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Helping Terrorism Victims and Their Families

Helping Terrorism Victims and Their Families
Kathryn Turman Talks About Lessons Learned

03/26/04

The FBI Office for Victim Assistance, headed by Kathryn Turman, was created shortly after the 9/11/01 attacks. It’s mission: to centralize FBI "victim-witness" operations and aggressively develop policies and resources that ensure victims of federal crimes have access to the rights and assistance to which they are entitled under the law. What kind of crimes? The full rangefrom victims of financial fraud...to child abuse victims in Indian Country...to victims of terrorism. Kathryn’s staff includes specialists in interviewing children and 112 full-time victim specialist positions in FBI offices across the country. A big focus since 9/11 has been putting systems into place to coordinate the FBI response to victims of terrorism and other mass casualty crimesthe focus of today’s interview.

Kathryn, when a catastrophic event occurslike the 9/11 attackshow do you immediately marshal your resources to help the victims and their families?

We usually learn of the death or injury of U.S. citizens within the first few hours. We will reach out to the family, give them our condolences, and provide information on what will happen next and why and what help they can expect from the FBI. Since the 9/11 attacks, most of these events have occurred overseas. In these cases, we assume responsibility for transporting the victim’s remains back to the U.S., coordinating the autopsy (which is necessary for the investigation), collecting dental records and DNA from family members, and making arrangements for the final journey home. We make sure families receive personal effects and the death certificates they need. We keep them informed every step of the way and try to provide what comfort and support we can. As an example, we got a letter from the 7-year-old son of a terrorism victim: "Thank you for bringing my Daddy home," he wrote. "Thank you for sending Ms. B_____ to give me my Daddy’s jewelry. I didn’t get to say goodbye to him on the phone but I got to say goodbye at the church."

What do the victims and families need? And how do you meet those needs?

Surviving victims and families of victims above all want and need information in a timely manner and from an official source. They also need help with the practical but horrible realities of losing a loved one to a violent death far from home. As you can imagine, it is such a relief to them, feeling so helpless and vulnerable, when their government steps in to take care of details. And they need to know that the FBI will continue to keep them informed no matter how many years an investigation may last.

In the case of the 9/11 families, what systems have you put in place to assist them long term?

The 9/11 terrorist attacks required just a massive response to the victims and families. No one agency could do it alone. For our part, over some 18 months, we have focused on returning personal effects (with strong assistance from the PENTTBOM team of investigators) and answering their specific questions. They don’t want to just imagine the deaths of their loved ones; they want to know the realityanything, anything that we might know as fact. We meet with victims and families. We share as much as we can about the investigation, within the legal constraints, of course, of what can be divulged about an ongoing investigation. We took some badly damaged personal effects and turned them over to a company that specializes in restoring such items. As a result of the cleaning process, we discovered some previously unfound items, including a goodbye letter written by a passenger to her family. We were able to preserve that letter and return it to the family. Because we are working with over 10,000 victims and family members of the 9/11 attacks, we created a special informational webpage for them as well as a toll-free number and Internet address where they can directly reach us.

Finally, Kathryn, what have you learned from the handling of this unprecedented act of terrorism? How has it changed the way you operate...and will operate in the future?

We have learned so many lessons, they are hard to count. Perhaps the most critical lesson is that the rights and needs of victims must be built into our response to terrorism from the beginning. We need to have systems in place for reaching out to victims, for providing ongoing information and answering difficult questions, and helping them find assistance resourcesregardless of how many victims there are and where they live. We should connect with them at many points during the investigative process. Even the most difficult and painful issues can be addressed if victims feel their needs are respected and we are compassionate and supportive in our dealings with them.

It’s pretty clear that terrorism is now a part of our daily realityand my job is to never forget that the impact on individuals and families lasts long after the crime scenes have been cleared; memorials, erected; and perpetrators, tried and sentenced. In my office, we believe that if we do what we are required to do by law and what is right to do, we can help victims cope, find some justice, and restore their faith in humankind and their government.