Local News

Monday, Dec 03 2012 05:40 PM

Social media posts complicate death notification procedures

BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

Donna Moran didn't find out about her brother's death from a knock on the door or a telephone call.

She found out on Facebook.

"I think my reaction was delayed because I found out on Facebook," Moran said. "I'm kind of the momma of the group, so if I had to find out that way, my immediate reaction was to protect my siblings. But the end result was the same."

Moran is the oldest sister of Matthew Ahrens, one of three people found dead Sunday in a plane crash in Utah. Bakersfield native Ahrens, his girlfriend, Trista Meyer, and her daughter, Shyann Lenz, had been missing since Nov. 23 after their plane disappeared on the way from Shafter to Gillette, Wyo.

Before officials could notify Ahrens' family that he was found dead, his four siblings found out from messages on Facebook. It's unclear what went wrong in the chain of notification, but the incident points to the issue of keeping up procedures in the age of social media.

There have been a number of issues across the country where next of kin found out about their family member's death online before an official could notify them. Earlier in November, parents in Georgia found out from Facebook posts their daughter had been found dead in a college dormitory, according to the Associated Press. And in April, a wife found out her husband was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan from a post someone left on Facebook telling her to call, according to the Army Times.

Dawn Ratliff, Kern County supervising deputy coroner, said there can sometimes be delays in notifying next of kin if it takes a while to identify the deceased or figure out who the next of kin is. In the meantime, if someone knows that someone died, there's nothing her office can do to stop that person from posting online, she said.

"The problem is we have no control over what other people do," she said. "If someone has knowledge about a death, anyone can post anything they want."

But that's not what happened in the Ahrens case. When a death happens in one county and the next of kin is in another, the law enforcement agency from the first county is supposed to contact an agency in the second county so the next of kin can be notified in person, Ratliff said. It's the responsibility of the first county to tell the second who the next of kin is.

In the case of Ahrens, Utah's Sevier County Sheriff's Office, under whose jurisdiction the plane was found, should have contacted the Kern County Sheriff's coroner's office. Ratliff was not working Sunday, but she said those who were said they never received a call to notify Ahrens' family. Ratliff also checked the Kern County Sheriff's dispatch, where other counties sometimes mistakenly call, and said there was no record of a call from Utah.

But Tom Jensen, Sevier County chief deputy sheriff, said the office did call both dispatch and the coroner's office. Officials first tried dispatch, but were told to call the coroner's office. When they called the coroner's office, they were told the office was busy and someone would get to it when he or she could, Jensen said.

"I feel terrible the family found out on social media," he said. "It's inexcusable in my opinion."

There was no delay in knowing who Ahrens' next of kin was because law enforcement had collected a list of family during the search for the plane, Jensen said.

On Sunday, Sevier County Sheriff Nathan Curtis said his department had trouble getting law enforcement in Bakersfield to notify Ahrens' family. The family finally got official notification outside of Facebook when they called his sheriff's office themselves, he said.

"We just don't like calling them out of the blue and telling them that we found their family member deceased," Curtis said.

Finding out that a family member has died on social media can make the pain of the loss worse, said Corey Gonzales, a clinical psychologist in Bakersfield.

"It just makes an already bad situation magnified," he said. "It just makes people feel more victimized."

He's never had a client who found out about a death on Facebook. But he's dealt with people finding out other bad news online, everything from a breakup to a professional athlete getting traded.

People need to be more aware of protocol, dignity and who may or may not already know about something when posting on social media, Gonzales said. It's common sense, he said, and the responsible thing to do is to hold off on posting something online.

For Moran, Ahrens' sister, finding out on Facebook doesn't matter in the long run, she said. She doesn't want to complain, she said, because the search team did a fantastic job.

"With new technology," she said, "word can get out so fast even if you don't want it to."

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