Creating and Operating a Family Assistance Center - A Toolkit for Public Health

SUPPORTING FAMILIES DURING TIMES OF CRISIS

Victim Identification Services

The primary function of the Victim Identification Services operations is to collect the necessary antemortem information from families, to support the reunification or positive identification of the missing or deceased. The activities involved with conducting family interviews for the purposes of gathering antemortem data are some of the most sensitive aspects of FAC operations, but they are also some of the most critical.

Plan for 2 to 3 hours to process and conduct each family interview, allowing for interview time, data recording, and data entry.

The range of antemortem data that may be gathered can be extensive and requires effective communication with families and having appropriate information management processes in place to support data collection. Examples of the information that may be gathered include:

  • Physical description of victim.
  • Description of clothing and jewelry.
  • Description of unique characteristics (like tattoos, scars, and birthmarks).
  • Dental records, medical records, and fingerprint records.
  • DNA reference samples.

Because of the complexity and sensitivity in collecting antemortem information from grieving family members, interviewers should be personnel specially trained in dealing with grieving individuals (e.g. ME/C personnel, funeral directors).

Anticipate that some family members will not want to provide antemortem information or supply DNA reference samples because they view doing so as a sign that they have given up hope.

If the DMORT FAC Team is involved, this is an area of specialty for the team.

The following are recommendations to consider for your victim identification operations:

  • Family interviews should be conducted in private areas or rooms, or by phone.
  • Establish a protocol for conducting family interviews and documenting and processing the information before interviewing begins.
    • This includes determining whether interview data will be documented on paper and then entered into a database or entered directly into a computer at the time of the interview.
    • Ensure interview, documentation, and record gathering procedures are approved by the ME/C.
  • Establish thorough record-keeping procedures. Anticipate needing to add or change information in a person’s file as additional interviews are conducted or new information is provided by family members or friends.
  • Maintain chain-of-custody of records via sign-in and sign-out logs.
  • When scheduling interviews with family members, advise them about information they can collect and provide during the interview. This includes contact information or location of their loved one’s:
    • Physician
    • Dentist
    • Hospital
    • Fingerprints
    • Photographs
    • Military service records
    • Essential vital statistics
    Advise family members that they should not bring physical copies of medical/dental records/fingerprints, etc., rather that they should sign a release to allow the ME/C to obtain original records directly from the appropriate source. This helps ensure the appropriate handling, completeness, and authenticity of the records.
  • Follow the ME/C’s established procedures for requesting antemortem records under their statutory authority.
  • Notify family members when antemortem records have been received.
  • Plan for DNA reference samples to be collected at the FAC, or if families do not go to the FAC, then by their local ME/C or law enforcement agency (samples will need to be submitted to the FAC).
  • Anticipate needing to answer questions or address family concerns about the DNA process and issues regarding family lineage.
  • Consider having genetics counselors or individuals with training in genetics available to support DNA collection. These individuals may be available through your local university. They are skilled at communicating with individuals about the science of genetics and DNA and may be a useful resource for your operations.
  • Maintain copies of all forms at the FAC. When the FAC closes the forms will be turned over to the ME/C or destroyed at their discretion.

Resources

VIP Form

Requested Records Log

Remains Release Authorization

Mass Fatality Incidents: A Guide for Human Forensic Identification, June 2005, U.S. Department of Justice

DNA Identification In Mass Fatality Incidents, September 2006, U.S. Department of Justice