Hostage US Support for the Families of Hostages
By John Smith. January 2024
Events in the last three months in Israel and Gaza have put the taking of hostages into the spotlight as never before, but the practice is centuries old, and it has become a standard political tactic to put pressure on a perceived opponent. It remains one of the cruelest crimes imaginable, especially because the hostage is not the only individual damaged. No one who has not themselves experienced being a family member or close friend of a hostage can truly understand what they suffer, however the Hostage US staff and volunteers have a great deal of knowledge of what families go through as a result of supporting more than 159 family members since its formation in 2016. All the support provided by Hostage US is pro bono and remains confidential between Hostage US and the individual or family being supported. As Hostage US does not reveal which cases it is dealing or has dealt with, and they do not publicly advocate for the release of any individual. Hostage US relies on private donations, not retainers, to provide its services and is proud that it is fiercely independent of all other advisors and stakeholders.
For many people the immediate response to a family member being taken hostage is shock and disbelief – how on earth can this be happening and is this just a bad dream or terrible nightmare? Genuine deep fear and anxiety remain constant throughout the ordeal, but frustration and anger (sometimes with the hostage themself) soon come to the fore. There is an insistent need to do something about it. Some people may even want to go to the country where their loved one is being held to try to resolve the situation by any means. Some use all their resources and contacts at their disposal to try to resolve matters. This urge to be active can be long lasting and may well be helpful to both the hostage and the family, but as time goes on, a feeling of total powerlessness may take over. We have found that even the most competent and intelligent individuals may hit this wall; they may stop eating properly, stop keeping themselves fit and become unfocused, seemingly unable to deal with even relatively simple problems. Others become so totally focused on the situation that they cannot think of or deal with anything else and do not allow themselves time for self-care, possibly feeling guilty that they are not able to achieve more to get the hostage released. This is a dangerous time for family members, and while support through this period is critical, that support is best given by trained and experienced individuals. For instance, seemingly innocuous questions like “How are you?” can elicit a terse response, and to say “I understand what you are going through” invites only anger from people who feel, rightly, that no-one can possibly understand what they are going through, or the isolation they feel.
Throughout this time the family will be wondering and worrying about what is happening to their loved one: Is their loved one still alive? Are they being abused or tortured? Are they ill or being starved? These ruminations are constantly present, and are sources of stress which never go away.
Through all this the trained and experienced support volunteers at Hostage US are able to provide emotional and practical support to help the individual or family cope and to put the situation into context. It’s critical to the hostage that family members themselves are able to navigate all of the complex issues that arise, most of which Hostage US will have dealt with in other cases.
Financial and legal maters
In the unexpected absence of a partner, child, or sibling who has been taken hostage, there are a plethora of practical problems to be managed. Matters that may well have been decided jointly now must be dealt with alone. Frequently these are financial issues relating to property and taxes. If the hostage’s income ceases, either because they are self-employed or their employer no longer pays their salary (keeping in mind that some employers stop paying quite soon after a kidnapping), then the payment of debts such as a mortgage, car insurance and taxes very quickly become a real problem. Frequently the property cannot be sold, rented or used for equity release because the mortgage holder is the hostage and is not available to sign the legal documents required. If the family is renting their property from a third party, that third party could terminate the lease since the lease holder may no longer be present. It’s rare for someone who is taken hostage to have granted Power of Attorney (POA) to a family member prior to a hostage situation, and getting a POA granted in their absence can be difficult or even impossible.
The family member left behind may also find it difficult or impossible to carry out their normal occupation because the demands of the situation are so great. Usually, these financial problems cannot be dealt with by a visit to a local bank or through a call center; there is nothing on the drop-down menu of most organizations which tells the operator how to deal with someone whose family member has been kidnapped. Hostage US has built close relationships with senior level executives at major financial institutions and fostered close partnerships with large legal firms to provide pro bono assistance to hostage families and returned hostages on situations such as this.
Relationships with family and friends
During a wrongful detention of a family member there are both internal and external relationships to be dealt with. The hostage situation places strain on even the strongest family ties. For that reason, unless the family wishes to be supported as an entity, a separate Hostage US support volunteer will be allocated to each family member and confidentiality will be maintained for as long as it is required.
If government authorities or a hostage recovery consultancy are dealing with the case, the family member may have been advised for operational reasons to keep the hostage taking confidential which creates additional pressure. Neighbors and friends will naturally wonder what has happened and why an individual they saw with the family is no longer around, supposition and rumors may start to circulate quite quickly and normal conversation with someone not aware of the situation may become very difficult, often leading to avoiding contact with relatives, neighbors and friends. It is particularly difficult for children who may be quizzed by schoolfriends on why a father, mother or sibling is not around anymore.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH GOVERNMENT AGENCIES
Other than dealing with their own tax affairs or traffic violation fines, most people have had little contact with government agencies. If a government entity is managing the hostage situation, the family members may suddenly find themselves in close and regular contact with the State Department, the FBI and senior members of all political parties. Two specialist agencies exist in the US, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), based in the State Department with a mandate to work closely with families, and the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell which consists of various agencies involved in the operational aspects of getting a hostage home. All this can be bewildering and extremely confusing, and many people may find visiting Washington DC to meet with government officials quite intimidating. This is especially true as many officials in DC are trained to maintain a high level of confidentiality, and may lack the necessary people skills which, without intending to, may come across as overly formal and even uncaring. Hostage US deals with government agencies on a daily basis and can provide experienced guides to navigate the corridors of power, even accompanying family members to meetings if the family wishes them to. Especially in the early days, these meetings can be overwhelming, and it may be difficult to remember everything that was said and to fully understand that which may have been implied. Having a trusted and experienced supporter from Hostage US to take notes will assist the family in working through these issues.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH CONSULTANCIES AND OTHERS
There are many security consultancies which specialize in dealing with kidnap cases, inevitably some may be better and more experienced than others. If the kidnapping is publicly known, family members may even be approached by individuals who claim to be able to resolve the situation or to have privileged information. Hostage US can help to advise how best to deal in these circumstances, which questions to ask, and whether the company or individual has a successful and verifiable track record .
RELATIONSHIPS WITH EMPLOYERS
Some employers may well be better prepared to deal with a kidnapping than others. Many larger organizations have detailed and practiced response plans for an established Incident Management Team, possibly working with a trusted security consultancy. There may well be kidnap insurance in place in the company, although most insurers insist that knowledge of its existence is kept confidential and only known to the most senior individuals. Some employers may have no plans in place, no trained staff, no insurance, and some have been known to cease paying remuneration to the kidnapped individual. Where the business has a trained team and procedures in place, the team will be completely focused on gaining the individual’s freedom and will often move heaven and earth to do so, but probably only a few will have considered the effects on the family while the event is going on, and very few will take much interest in the family once the hostage is returned. Hostage US provides training to employers in how to respond to the needs of the family and the returning hostage and can help families work with employers to achieve the best outcome.
TO GO PUBLIC – OR NOT
A key decision for families is whether, if they have been advised to keep the kidnapping confidential, they should continue to stay quiet, or whether they should go public and seek publicity in the hope of putting more pressure on whatever government agency might be dealing with the kidnapping. Fortunately, the days of family members being threatened with jail for going public are pretty well over in the Western world, but such things are believed to have happened in the not too distant past. There may well be sound operational reasons for keeping matters quiet, but it is essential that families understand what these reasons are and why the agency is making that demand. Putting even more pressure on families than they are already bearing simply demonstrates a total lack of empathy with what the family is going through and a rigidness of thought which does not bode well for any negotiation.
If the family decides to go public, then the risks of so doing should be clearly understood in advance, and a media strategy decided upon, ideally with the advice and guidance of a suitably experienced professional. Again, Hostage US has close contact with a number of highly experienced public relations professionals who provide pro bono advice. High profile cases attract significant media coverage, and while mainstream journalists are usually respectful towards the family, others may be less so and can be very persistent and aggressive when seeking a new angle on a story. Professional advice is essential.
Family members are advised early on to remove themselves completely from social media; kidnappers can access social media streams as well as anyone else, and leaving up details, including photographs and family knowledge, can lead to some abusive trolling from some very unpleasant individuals. It is always helpful for anyone supporting a hostage family member to make clear arrangements about times and means of contact, an unexpected telephone call or email may lead to short lived elation followed by depression, especially if a call is expected from the kidnappers or a government agency trying to resolve the situation.
RANSOM OR THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
Hostage US takes no position on the payment of ransoms as it is strictly non-operational, leaving the recovery of the hostage to the professionals, government or commercial entities who operate in this space. Many national governments have for some years taken the public position that no ransom can be paid to terrorists, in recent years and as a result of the pressure resulting from the highly publicized murders of hostages, recorded on video, this position appears to have softened somewhat.