local police agencies to enter cases in NCIC. Many cold cases were never entered into the system simply because of the limits of technological resources at the time, and I have found in some instances that cases originally entered in a local agency’s system were subsequently purged to make room for new cases. Believe me; detectives do not look forward to getting a call from me inquiring about a case with a number that does not currently exist in their system. Sadly, there are many such cases sitting in boxes covered by layers of dust in storerooms and warehouses. The Nation’s Legislators are beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem of missing persons and unidentified victims in the United States. Congress has recently implemented legislative provisions allowing families of missing persons to submit DNA samples to the FBI’s national CODIS database, previously used solely for criminal DNA identification, and cases are being retrieved from many thousands of individual police jurisdictions across the country, moving toward a uniform national reporting and filing system. However, statistics alone cannot capture the fear, horror, frustration, and pain felt by those who know and love a missing person.

According to the psychology books, there are four stages of grief: shock and denial; intense concern; despair and depression; and recovery. Rarely does this occur as progressive stages towards the resolution of grief when a loved one is missing and presumed dead. Grief becomes “suspended” and those left behind become victims themselves. The act of confronting and expressing the emotions generally associated with grief does not bring relief or enable a progression to the next stage towards resolution and recovery. Therefore, the emotional changes associated with the four stages of grief can be experienced, and re-experienced, for long periods, sometimes for the rest of one’s life. I have found in my discussions with victims whose loved one is missing that they usually compare feelings they have experienced at the death of someone else close to them, as if in a desperate attempt to understand or gain a frame of reference in order to try to cope. Virtually all of these surviving victims have pointed out that the emotional changes they feel because their loved one is missing and presumed dead bears little resemblance to the grief they felt when someone else they love had died. Emotional changes are commonly intensified and prolonged when a loved one is missing. Often these feelings are compounded by guilt; wondering if they did all that they could to find the person, or guilt related to going on with life, such as dating, re-marrying, or having more children because it is often perceived as giving up on the missing person before there is proof of death.

When missing person cases go cold, surviving loved ones frequently feel betrayed and abandoned by police and the justice system, which adds to their feelings of despair, helplessness, isolation, and anger. As the passing of time starts to be counted in years, hope, no matter how slight, often remains of finding a loved one alive, even as survivors struggle to balance this with the acceptance of the inevitable death of their missing loved one. Prolonged intense concern also is often inevitable for many victims. The need to keep the memory of the missing person alive becomes an alternative to the overwhelming despair and depression caused by considering the reality of never finding their loved one, or knowing what their loved one experienced, or who is responsible for their disappearance and death. In many cases, “what if” and countless other questions are all survivors have in the absence of knowing the details of their loved one’s fate. Dealing with, and controlling thoughts of the missing person suffering similar horrifying fates known to have happened to other victims who were discovered months or years after they disappeared is very difficult. How can a person put such a terrible experience behind them when they do not have the barest of details to reconcile the event in their mind?

Currently, victim resources related to missing persons cases generally concerns victims of disaster, war, or genocide. In these types of situations, the cause of the disappearance is usually known to some degree, if not readily apparent, and large numbers of people have suffered a similar experience at once. Those left behind when a child is abducted by a stranger, or an adult disappears because they are a victim of foul play, cannot relate to those circumstances or the emotional effects on their lives. Perhaps because in the case of war or disaster people come together as a group for support and recovery of a shared experience which is a result of something, the cause of their pain is an event shared by all, or a known, common enemy.

These are but a few of the particular issues that influence the emotions of these grieving survivors. And it is but one more consideration in determining the devastation to individuals and the cost to society as a whole when offenders are permitted to be free to offend again.

Donna Weaver

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