Just over a week ago we got a letter addressed to my stepson. This happens occasionally, though he's long since moved out. We bin the obvious junk and keep the other stuff for when he comes home on a visit.
But this time my partner decided to invoke a mum's privilege to poke her nose into her offspring's business. The letter was from a company called Estate Research, “a firm of genealogists who specialise in tracing missing beneficiaries.” It was a form letter with his name inserted in another font at the top.
Intriguing! Our kid was in line for a windfall. At least that was the hint. Except the thing is, none of his or mine or his mum's family has died recently. The older generation have long since gone, with the exception of my partner's dad, still golfing his brains out well into his eighties.
At a bit of a loss and with an uneasy feeling that there was something we should know about, my partner went to our hometown newspaper website and searched under the family surname.
That was how we found out that her ex husband and my stepson's biological father had died in early April. Not only that, we were the first of any members of the wider family to find out.
My partner spent the rest of the evening on the phone: to our kid and to his uncle, who still lives near Stoke.
This wasn't the first time the deaceased made the papers. He was a long-term and sporadically violent paranoid schizophrenic whose various escapades and rampages had provided occasional entertainment for readers of the Evening Sentinel over the years. He was very well known indeed to the NHS, to the police and in the court system. He had been found dead at his flat some three weeks earlier. And the family only found out because a slightly dodgy looking genealogy company got my stepson's address wrong. Bear in mind as well that the approach this company took to telling my stepson his father had died was through hinting that he was going to be quids in.
We didn't bother contacting the company, but my stepson got straight in touch with the coroner, who said that they couldn't find a phone with contact addresses and so they had turned to the genealogists. These turned out to be a firm of lawyers who track down relatives of the unclaimed dead by arrangement in the hope of getting chargeable probate work. Apparently they and Stoke coroners office have some sort of arrangement.
It was true that he never had a phone. Phones tended to accentuate his paranoia. It's not true that he was some kind of lost soul, completely out of touch with family. His mother and father looked after himn while they were alive, to the extent that someone in his state could be looked after. His brother visited regularly, though a lot of the time he wouldn't open the door. His brother saw him about once every month.
And as I say, even the most cursory search of the relevant databases would have turned up contact details. Not that it was necessary to search. His brother went to his flat next day and found a piece of paper with his own address on it within three minutes of opening the door. It seems that the cops had just routinely turned over the job of finding next of kin to the hearse-chasers.
So why would that be? I suspect the reasons can be found in this HMIC report on Staffordshire Police and the “Funding Challenge” as the inspectorate chose to call it. Over the past five years, Staffordshire police have lost more than 20% of their cops, 17% of their PCSOs and 16% of their civilian support staff.
There's lots of upbeat, managerial jargonese stuff in that report about 'maintaining a strong presence on the frontline' and so on. But my guess is that the frontline has narrowed to the point where it doesn't include contacting next of kin of the deceased, at least if this involves any actual looking for them.
People think about austerity as removing discrete services. Something specific used to be available that has now been withdrawn. But austerity is also about eroding services to the point where the wider, social content of the job disappears. The service provided dwindles to a series of datapoints that can be used to make a 'business case'. One would expect the police to trace and contact relatives out of basic human decency. But there's no budget heading for that, at least not in a time of “funding challenges.”