Emma Maxwell is a Prevent Contact Officer for the Eastern Counter Terrorism Intelligence Unit (ECTIU). She offers support to families left behind when loved ones travel to conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq, or are arrested on suspicion of terrorism offences. She joined the police as a PC in 1995 and has worked as a Prevent officer since 2014.
Every family I have worked with has been devastated. There is often a feeling of disbelief, they just didn’t see it coming. There were no warning signs.
For some families, having a loved one caught up in this type of crime is almost like having a death in the family. They are in complete and utter shock and despair and they go through a range of emotions.
It can have a real effect on children, especially if they are at school. It can be horrible for them if other pupils single them out.
I can become involved as a contact officer for a range of different cases, whether that is people travelling or a family member being involved in terror-related activity. You can never really prepare yourself for how they are going to be when you go round to see a family for the first time. One case involved an extended family member who had travelled to Syria which had a big impact on those left behind.
Another of the families I worked with felt quite lonely and they didn’t have any immediate family nearby to support them. They felt people were looking at them and the community suddenly stopped talking to them.
Some don’t want to talk, one family wouldn’t let me in the house and refused to engage, but most will.
Often they don’t know what’s happened. They are left in limbo as there isn’t any information about what has happened to their loved one. If there are reports that their relative has died while in a conflict zone, these simply cannot be verified.
If they have died, there will be no body for them to see, no detailed account that you would usually receive, so it can be hard for them to get any real closure.
The families ask lots of questions, but I don’t always have the answers. They hold on to everything you tell them so it is important that if I don’t have the information I do all I can to get it for them.
It can be challenging because I have to be really honest, explaining what has happened to their loved one, what they are involved in. Often they don’t want to believe what you tell them at first, but I have to build up that trust and do all I can to help them through a really horrible experience.
A big part for me is creating a good relationship with the family, in order to try to help them in some way. When I worked as a Prevent officer we did a lot of work with partner agencies and also schools. The internet is a massive part of what we do, especially around internet safety for parents, what people need to look out for, how they can protect their children. There is so much online and we need to ensure we protect those who might be vulnerable to radicalisation.
On occasions a family member can also share extreme views or sympathise with the person who has travelled. It is my job to work with them to mitigate the risk of them or other family members also travelling or continuing down the road of radicalisation. If I can stop one person and give them support to move away from extreme views then it feels like I have done something.
Sometimes it can be enough for them to see the consequences of a brother, cousin or friend travelling out and the impact those actions have had on their family back home. Seeing a family devastated, confused or have difficulties in their community can really change people’s views and prevent them following in their footsteps.