23 December 2023, 9:33am
AFP Family Investigative Liaison Officers deliver critical support in 2023
Editor’s Note: Audio is available via Hightail
The AFP Family Investigative Liaison Officer (FILO) network marked its 21st anniversary in 2023 with multiple deployments as part of its critical roles as a conduit between investigators and families following the death or harm of an Australian overseas.
AFP FILOs are a key part of any response to Australians being involved in catastrophic events such as natural disasters, terrorist incidents and overseas kidnappings.
In the past year, AFP FILOs assisted with the Australian response to two light aircraft crashes in Nepal and the Philippines, as well as the response to the successful release of two Australians kidnapped in separate incidents.
An Australian man from Queensland was kidnapped in Papua New Guinea in February 2023 before being held hostage for several days. A second man, who was held for ransom in West Africa for seven years, was released and returned to Western Australia in August 2023.
The AFP was involved in the Australian response to both matters, including supporting the two men and their families.
AFP Detective Acting Superintendent Shane Scott said AFP members who worked as FILOs were trained investigators who supported families in times of distress, while also assisting police inquiries.
“FILOs are required to constantly balance the need to gather information for an investigation, such as collecting DNA for Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) processes, and collaborating with international law enforcement and partner agencies, while empathically and effectively liaising with family members or victims in times of extreme grief,” Det A/Supt Scott said.
“The personal situation for families in a catastrophic event where they have lost a loved one, or have been significantly harmed, is overwhelming, traumatic and difficult to process.”
The AFP FILO program was introduced in 2002 as part of the assistance provided to Indonesia after the bombings in Bali. It was based on a similar program used across police forces in the United Kingdom.
AFP FILOs have been involved in investigations and responses to international incidents including the Samoan tsunami in 2009, a plane crash in Kokoda in 2009, bombings at the Jakarta Embassy (2004) and in Bali (2005), the MH17 investigation (2014-onwards), the White Island volcanic eruption in 2019 and a range of overseas kidnappings.
AFP Detective Acting Sergeant Mat Elliot, who joined the FILO network in 2019, recalled his experience during the White Island volcano eruption in New Zealand.
“It was a difficult situation dealing with the families of those impacted, and also victims themselves, who were dealing with life-changing situations,” he said.
“FILOs need to manage varying processes, including collecting items from relatives that may contain DNA or other details - such as toothbrushes and medical records – to assist with the identification of victims, liaising with national and international partners, and working with airlines and funeral directors to help repatriate the bodies of those who have died.”
AFP Detective Leading Senior Constable Theo Tsavalas, who also deployed as a FILO in response to the White Island incident, said the benefits of the FILO program were evident.
“The first days and weeks are extremely critical for the next of kin or those impacted by the tragic events. They are often overwhelmed and needing to make sense of what has occurred as well as get through a very complex process,” he said.
“Families usually have many questions about the incident, the investigation process, court proceedings and repatriation. FILOs provide that layer of comfort as well as critical assistance, direction and support that is needed.”
AFP Senior Constable Verity Wolfenden joined the AFP FILO program in 2021 and said her background in general duties policing highlighted her passion in providing support to victims of crime.
“Knowing that as a police officer and FILO I can have a positive impact on a person’s life at their most vulnerable time provides a significant sense of purpose,” she said.
“Empathy, patience, good communication and listening skills are qualities needed as a FILO, as you are dealing with people at a time where they are most likely at their lowest point. The interactions and trust built with these families is pivotal for their long-term recovery.”
A dedicated AFP FILO Coordination team is located in Canberra, while 140 FILOs are based across the country, balancing their part time FILO role with their full time duties as AFP investigators.
Det A/Supt Scott said AFP FILO members were provided intensive training to equip them with the skills to deliver on investigative and family support needs.
“The importance of the AFP FILO network as the single point of contact between families and the investigation team is critical to ensure consistent and timely communication,” he said.
“’The benefits of the AFP FILO network are recognised nationally and internationally.
“We are proud to have been invited to speak at the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) Expert Group Meeting held in Morocco, in June 2023 on countering the threat of kidnap for ransom. We discussed victim and next of kin management for long-term kidnap investigations.
“FILO Coordination members have this year supported key partners including ACT Policing, NSW Police and the New Zealand Police in establishing their own FILO networks and programs through sharing governance and policy, training materials and recognised expertise.”
Eight FILO members who deployed to assist New Zealand Police during the immediate response to the victims and families harmed during the Christchurch mosque attacks in 2019, were also this year formally recognised with an official citation from New Zealand Police.