April 8, 2014

Helping Victims and Their Families

Psychologist Specializes in Kidnapping, Hostage Cases

Carl Dickens

Carl Dickens joined the FBI in 2011 after a 32-year career in the military.

A U.S. aid worker is kidnapped for ransom in Somalia. A terrorist group holds an American hostage in Afghanistan. Sometimes incidents like these make headlines, and sometimes they occur below the media radar. Either way, the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance (OVA) is there to help victims and their families.

When the FBI investigates crimes, federal law requires that we offer assistance and services to victims. In situations where Americans are taken hostage overseas, our go-to person in the OVA is an operational psychologist with decades of real-world experience.

Carl Dickens joined the Bureau in 2011 after a 32-year career in the military in which he spent more than 13 years in special operations and personnel recovery and deployed multiple times in support of combat operations. His insights and practical knowledge help investigators working to recover victims, and also help victims—and their families—resume their lives.

“My job starts the moment a person goes missing,” Dickens explained. “The FBI uses an integrative approach to hostage cases that not only supports individuals and their families but also synchronizes the investigative and operational elements working to get the person back.”

When the FBI is alerted to an overseas hostage situation, Dickens and his colleagues in the OVA’s Terrorism and Special Jurisdiction Program coordinate with other FBI units and federal partners involved in the effort to recover the individual. The OVA will also locate the victim’s family and dispatch a victim specialist there for support (the Bureau has victim specialists in all 56 of its field offices).

“Families of kidnap victims are dealing with one of the most stressful events in their lives,” Dickens said. “Unfortunately there are no roadmaps for a family when something like this happens,” he added. “While their loved one is being held, we try to offer families a sense of hope. We let them know there are people actively working to recover their family member and that we aren’t giving up.” In addition to providing emotional support, the OVA team can assist with travel, lodging, and emergency expenses and can provide notification about criminal proceedings.

Dickens understands how a hostage might react to the stresses of captivity, which can be helpful to those planning a rescue operation or preparing for the victim’s safe return home. He can also help to assess the hostage’s coping response and develop a post-captivity support plan for the individual’s return.

Kathryn Turman, who leads the OVA, noted that the FBI has been increasingly called on to handle overseas hostage cases. “We knew we needed someone like Carl, and we were incredibly fortunate that he joined the FBI,” she said. “His practical knowledge helps investigators, and his efforts with recovered victims and their families make a significant difference in how well they are able to cope and move forward in their lives.”

Experience has taught Dickens that most hostages find an inner strength when they are in captivity. “Recovered victims are not broken or damaged,” he said. “They are just normal people who have gone through an abnormal situation. It’s important for families to recognize that their loved one may be weak and shaken when they come home,” he explained, “but they are not broken.”

Helping victims and families find the way forward is “a noble profession,” he added. “To see the look on the face of someone who has been recovered, and to know that you were part of that effort, is very gratifying.”

Working for Families

“The FBI’s comprehensive approach to victim assistance is very impressive,” said Carl Dickens, a member of our Office for Victim Assistance who specializes in international kidnapping and hostage situations. “And the OVA team is a consistent and supportive presence throughout the lifecycle of the case.”

“What’s paramount is getting a hostage victim back safely,” Dickens said, “but it’s also important for the families to know that we are on their side and able to support them in a variety of ways.”

From the time a loved one goes missing until his or her recovery and possible prosecution of the perpetrators, the OVA offers continued assistance to victims and their families. “Whether a case lasts for weeks, months, or years,” Dickens said, “our team remains available to provide support.”

More information about the Office for Victim Assistance.