'Devoted' mother of missing disabled man is found dead

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Detectives issued an urgent appeal as they tried to trace a severely disabled and "extremely vulnerable" young man after his mother's body was found near their home.

James Hughes, who turned 22 three days ago, is an epileptic with the mental age of an 18-month child, officers said yesterday after confirming that a body found in dense undergrowth in Redditch, Worcestershire, on Monday evening was his mother, Heather Wardle.

Mr Hughes uses a wheelchair, and needs regular medication and round-the-clock care.

Ms Wardle, 39, who was described by friends as a devoted mother-of-four, vanished on Friday after saying she was walking to a friend's house. She left without taking her handbag or mobile phone. While neighbours remembered her as a cheerful woman, others said she had appeared distracted in the days before she vanished and local reports suggested she had taken her own life.

Superintendent Jane Horwood, of West Mercia Police, said that while the death remained unexplained, they were not looking for anyone else in connection with the case. "Heather was James's main carer and her family tell us she was a fantastic mother. However, looking after another person – however much that person is loved – round-the-clock inevitably takes its toll and we can only imagine what tremendous strain Heather was under.

"Her family, including her partner, Brian Kirby, and her other sons, Daniel, 18, Callum, eight and Luke, six, are devastated. This is a very unusual case, but we must stress that at this stage it is still an inquiry into an unexplained death and a missing person."

Yesterday, as 50 officers scoured the local area, detectives were trying to "piece together a picture" of the mother and son's movements. They also said they did not know when Mr Hughes was last seen.

"James has the mental age of an 18-month-old child and a number of other health problems, including epilepsy. He needs his most basic needs met and cannot fend for himself," Supt Horwood continued. "We are therefore trying to find out more about both Heather and James's movements over the last few months. We are trying to put together a picture of their lives and we want to hear from anyone who knew either of them."

The young man was described as small, slight and looking younger than his age. While he can walk short distances, he needs the support of two people and "tends to stumble", officers said.

His father, Paul Hughes, the director of a construction and engineering business, said: "We are all still desperately trying to find James at the moment. I am on tenterhooks and am sick with worry. We are all in bits and praying he is safe.

"I was absolutely gutted when I heard the news about Heather. She was an absolutely amazing mother and must have been in a very dark place to do something like that. I have spoken to her recently, but I had no inkling that she was going to do something like this."

A neighbour, Linda Parkes, 48, said Ms Wardle kept the family going. "It was as if she did everything, and without her the family would fall apart. When I saw her last week she looked like she had lost weight. I saw her walking and she looked like she was having a conversation with someone – but there was no one with her. She didn't look like she was all there."

The pressures of disabled care

The pressures on a loving mother required to provide round-the-clock care for an adult, disabled son are among the greatest faced by any carer. Research shows that of Britain's six million carers, women in this position are the most vulnerable to becoming isolated and suffering psychological distress. According to Carers UK, people looking after a relative or friend for 50 hours or more a week are twice as likely as the general population to suffer poor health. Unable to work, many have to subsist on benefits. Research shows that seven out of 10 carers worry about their finances. One of the key alarm signals is a lack of breaks. The inability to break the daily routine ramps up the pressure on the carer and increases the risk of a breakdown in their physical or mental health. More than a third of carers denied a break suffered mental health problems, twice the level among those who had regular breaks, studies show. Better information, more opportunities for work outside the home and extra funding to provide breaks is essential, the charity says.