No one to wipe their tears - Family left to grieve by themselves without support after police homicide
April 16, 2011
Susan Clairmont, Hamilton Spectator
When someone you love is the victim of a homicide, you are catapulted into a very small group of mourners. When someone you love is killed by the police, you are dropped into a hole only a handful of others in this country will ever know.
The isolation for families of those killed by police is staggering. None of the normal support systems offered in homicide cases are there because nearly all of them are offered by and through the police.
"We've been feeling alone since the get-go, " says Rob Chinnery. "We are different from any other victims."
On Feb. 2, Rob's 19-year-old son, Andreas, was fatally shot by a Hamilton police officer. The officer was called to Andreas's apartment to deal with a disturbance.
It is unclear if the officer acted properly or not by shooting and killing Andreas. At this point, 10 weeks after the homicide, the province's Special Investigations Unit has still not concluded its investigation nor released any details about what happened.
What is clear is the Chinnery family has not been offered the help other families of homicide victims are afforded.
Two SIU investigators came to Rob's door to notify him of his son's death.
The SIU investigates all police-related deaths, serious injuries and allegations of sexual assault.
Once they are called in.
The normal protocol for a death notification when there is a homicide is Hamilton officers are accompanied by one of three full-time victim services staff members.
A homicide notification is considered such a sensitive and important matter that it is policy for victim services to be involved.
And not a volunteer member - a fully trained staff member. Someone who can spend time with the family, liaise between the family and investigators, guide the family through the legal process, assist with contacting other family and friends, help with funeral arrangements and media inquiries and recommend grief counsellors.
Yet when a police officer is responsible for the homicide, the Hamilton police send no victim services staff.
"The SIU sends their victim services person, " says Sergeant Terri-Lynn Collings, media officer for the Hamilton police.
But that's not the case.
The SIU did not send a victim services expert to notify Rob. Nor do they in most cases, says the unit's spokesperson Jasbir Brar.
"The lead investigators make notification," she says, adding they have had "sensitivity training."
Underscoring the confusing and sometimes nonsensical relationship between the SIU and Ontario's police services, there is nothing to stop police from providing victim assistance to families involved with the SIU, according to Brar. Yet there are strict rules prohibiting officers from having any contact with the same families.
Brar points out that even if police reach out, a family who has just been told police killed their loved one may not want to accept the offer of support.
Which makes sense. Yet the SIU doesn't fill that gap.
The unit's entire mandate is to investigate allegations involving terrible trauma. Last year it investigated 287 cases, where there are families mourning, possibly victims suffering and sometimes witnesses affected. Yet the SIU has only one "affected persons co-ordinator" to work with victims in the entire province.
Ironically, where does that co-ordinator, Nickie Buchok, work from?
Her home in Hamilton.
So it is conceivable she could have assisted the SIU investigators in notifying Rob of his son's death. But that simply isn't the way things are done.
Since the notification, Rob has spoken with Buchok and asked for counselling. But the SIU only makes referrals.
Rob and his remaining family say they didn't even know what the SIU was before it knocked on their door. Navigating the weeks since Andreas was killed has been frustrating and emotionally exhausting. They have few answers from the SIU - except that it is still waiting on forensic test results before it can conclude its investigation. They feel as if they are in the dark.
"In this case, there's a sense of shame on the family, " says Rob. "We're on our own because this is a homicide committed by police."
Families of homicide victims feel isolated as "their circle of support gets smaller and smaller, " says Bev Wilson, a traumatic bereavement counsellor who leads Hamilton's homicide support group called Lean on Me. "If the homicide is the result of a police shooting, the isolation is instantaneous."
She says the group would welcome the Chinnerys. About 30 people have gone through Lean on Me since it began three years ago. None have lost their loved ones at the hands of police.
"These people are stigmatized, " says Wilson. "People shy away from these families. So the support system is gone. They're in a world they've never been in before."
The stigma is greater when someone is killed by police, Wilson says.
When it comes to support, nothing should matter except that these families are grieving.
"They have done nothing, " says Wilson. "Nothing."