When a child or young person dies
Updated: 31 July 2017
This key information outlines what to do when a child or young person dies while in care.
Oranga Tamariki works closely with some of the most vulnerable children and young people in New Zealand, and a sad reality is that we may be involved with them when they die.
Whether these deaths are intentional, accidental, related to illness or disability, or unforeseen (e.g. Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy), they are all tragedies in their own right.
The death of a child or young person is a tragic and traumatic event, particularly for their family and others involved in their life. When Oranga Tamariki is involved with a child or young person who has died, it is important that we respond appropriately and sensitively and that we acknowledge the grief and loss that will be experienced by those people close to them, including caregivers and any professionals working with the child or young person.
The deaths of children and young people as a result of homicide or suicide is particularly distressing and media attention and wider public interest in these tragic events can add to people’s distress. The safety of other children and young people, staff wellbeing and the support of whānau or family are key considerations during this time. It is important that timely and appropriate supports are made available to those people directly affected by the death, including yourself and other professionals.
Working with the whānau or family
Establish the key contact person within the whānau or family and check with that person about what the whānau or family needs from you. This might range from regular phone calls and financial assistance with funeral costs or groceries to practical help like linking them up with other support agencies.
Remember, this is a time when the whānau or family may not be thinking clearly and things may need to be explained to them more than once. Consider how often contact is needed to help them understand what has happened and what will happen next.
If the child or young person was not in the care of their parents or other whānau or family at the time of their death, be mindful that this may raise feelings of anger and guilt for them.
Let the whānau or family guide you as to what would be most helpful, and think creatively about how you can best support them. Also make sure the whānau or family is given a key contact person within Oranga Tamariki. This will help avoid confusion about who they should call and help them to get a timely response from someone who knows about their situation.
If the child or young person was placed away from their parents or whānau or family at the time of their death, work with their caregiver to return the child or young person’s personal belongings (e.g. letters, photographs, mementoes) back to them. Liaise with the whānau or family’s contact person to ensure this is managed sensitively and respectfully with the family/whanau.
It is important that you also clearly record and evidence what you have done or plan to do to support the child or young person’s whānau or family. This helps keep you on track with tasks still left to be completed, and gives you an overall picture of the support that has been provided to the whānau or family during this incredibly traumatic time.
Siblings and other young whānau or family members
Trying to come to terms with a child or young person’s death can be a hugely difficult task for an adult — for a child or young person it may be almost incomprehensible.
Be responsive to the needs of siblings and other young whānau or family members, and watch out for signs of depression, self harm and suicide risk. Research indicates this is a highly vulnerable time for these tamariki..For tamariki in the whānau or family who are 12 years and older, complete the Substances and Choices scale and Kessler and Suicide screens with them. Give careful consideration to the best way to do this under what is likely to be a highly distressing time for them, and be sensitive to their ability to engage in the process under these circumstances.
Using the SACs, Kessler and Suicide screens (SKS) and suicide screening/ assessment tools – When the child or young person is acutely distressed or tools have been recently used.
If you have concerns regarding suicide for a child under 12 years, consult with a Towards Wellbeing (TWB) advisor before applying the screens — the screens were developed to be used with older children and young people and may not provide you with the information you need. In this situation, a more age-appropriate specialist assessment could prove useful.
What to do when a child or young person in care dies
There are some specific steps that need to be carried out in situations when the child or young person who has died is in the custody or guardianship of the chief executive, an iwi or cultural social service, or a child and family support service. The site needs to:
- Notify the police, and consider whether the Child Protection Protocol applies in this situation.
- Secure all paper files relating to the child or young person, and make all relevant electronic records confidential. Also ensure that case information on CYRAS is up-to-date.
- Send a Serious Event Notification to your regional Executive Manager and Regional Manager advising of the death. Your Executive Manager will let you know if there are any specific matters you need to attend to and, as the situation develops, will advise on further action.
- Develop a strategy which outlines how the site will support the whānau or family during this difficult time.
Supporting the site or residence
Consider the provision of additional support for the site or residence. This is particularly important when the site or residence has experienced a number of deaths in a short space of time, when they are short staffed or unable to respond to the extra demands, or if the circumstances of the death are particularly traumatic or distressing.
The site manager or the residence manager are the first point of contact and assume responsibility for managing the situation. They may choose to have a meeting to formulate a plan which:
- considers all staff, including those who may be off site, on training, annual leave or who have recently left the site
- determines what is appropriate for staff to know
- seeks advice from legal where required, for example during a police investigation
- ensures appropriate staff are allocated to any ongoing casework
- nominates a first contact point for families/caregivers or any other relevant parties
- considers supports for staff, family, caregivers, other children or young people (particularly when a child or young person dies in a residence) and that there is ongoing support throughout the entire process e.g. Police, Court and Coroners proceedings.
Ensuring your own safety and wellbeing
Your own safety and wellbeing is paramount.
- Give yourself time to come to terms with the death, and be aware of how it may impact on your thinking and practice.
- Traumatic events such as death may also bring up issues for you relating to previously experienced trauma.
- Keep an eye on your own emotions and figure out the best way for you to work through the situation.
- Talk to your supervisor or other colleagues about how you are feeling, and remember that you can access free counselling through the Employee Assistance Programme.