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Mental Health Awareness Week: The story of a frontline forensic scientist

Mental Health Awareness Week is now a firm fixture in the calendar and, with the current COVID-19 pandemic engulfing the world, it has greater significance than ever this year.

Organised by the Mental Health Foundation, this year’s Week runs from May 18-24.

Millions of people suffer with mental health in the workplace, and that includes those working in the forensics industry. For those on the frontline of forensics, it can be a brutally tough, horrifying and stressful job. Although it does come with its rewards, the impact on an individual’s mental health can be immense.

At last year’s Chartered Society of Forensic Services (CSFS) Autumn Conference, Bursary winner Jess Adby, a Senior Reporting Manager at Key Forensic Services with 20 years of experience in forensics, gave a frank, honest and brave presentation on the issue of mental health and how it has impacted on her own life.

This is Jess’s story:

Mental health is not an elephant in the room. It is not something that is popular and, just because you want to talk about it, doesn’t mean you’re traumatised. When I saw the topic for last year’s CSFS conference, I wanted to speak out, because I am a forensic scientist, with an apparently ‘normal’ job and career. And because I have struggled sometimes with my mental health.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Nearly 20 years of examining items from the most tragic and violent of cases, add to this driving down turnaround times, prices, meeting contracts, service credits, accreditation and going through redundancy with the closure of the Forensic Science Service. Whose health wouldn’t suffer?

Being ‘resilient’ can only take you so far when at some point picking up the pieces and carrying on seems just that bit too hard. Then you remember, it’s not the victim’s fault and THEY need you to carry on... However, at some point, does there come a time where you have seen enough death, put your family second one too many times, stayed late and missed bedtime again?

There is a history of mental health issues in my family. I have been aware of this for many years. I have seen the impact that work can have on your mental health, but it can be hard to avoid when you see the worse part of society.

There is a definite requirement for codes of practice and quality management systems. But procedures, policies and codes of practice don’t teach you how you to be ‘resilient’, how to cope with the daily pressures such as the apprehension and anxiety that comes with being on call for a week, the prospect of being called out, will I get mobile coverage where I’m going, and, like buses, two call-outs come along at the same time.

There is no training of how to mentally handle being the person who drives the case from the crime scene through to court, without making any mistakes, to have the responsibility for the case, make the declaration in the statement and to stand up and defend yourself in court on your own in a room full of strangers. Everyone is looking to you to provide the answers and provide the key evidence, to represent the company and to meet the police, CPS and CJU requirements and deadlines.

But who’s helping us? Who's stopping us from falling apart? Sometimes, it’s a good manager, by taking away some of the caseload, making sure you are okay; sometimes it’s your partner, by making sure you’ve eaten, the house is clean, the kids are where they are supposed to be.

And somehow, through all that pressure, the drive is always the same – helping to get justice for the friends and family of a life that has been cut short, to find that ‘golden nugget’.

When I tell people what I do for a living, 90% of the time, the reaction is the same – that must be so interesting? Do you see dead bodies? But it’s not like it is on the TV. It can’t be done in an hour. They don’t see the lonely side of the job – leaving in the early hours of the morning, grabbing food at another fast-food place at a strange time of the day, smelling a little ripe when you finally get home, and the smell of stale of blood in your nose for two days.

Only people who are, or have been connected in some way to the industry, or seen that side of life through the medical or social work community, will say – How do you deal with that? How do you cope?

A friend I met in my village was in the forces in Afghanistan and is now based at the county hospital. We have found a connection through the traumatic side of our jobs, but she pointed out that once her patients have moved on in one way or another, she does not have to revisit the trauma, months or years later, like we do going to court, remembering the case details and retelling why we made that decision two years ago.

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a forensic scientist, it wasn’t really a thing. I studied biochemistry and, by the time I finished, I wanted to study tropical diseases. But I fell into forensics. Having obtained an average score in my degree, my career discovering cures for flesh-eating diseases came to an abrupt end.

I know that these days, this is a career that is being studied, young people trying to get on that course, to get their break into forensics. So I am very lucky that I did manage to fall into it. I started out temping for the Forensic Science Service and then moved into forensics, fast-tracking as a reporting officer in DNA, a new kid on the block who was going to learn in one year what the previous generation had learnt in 10. So I had my work cut out.

I learned from the greats who investigated notorious cases and serial killers, but who also demonstrated a clear knowledge of the English language, correcting my split infinitives in every report. But I don’t remember anyone teaching me how to deal with the dark side of the job – child abuse, rape, murder. And still, I can’t tell you how I deal with this on a day-to-day basis.

My first dead body was a male, stabbed in the stomach by his friend, in a small flat in Gloucestershire. He was curled up in the corner and there were at least five of us in this small, cramped flat. This was the first time I would know whether or not I wanted to be a scene examiner and how I would deal with seeing a dead body. I found the blood patterns fascinating and had to curb my enthusiasm out of respect for the deceased, being told not to smile as I left the property, as there was a local news camera crew outside.

Looking back, the dead body didn’t seem to bother me, probably because it didn’t look real, and after I left, I half expected him to get up and film crew to shout ‘cut’. I suppose my coping mechanism just cut in. I still remember it because it was my first scene. Not all scenes I remember, but certain ones stick in your mind – some for no reason other than ‘the neighbour’s cat was killed so the victim had a friend to go with’; others, like the naked man who died on the toilet, who I didn’t know was there until I got to the top of the stairs. There are vivid images that are still with me from many of the places I have been.

When it was my turn to train as a scene examiner, I had to juggle this with organising my wedding. As the two clashed, the stress levels rose but again I coped. That was until one particular scene. I was still training, we were called to a flat in Wales, to carry out ‘forensics’. A male had kidnapped a three-year-old girl from her bed, taken her to his flat at a halfway house, sexually assaulted her, then drunk, driven off into Wiltshire and pushed her out of the moving car, before crashing it.

The case crossed three counties and the national news were right there to film the aftermath. This was my trigger – the victim was a couple of months older than my only niece, at the time. The victim was sexually assaulted, but her injuries were so severe that they were not able to prove rape. However, the worst part was a complaint from the police after the incident, directed at my colleague, about her conduct. It was alleged that she was not carrying out her duty. But there was no clear direction of what was required at the scene, Sky news and the BBC were broadcasting live from the address, and we were still sat in the police van after four hours of waiting, wanting to know what exactly we were doing there, what was the requirement, what they meant by carrying out ‘forensics’ on the address, trying to decide what was our and their priority. While all the time the SOCOs were outside waving around bedding, even though fibres, hairs and trace material may have been essential to the case.

Luckily for my colleague, I was there and could account for what was said and done. It so easily could have been very different if I wasn’t, and what if it had been me on my own early in my career? How would I have dealt with the scene and the Crime Scene Manager?

In terms of the case itself, I remember both the defendant and victim’s names. I cried the first time I saw my brother after the incident. He just said: ‘I don’t want to know’, his daughter being the same age as the victim. I cried in the local chip shop talking to my husband trying to figure out why someone would do what they did? And why would the police complain? And It was constantly on the news reminding me, particularly when he was given what was reported as a lenient sentence, and again when the Home Office reviewed his sentence.

From this point onwards, I have suffered intermittently. I have stress-related illnesses that have impacted my life and my work. It can happen randomly, or it can occur after times of hard stress. Each time it happens, I make sure that my cases do not suffer. I’m sure we’ve all done it, made sure that report is written on time and you have checked the items, just in the nick of time to meet the contracted date. But then you come across something that changes the progress of the case and you have to accept that you will miss 'that’ deadline. You will disclose it, do further work, but you don’t ignore it. That missed ‘date’ doesn’t matter if it’s going to help the case.

This case was the start of 15 years of trying to understand triggers and managing my illnesses when they do happen. I need to accept that I am human, and I have to rest, and get better. If I don’t, that’s when mistakes could happen, and it’s my name on that statement.

In April of the year running up to the closure of my laboratory (set for December), and prior to the announcement of the full closure of the FSS, I received ‘that’ call on changeover day. Could I go to Cardiff for a scene? A 17-year-old boy had ben fatally stabbed in his home. Both his parents had also been stabbed, and they had survived. I wasn’t duty-bound to go, I was about to come off call, but I agreed to go, it would be one of my last weeks on call for the FSS and I hadn’t been out for a while.

The boy was a straight A student, no history with the police in the family. There had been a ring on the doorbell and the boy had opened the door to his attackers. For the first few days, nobody knew why he had been targeted. As the case developed, two males were implicated. It was believed that these two males had been paid to go to a property as a hit, but they had gone to the wrong address and an innocent family had been attacked. They had discarded their clothing, but they had not removed everything from the getaway car, and our search found blood matching the deceased in the footwell.

Many items were received after the scene, thankfully not all urgent, and by this point there had been changes in the framework of the contract; targeted searches, in-house searches, items that had been pre-screened. Our examinations were now more tailored and prescriptive, sampling blood that had already been found. I took extra contingencies just in case.

The pressure was on to complete all of the case by the end of October, before the lab shut. One of the items, that would turn out to be a key piece of evidence, had been screened in-house and blood had been found on the sleeve. This linked the item to one of the defendants, his blood on the cuff. What was not known until the item was reviewed by another provider, was that there were very small spots of blood matching the deceased on the chest area of the item. A red top with small red spots of blood on the logo. It turned out blood flakes were noted initially on the fibre tapes that I chose to take ‘just in case’, so the item was re-examined by that provider.

By the time the case came to court, I had moved from the west country to Norfolk. I was still in forensics and was prepared to go to court. Six lever arch files were delivered along with a lengthy defence report. An ex-colleague challenging some of the evidence, one particular area we had to make an agreement of fact. Ironically, this now would be no issue to evaluate with the recent introduction of specialist statistical tools in DNA interpretation. Everything had been copied and scrutinised, even my emails.

The case was repeatedly delayed, and I was expected to be on call for the court. I eventually got to Cardiff and was there for a week and gave evidence for two-and-a-half days. After a week, I had done it, thankfully with some much-needed support and home comforts from my parents. I remember one of the days I ranted down the phone at my dad when I was told to go home on day three, so the barrister could read the six files. He had had them for months. But the blow came when I was told the case had fallen through, a few days before Christmas, as a jury member had to be removed from the case three months into proceedings.

It gave the police further time to collate more evidence. Nearly a year later, I was required again, only this time I was heavily pregnant. So, right on six weeks after giving birth by caesarean, I was summoned to Swansea. I was a new breast-feeding mum, travelling to the other side of the country with both baby and husband in tow. It was tough, but I knew what to expect, the issues that would be played out in court, and this time I felt empowered. A no-sleep, feeding mum, after major surgery, I knew that this wasn’t as hard as the ‘fourth’ trimester.

I stood for the two days, declining to sit down, showing that I didn’t need special privileges. I delivered my evidence, justifying why we had missed the blood and supporting my decisions made during a turbulent time of the FSS. When I finished my evidence, the family thanked me for all my work and congratulated me on my baby. My husband saw the effect this had for the family and why my work was so important to these people. When we walked away from court, I was proud of what I had done and so was he, and my daughter was asleep in her carrier (finally!). The result – both defendants receiving 40-year sentences, the jury deliberating for just half an hour, after nearly four months of evidence.

In 2018, the company I worked for, and had moved to other side of the county for, went into administration. We spent a long six weeks waiting for hope, which came in the middle of March, but the effect on my mental health was similar to the closing of the FSS. The day after we came out of administration, I was called out. I don’t know whether this was a hindrance or help, but my skills were still needed, and I was straight back into it, no time to reflect.

That summer, and following another bout of stress-related illness, I was called to the lab. A 13-year-old girl, found dead in the woods 24 hours after she was last seen. She had no mobile phone with her that day. The defendant was an older male who had been staying with the family, a friend of the deceased’s stepfather, but he had an alibi. It was believed that they had been in a relationship. But I was bothered about the case – as a mother, how would I protect a teenage daughter against grooming? And the tragedy of a young life gone at the start of the summer holidays, left to the flies and wasps.

I wasn’t called to the scene and perhaps that is why I was affected by it more than usual. My summer, like so many before, was not dominated by spending quality time with my children as it should have been, but juggling the case, and two further scenes, with finding childcare and visits to my struggling elderly parents. And I hit rock-bottom that summer. The golden nugget was found at the end of summer on a Sunday morning, catching up with work on my ‘day’ off. DNA matching the defendant on a blue glove from a bag of burned/discarded clothing recovered five weeks later. Further DNA and fibre work linked the items to the deceased.

I think it was all worth it, and again when the result of court eventually came in (the jury was out for longer than I expected), I was relieved and proud. I shed a tear, then went back to checking slides for the rape case I was examining. The next day, he received a 33-year sentence.

I could tell you more about how my work affects my mental health, about travelling, on your own, to a place of death, not knowing what will be there:

  • The time a sister turned up to the scene wanting to know if her brother was dead while I was near the open front door, examining the floor for blood patterns. I slowly pushed the door to and headed to a different part of the flat
  • The case of the taxi driver stabbed to death for his money, with several appeals on Crimewatch. Dealing with a tenacious senior investigating office (SIO) and salvaging her case with a photo in my file, that I happened to come across while looking through the photos after I have given evidence in court. The SOCO forgot to take a photo, and the defendant's fingerprints were on that bag. The SIO swallowed her pride and bought me a cup of tea to say thank you
  • The Peugeot 206 that sat in the garage for a year following the death of a woman, stabbed in her vehicle and placed in the boot of her car, found 10 days after she had been reported missing, and was the subject of an Innocence documentary I had no knowledge of and my evidence was being challenged
  • Or the SIO who offered to pay me overtime on the weekend if it got her results quicker, her case being only one of many that I was dealing with that summer
  • And the mother and daughter who were stabbed when they were asleep in their beds, by the teenage daughter and her boyfriend, and how it rocked a small town in Lincolnshire

Certain things can affect you, such as dead animals or young people, and that’s normal. During a recent call-out, I was called to an address of a male with mental health problems who took his own life, when he was naked and high on drugs. I was training another colleague, so she took the lead on the scene. While she was finishing the scene, I felt moved by the male being carried out in a black body bag and how alone and sad he must have felt. But I don’t think I would have felt this, if I had been leading the scene. I have never really felt that way before because I am usually absorbed in the science.

Over the years, I have seen changes in the cases due to child sexual exploitation and drug county lines. Oddly, the only times I haven’t felt lonely going to a scene is when I have been pregnant, a strange sense of not being alone, and talking to my unborn child when I have taken them to the ‘nicest’ of places.

What about now? I am in a good place at the moment. This year, I did couch to 5k, my mental health had been suffering after the last year of turbulence and I found being out in the countryside on my doorstep helped. I had regularly gone for a walk late in the evening when we were in administration and then joined the gym six years after a ‘break’ to have children. So on Boxing Day, I got up and just did it.

Now I run, on and off. I go to the gym, most of the time, I see friends, when I can, I help with my kids’ groups/and school, where I can. My sister asked my husband recently: ‘Do you mind that she’s out so often?’ He replied: ‘Jess after the gym is much nicer than the Jess straight from work. Plus, I get to watch what I want on the telly’.

But I think we should do more, offer more. If I could give advice to new trainees coming into forensics, or to a younger self, it would be to find an outlet and don’t let your life be consumed by the cases and the job. It is very easy to do. I have still not learned how to switch off completely, how to stop thinking about my cases or checking my emails on my days off. It’s not a job that you can easily switch off, the job is part of who you are. But I can recognise when I need to be alone to reflect, being out in nature, or in the gym, or when I need some real family time and do something ‘fun’ (usually on the kids’ terms!)

I understand that there needs to be procedures, codes of practice, contracts, but we do have to remember that we are human, and resilience is not about being able to cope with everything that is thrown your way, it is learning how to deal with the continuum, the ups and downs. The busy times and the slower times. A victim deserves the highest quality of my work, but time constraints, budget constraints, those above you keeping an eye on the figures, make it harder and put that extra bit of strain on you.

And I worry about the future. When the FSS shut, we lost many good forensic scientists, and we are still losing experience. People are leaving the industry, and I don’t blame them. It’s the admin, managing, audits, accreditation, abstractions, different contracts with different turnaround times and charging, service lots, service credits, staging one exhibit at a time in serious cases, doing rapes and murders as simple ‘intelligence work’. Those are the added pressures driving out the experience. And for the new trainees, they don’t get the same exposure I had when I started; we probably don’t go to as many scenes or receive as many cases, and they have less people to learn from.

But we all do it for the same reason – that golden nugget. That hit from the National DNA Database, whether it be a burglary or a murder, that DNA result connecting the suspect to the scene or the victim. Those are the pieces of evidence that you know will give a victim or their family justice and hopefully closure.

And when it happens, it reassures you why you do what you do, sadly sometimes at the compromise of your own life and family. And I thank my family and friends who let me do this, who pick up the pieces, who deal with my highs and lows, who leave me alone or send me out the door, without making me feel guilty (yet).

And I have to remember to be proud of what I do, be proud of what I have achieved and be proud that I have done a good job for the victims of crime.