I want to tell you a story. It is the story of two men, a family, a history, love, hatred, loss and catastrophic damage. It is the story of the last 135 days of my life and yet it began with me, almost 40 years ago.
I’ve always been very open and honest about my failings. A good friend of mine, Sarah Phillimore, once said to me after I was publicly criticised; “You have never wavered from your original objective and you have kept your integrity throughout”.
Integrity is very important to me. Honesty is even more important. But our honesty begins within, and that is a difficult thing to do. I started writing Surviving Safeguarding because I wanted to guide and reassure other parents going through the child protection process that it was okay to be honest about where they were struggling, or going wrong. I wanted social workers and those working with vulnerable families to see how hard it is to be honest, and that sometimes they may need to think a little deeper, have a little more empathy, try a little harder to believe in people and resolve to help, not do more harm.
So much harm has been done to me and my family. Enough to allow me to wallow in resentment, anger and self-pity. And it would have been so easy to do so. Like a warm, soothing blanket. Blame others for the harm that has been done without looking within.
But that’s an easy, smooth and comfortable path to take isn’t it? It does not require getting your hands dirty and working to change. Hours, days, weeks and months of the pain of self-reflection, of facing and accepting what you have done and what others have done to you, allowing yourself to be vulnerable in the knowledge that you could be hurt or abused again, learning to walk a new path. It is frightening. It is trepidatious. It is fraught with variables and you may have to learn to relinquish control and let your guard down.
Who would choose that? When you can simply blame “the system”?
And that’s why I started writing.
I would not, could not, have started without the support of my eldest son. Because there remains, for now, a Reporting Restriction Order in place forbidding me, I cannot tell you his name though I dearly, dearly long to. I have no choice, for now, to refer to him as “Peter”.
Peter was born when I was just 16 years old. He saved me. When I fell pregnant, I was in foster care, being systematically abused by a 38 year old man, a 30 year old man and a group of men in a block of flats who would pass me around for their own sexual gratification. I could so easily have fallen in to drugs and prostitution. No one was looking out for me, no one was looking after me.
But then Peter.
I was a child myself, and had no business having a child. But this was our reality, and we somewhat grew up together. I breastfed him, we co-slept, his eyes followed me around the room; we were never apart.
The point of this post is not to tell you anecdotes and the intricacies of our family life; I will save that for my book. But we had a lot of good times together, me and Peter. And he was a fierce protector of our family. He saw himself as the man of the house, from a very young age. He would make sure his younger siblings wrote out cards to me every Christmas and Birthday and Mother’s Day. He would sit and game with his younger brothers, now and again letting me join in (he would berate me for being rubbish and send me back out his room). He would play football with them all, and jump on the trampoline, and make them laugh on the cold school runs by telling silly jokes whilst holding their hands. Every Saturday night was movie night and we would all stuff our faces with sweets and fizzy pop, each child would take it in turns to choose the film from the DVD shop. Peter would always choose something for everyone. My daughter once chose My Little Pony. He endured two hours of it. We all did.
In short, family was everything to Peter.
Music and acting were a close second. My boy had such talent. He played the drums from the age of 10, and then taught himself the keyboard and the guitar. The ukulele was short-lived, thank christ. He played in a band with his three best friends, and they were truly brilliant and incredibly talented young men. He found a love of drama at school, encouraged by his wonderful teachers and started at a youth theatre group. He worked on many theatre productions for free and then found television work, having been signed up by an agency. He appeared in the last ever episode of Downton Abbey. He was “Man in Wheelchair at the front who says nowt”, but, of course, I didn’t tell people that. I simply looked enigmatically into the middle distance feeling like the mother of a bonafide star. Peter remained utterly humble, even when his Ma was jumping up and down squealing on Christmas Day 2015 as his part came on. He later did further television work on Vera, and Beowulf and became self-employed working as an actor and as a children’s party entertainer on weekends.
He also worked for me, when I took us off benefits and became self-employed training social workers all over the country. He would look after his younger siblings, allowing me to travel. He gave me the wings to be Annie, Surviving Safeguarding. I would be nothing without him.
But Peter lived through hell, too. It is too easy to romanticise and conveniently forget. In his childhood, and up until the turning point of December 2012, he had a mother who had mental health problems who was depressed, anxious, suffered massively debilitating panic attacks, who would self-harm, who would starve herself, or binge and make herself sick. He had a mother who would be drawn towards abusive relationships; emotionally and physically. He saw his mother with bruises. He heard his mother cry and sit in the corner frightened and rocking herself backwards and forwards. He knew his mother had walked out and left him and his siblings alone, he knew his mother had been arrested for doing so. He knew his mother had attempted suicide on more than one occasion. He went into foster care for three months at the age of 10 when his mother was mentally unwell, but also choosing to prioritise an abusive relationship, with a man we shall call Ritchie, over him and his siblings. He watched this abusive relationship unfold and he hated this man. Ritchie had been abused, physically and sexually as a child as I had, and had been removed into foster care, as I had.
Peter then saw his mother deteriorate further as one of his brothers chose to leave home. He was probably glad when the relationship with Ritchie fell apart…only to be replaced by an even more abusive relationship; the one that almost took his mother’s life. Peter was 15 when he went into foster care again for five months. I was in a refuge. He told the local authority, who had understandably issued care proceedings at this point, he would be leaving care on his 16th birthday. He later told me how the social worker and his school had tried to convince him to stay in foster care until after his GCSEs. All he wanted was to be back with me.
When he left foster care on his 16th birthday, the local authority refused to give him a Leaving Care social worker, nor a Leaving Care grant. They even refused to help him to move his belongings from his foster placement to his new home with me. I went and got him that day. His things went in a bin bag. They told him it was his choice and he was going against their care plans, so he was on his own, despite care proceedings being ongoing. They closed his case shortly afterwards. No one visited. No one helped.
Peter was there the day his brother was born, less than three months after the care proceedings concluded. He was my birth partner. He wouldn’t leave my side. He hadn’t left my side since returning home. Except to go to school. My son managed to sit his GCSEs during care proceedings, whilst at home with his Mother who was pregnant with his brother and whom the local authority had said they would be taking at birth. That was the strength of my boy.
Peter’s brother was taken six days after his birth. Peter was there then too. He refused to leave. He had made him a video beforehand. In it, he says “Even though I’m only 16 years old, I’m your brother, don’t forget my voice”, and “If we don’t get you back, when you’re 18, I’ll be 34….Christ…and I’ll find you, and we’ll have a chat and I’ll tell you how we fought”.
Peter cried when his brother was taken. But his main concern was me. He hovered around me at all times. We both slept in the living room, on opposite sofas. If I went to the toilet, he would sit at the top of the stairs. We went for walks through the night. We sat and watched the BBC DVD of the London 2012 Olympics over and over and over to distract ourselves. He loved the Opening Ceremony and would tell me stories about the history and the performers.
Peter was told by the local authority he could not see his brother again after he was taken away.
At 16 years of age, Peter contacted the social worker and told her straight: “Either you let me have contact with my brother, or I am going to take you to Court and get a contact order, and how do you think that’s going to look – a 16 year old taking you to court”. He even went to see a solicitor. He got angry once at the social worker because she wasn’t listening to him. My son, a quiet, humble boy, said “I just want to fucking kill her”. He was frustrated. That was literally all he said.
They sent the Police round, in a riot van.
The local authority backed down and let Peter see his brother once a week though. And together, we fought the care and placement proceedings. We were each other’s rock.
Families In Care, an incredible North-East based charity, tried to help him as much as they could. They were and are amazing.
School tried to be supportive. My boy went and studied for his A Levels, two months after the local authority took his baby brother away.
But he had no one, not really. Just me, and I was consumed by the care proceedings and still fighting to see his other siblings.
When the Children’s Guardian rang me to tell me she was recommending rehabilitation home for my baby, I rang Peter immediately. When the case against me fell apart in Court, I rang Peter immediately. When the social worker finally handed my baby back to me, 258 days after he had been taken, Peter was by my side.
But all of these things left huge scars.
It left Peter mistrustful of professionals.
It left Peter understandably resentful of me.
It left Peter feeling abandoned and alone.
It left Peter seeing the cruelty and inhumanity of other human beings.
It left Peter knowing how much life could fuck you over.
It left Peter tired.
It left Peter wanting to be free.
I let my son down. I really, really did. But so did the system. What happens to the older siblings of children in foster care? What happens when teenagers choose to go against a local authority’s care plans?
Peter left the stability and routine of school after completing his A Levels, against all odds. He then got into a toxic relationship and he began to lose weight and isolate himself. I made him go to the GP for help. He was given medication and talking therapies. I did the best I could to help and support him, but I could have done more. I could always have done more. We all always can, if we’re honest enough to admit it.
After time, Peter left the toxic relationship, thankfully. He continued with his therapy, he reduced his meds and life improved for him. He was still quiet and humble – unless he was on a stage, or playing with his younger brother. He showed no signs of wanting to move out, and we had such a good laugh together. He was my best friend in all the world. We would laugh at daft YouTube videos, or find moments on the telly that other people probably wouldn’t find funny, but our shared dry humour did. For his 18th birthday, he didn’t want a party, he wanted to watch the Batman trilogy and eat pizza with me. For his 19th birthday he wanted to watch Kingsman and eat pizza with me. For his 20th birthday, we went out for tea. He hated fuss. He had the smelliest feet in the universe and he ate nothing but shit. But he was my best friend in all the world. I overpaid the work he did for me so that he could save and go travelling, or move out, or get a car, or whatever he wanted. I tried to support him financially, I tried to support him emotionally, I still mothered him whenever he would let me. He was my my boy.
On the 26th of May 2017, my son went to London on the night bus to see a play. On Saturday, the 27th of May, at 8.46am, my son walked in front of a tube. He died instantly. There was no warning. There were no signs whatsoever. It wasn’t an angry suicide. He simply took his bag off and stepped off the platform.
I was in Manchester that day. I had gone to a workshop with my youngest son, and mine and Ritchie’s then 8 year old daughter (known as “Rosie”, due to the Reporting Restriction Order) to help families who had had social work intervention facilitated by my friends, Jadwiga and Lisa, who have supported my work so much. I wanted to repay the favour and try to support them too.
Initially, I just thought my son wasn’t answering his phone because he was busy, or asleep, or had forgotten his charger. Then I started to worry, and I reported him missing.
The British Transport Police informed me of my son’s death over the phone whilst I was in the People’s History Museum in Manchester.
I screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed and bounced off walls screaming NO and waving my hands about.
Then I had to tell Rosie. She screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed and begged me not to leave her. Ritchie, her dad, had abandoned her 7 months earlier. Peter was her hero.
The Police drove us back home to Newcastle. I had joined a new group of people. I wasn’t now just a member of a small number of parents who had had their baby removed at birth. I wasn’t just a member of an even smaller number of parents who had fought to have their baby successfully returned. I was now a member of a small number of parents whose child had died. I was a now a member of a small number of parents whose child had killed themselves. Yet I have never felt more alone, or that I don’t belong in my life.
On the 7th of June, I went to London and stood in the spot my son had took his last breath. I went to the mortuary to identify my son. It is an horrific image that will stay with me for the rest of my life. However, I put my son in the back of the car of someone close to my family, I held my arm over him and we drove my boy home to Newcastle, and the Chapel of Rest. I visited him several times there. I stroked his hair. I took lots of pictures. I spent time with him, talked to him, held him. Even writing this, I feel comforted and soothed that I had that time with him.
I buried my son on the 24th of June. I screamed as his body went into the ground.
Ritchie, Rosie’s father, attended the funeral service. Rosie was unsure, but I felt it was important as he had been part of our family for ten years. After I buried my son, he began to put pressure on me to rekindle our relationship. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t. He had abandoned our child before.
He turned nasty then, and left, five days after I had buried my boy. Without going into detail, as I intend to initiate legal proceedings, a series of malicious and unfounded allegations were made against me and I was investigated under Section 47 of the Children’s Act 1989. Five weeks and six days after my son killed himself.
Those allegations were found to be “unsubstantiated” and the case swiftly closed.
Ritchie began a campaign of harassment against me and threatened to “jump in front of a train” and that when he did, it would be my fault. He told me my son had killed himself because of me. I informed the Police and ensured he was given mental health support, however, the harassment continued.
I was trying to deal with my son’s death, the manner of his death, the Police investigation into his death, my own grief, my children’s grief. I had to move house 6 weeks after my son’s death, thus losing his bedroom and meaning I had nowhere to go that smelled and felt like him. I had gone through an S47 investigation. People were saying they were “sorry for my loss”, without realising just what I had lost; my son, my best friend, my children’s brother, my home, my career, my trust and faith in the whole world.
On the 20th of August, 12 weeks and one day after my son killed himself, the Police came to my door at 9.30pm. I knew almost instantly why they were there. They informed me Ritchie had been hit by a train travelling at 110mph. I screamed and screamed and screamed. Rosie, still awake, heard me.
In his suicide letter, he blames me for his choice to kill himself. In his last email to me, days before his death he says: “I blame the local authority most of all, for destroying our lives”. He killed himself opposite the home he grew up in, where he was abused. I, and by default Rosie, was banned from his funeral as I am blamed.
Each day now is spent waiting. Waiting for the next phone call to tell me one of my children is dead. Waiting for the next knock on the door to tell me someone I loved is dead. Waiting to be investigated again, or have my children taken away again. Waiting for someone I love or trust to leave me, or hurt me.
But I am still here. And I am still fighting hard for a life for my children. My youngest son had his 4th birthday in July, Rosie had her ninth birthday on Saturday. There is only me, it is all on my shoulders.
But I did a damn good job, and I am doing a damn good job every single day. They are all at school. We have help from CAMHS for Rosie, at my insistence. We have been in touch with Winston’s Wish and I’ve bought her books and activity packs to help work through her feelings. It is a process which has to go at her pace, and I respect that. She is exceeding all of her targets at school, she has good friends and smiles and has fun every day. We talk about her brother, but she will not talk yet about her dad. My youngest has special toys and objects to remind him of his brother who was such a massive part of his life. He is autistic and needs extra help, but he is doing so well at his new school and I couldn’t be prouder.
My elder children have support around them, I am in touch daily or when they want or need me. I want them to feel in control of our relationship, as they have had so little control over recent events.
I visit my son’s grave every day. Today is day 107. I sit with him, I talk to him, I even sing to the poor bugger. I cry every day. I am crying now.
My GP has been outstanding and I now have support from If U Care Share who have referred me for help from their trauma therapist. I think I will probably need quite intensive support, for quite some time.I have spoken to the Child Death Helpline. They get it. But I still feel very alone. I have two Inquests coming up, more trauma, more horror. I am very thin now, and constantly pale and cold. I run, as I did before my son’s death, and that helps me lots though requires fuel I don’t always have. But I am still trying, despite everything.
And I am not done here. Granted, I don’t think I will ever be able to even look at a train or a tube ever again, so travelling might be out for a bit. And I need a job, readers. I’m self-employed and we’re on nil income.
But I am not done. I still have work to do. I have value, and more to give and I know I do.
My son’s story needs to be told. People need to listen. Care proceedings and state intervention into family life affects every member of that family, not just the children who are taken away, or not living at home for whatever reason. Parents need more support before, during and after proceedings. Older siblings need more support before, during and after care proceedings. Care leavers need more support, before, during and after proceedings. I am fucked if I am going to allow another Peter.
Professionals working with families need to know and understand the impact of their actions. Yes, sometimes intervention is absolutely necessary. I have never denied that. But rule number one should always be “Primum non nocere – First, do no harm.”
Harm was done to my family. And two men are dead. I can withstand my portion of the guilt, just about – though some days the pain threatens to overwhelm me. I can take responsibility. The system needs to do the fucking same.
I’m not done yet. I will be back.
Thanks for reading,