Declaration of death
For families of Grand Bahama’s 22 missing storm victims, life is a daily struggle with unresolved grief, as unlike the families of the island’s 11 confirmed storm deaths, they do not have bodies or remains to lay to rest.
It is what psychologists call “ambiguous loss”; the kind of loss that leaves loved ones with little to no answers, which, in turn, can leave the process of grief frozen in time and make it more difficult for the bereaved to move on with life.
Such a circumstance takes both a physical and psychological toll, as can the process of families trying to manage the affairs of a loved one who is presumed dead but for whom no formal declaration of death has been made.
One such family is the Pinders of High Rock, where matriarch Theresa Pinder, 77, told Perspective she is still “standing strong” after having lost her two daughters, Raphaela “Lavette” Munnings and Shirlene Pinder-Cooper, her grandson, Donlock Munnings Jr., and her six-year-old great-grandson Omarion Munnings, in flood waters brought about by Hurricane Dorian’s deadly storm surge last year.
One of her surviving daughters, Shaniqua Bartlett, warmly welcomed us into their storm-damaged home, still under repair since our last visit nearly two months ago, and explained the challenges of trying to deal with her sisters’ financial affairs in the wake of their presumed deaths.
“Lavette had five children,” she said of her oldest sister. “Her oldest son died with her and her daughter’s son.”
Motioning to her nephew who quietly sat at the kitchen counter eating an evening meal, Bartlett disclosed, “This is her son and he has special needs, so what if whatever she had was all he depended on? What if there were not other family members to look after him? He would just be here all by himself.
“She has children and they can’t touch anything. They already tried. It’s sad and you don’t know what could happen within that seven-year space of time [and] her other children are keeping up her [life] insurance payments, [they’re] unemployed, but they are keeping it up.”
Her reference to a seven-year period for a death certificate is what many bereaved relatives believe is the mandatory wait time for a missing person to be declared dead by the state.
Individuals, including opposition leader Philip Brave Davis, have called for the government to amend the Births and Deaths Registration Act to reduce the time period wherein a missing person can be declared dead.
But it is a wait that Attorney General Carl Bethel insists is not necessary.
He explained in an interview with us, “We don’t need to change any laws. All [relatives] need to do is produce a police report, take it to the Coroner’s Office with their sworn statement.
“The coroner is then able to summon and call an inquiry, have it without a jury, interview the police officer who took the statement, find out whether the police officer has any other information, interview the person, let them verify their statement and then make a declaration of death and issue a death certificate – you don’t have to wait seven years.”
Section 20(1),(2) of the Coroners Act, 2011, states that the coroner to whom a death has been reported must decide whether to not open an inquest into it and “where the coroner after an inquiry determines that an inquest is unnecessary, the coroner shall forthwith transmit to the Attorney-General a signed statement setting forth briefly the result of his inquiry and shall also transmit to the Registrar General a notice of the death and the Registrar General shall enter the death and particulars in the form and manner prescribed by the Births and Deaths Registration Act.”
The Coroner’s Act empowers the AG to determine whether an inquest is to be held without a jury.
Bethel noted, “Now, I think the big difficulty that some persons are perhaps experiencing is being able to get copies of their statements, which is something that needs to be worked on perhaps in terms of the way it’s being dealt with administratively by the police, but they should be able to get a copy of their statement, take at least the copy of their statement to the coroner in whatever island they are on.”
There is currently one coroner and five deputy coroners in place now, according to Bethel, who further explained, “We had a big meeting with all the coroners in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, we went through the law, and we determined on a way in which it could be done [so] people do not have to wait seven years.”
It is information that the government ought to work harder at disseminating to the families of storm victims, so that they can begin the process of bringing closure for surviving relatives.
For the police force’s part, it has received numerous reports of persons being seen swept away in flood waters, according to National Security Minister Marvin Dames, but it was our other questions on the missing persons investigation in Dorian’s wake that did not yield a direct response.
The missing persons list
In January, Police Commissioner Anthony Ferguson advised that police had 54 missing persons reports in Dorian’s aftermath.
Two months earlier, Dames told The Tribune that police had 282 missing persons reports.
We questioned Dames during an interview last week on why the list of missing storm victims had not yet been published.
He answered, “The police are working with NEMA, social services and the red cross and other agencies and you should probably see something to that effect very shortly.”
It’s an indication Dames has given several times before.
When an individual is reported missing to the police, the force has a standard protocol, which includes the publishing of an official flyer with the photograph and particulars of the missing individual, which among other things, aids police in their search efforts.
Flyers have been released for all of Grand Bahama’s 22 missing victims but only a handful has been released for those reported missing on Abaco.
Dames confirmed to us that police do have a “fixed list” of the missing, but he did not state what the specific reason is for the list not yet being published.
We questioned Dames later on in the week about what accounted for the difference of 228 names on the police force’s missing persons list between October and January, but did not receive a response up to press time.
Thirty-two of the missing storm victims are from Abaco, according to Ferguson, and according to Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands, in an interview with reporters last December, only four of the island’s victims had been identified.
Meanwhile, the bodies of over 50 victims remain in a refrigerated trailer on the island.