If you’re a regular reader of crime fiction, you will already be familiar with the term FLO (pronounced “flow”), which stands for Family Liaison Officer. FLOs are a constant feature in crime novels and on TV dramas, but they’re almost always on the periphery of the case… until now.
DC Maggie Neville is the central police character in my debut crime series and is a specially trained Family Liaison Officer for Major Crime investigations. Her day job sees her based with Force CID in Mansell, a fictitious town in the English county of Buckinghamshire, but as a FLO she can be deployed anywhere across her force for however long a case needs her.
The idea for making a FLO my central police character came to me after I interviewed Kerry Needham, whose toddler son Ben went missing on the Greek island of Kos 25 years ago. It was only in recent years that Kerry had been assigned a FLO and it was quite evident from talking to her that this had had a profoundly positive impact on her ability to deal with Ben’s disappearance.
After that I began researching family liaison in depth and quickly came to understand what a vital role it is. Every day in the UK hundreds of grieving families are receiving round-the-clock support from FLOs like Maggie.
Kevin Wells, whose daughter Holly was one of the two Soham murder victims, wrote in his memoir, Goodbye, Dearest Holly: Ten Years On, that without the support of their FLO, an officer named Chris Mead, he, his wife Nicola and Holly’s brother Oliver would have found it impossible to cope with her death.
‘At our lowest ebb, in total misery, Chris provided us with the factual understanding, realistic options and hope,’ Kevin wrote. ‘At no stage did he flinch from his duty; at no point was he not honest. Nothing – and no one – outranked the needs of my family.’
As Maggie proves in Gone Astray, being a FLO can be a precarious balancing act between serving the needs of the family and those of her colleagues. It’s not easy stepping into what can be a highly fraught and emotional environment and a FLO will stay by the family’s side throughout the investigation and during any subsequent court case.
‘You’re the first to start and you’re the last to finish,’ I was told by Christine Freeman, a former detective who was the FLO on the Shannon Matthews kidnap case in West Yorkshire in 2008 and who has been a huge inspiration for Maggie. ‘With Family Liaison, you’re at the heart of it.’
I hope the 3,000 FLOs currently serving in forces across the UK like seeing Maggie take the lead in my crime series. It’s about time these unsung heroes took centre stage.