Why did nobody listen to them?

Charity attacks authorities for 'betraying' family; Home Secretary: 'Police have hard lessons to learn'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A series of blunders by police and social workers left a mother feeling so isolated that she burned herself and her disabled daughter to death after a 10-year hate campaign by youths made their lives intolerable.

Fiona Pilkington killed her daughter Francecca Hardwick, 18, and herself by setting light to the family car in a lay-by on the A47 near their home in Barwell, Leicestershire, after giving up on receiving help from police or the local authorities, a jury found yesterday.

Recording a narrative verdict of unlawful killing and suicide, the inquest jury found that the failure of police and social services to follow up Ms Pilkington's repeated requests for protection contributed to her decision to take her life and that of her daughter. Hinkley and Bosworth Borough Council met the family twice in 2007 but only found out Francecca was disabled after she died in October 2007

For 10 years, Ms Pilkington's family was subjected to sustained abuse by youths, some of whom still live in her street. They targeted her because her daughter, known as Frankie, was severely disabled and had the mental age of four. Her son Anthony, now 19, was also singled out because of his dyslexia; the gang beat him with a metal bar and once locked him in a garden shed at knifepoint.

On one occasion, the youths were heard shouting at the family: "We can do anything we like and you can't do anything about it."

The gang, some as young as 10, routinely threw rotten eggs at their house, urinated in their back garden and put live fireworks through their letterbox, jurors heard.

The inquest at Loughborough Town Hall was told the desperate mother, her relatives and neighbours called police at least than 33 times in seven years. Each time the police did nothing more than hand out "final warnings" or reprimands.

Ms Pilkington was so exasperated by what she perceived as a lack of interest in her plight that she wrote in her diary: "I have learned from experience that no one is usually available from Friday to Monday as it is busy elsewhere. This is a low priority."

Last night, the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, described the family's story as "shocking and immensely distressing" and said the police had some "hard lessons to learn". "For more than a decade, the Pilkington family suffered intimidation at the hands of a local gang, culminating in a sustained level of abuse that no family should have to tolerate," he added. At a press conference last night Chris Eyre, Temporary Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police, said he was "extremely sorry" for his force's treatment of the Pilkingtons while the Independent Police Complaints Commission said it would launch its own investigation.

Speaking after the inquest, Ms Pilkington's parents, Pam and David Cassell, said: "It has been almost two years since we tragically lost Fiona and Frankie and we still find it hard to take in. This case has highlighted the difficulties that families with disabled children face. We know the agencies involved have looked to see how they can improve the way they work. If this helps just one family, then their deaths would not have been in vain and something good will have come out of this tragedy."

The inquest was told that the local authorities and social services failed to help the family. In December 2002, a neighbourhood watch committee, including council officials and police officers, was set up to tackle antisocial behaviour in the area, but the Pilkingtons were never classified as vulnerable. Ron Grantham, the borough council's community safety manager, repeatedly spoke of his frustration at not being able to help the family, even when he had sought an injunction against one of the abusive families.

Last night there were calls for the Government to force the police and local authorities to take disability hate crimes much more seriously. Mark Goldring, chief executive of Mencap, said: "These horrific deaths are yet another tragic example of how a vulnerable young person with a learning disability, and her family, have been completely betrayed by the authorities responsible for their care."

He added: "This should be the watershed moment for disability hate crime, when the Government and the police treat all disability hate crime as seriously as racist hate crime."

Had police recognised the abuse as hate crime – rather than just anti-social behaviour – they would have been forced to take the accusations much more seriously, he argued.

Coroner Olivia Davison also asked the jurors to decide whether the police and local authorities' responses contributed to their deaths.

Leicestershire Constabulary, Hinkley and Bosworth Borough Council and Leicestershire adult social care services were all singled out by the jury who said their failure to help Ms Pilkington escape from her abuse led to her decision to commit suicide with her daughter.

The jury found each service partially accountable, saying that the police calls were not "linked or prioritised" and that prior to February 2007 "actions to control antisocial behaviour [by Hinkley and Bosworth Borough Council] were not evident."

Leicestershire County Council also failed to properly assess the state of Ms Pilkington's mind in the run-up to her suicide, the jury found. Social workers at Leicestershire County Council had failed to pick up on the family's ordeal. They had held a meeting on 26 February 2007, about Frankie's future after she left Dorothy Goodman School, where her mother was reported to social services as having experienced "suicidal thoughts".

But Tony Howlett, service manager for people with learning disabilities at the authority, said it was seen more as a sign of her general anxiety than a specific threat of suicide. The council has since set up a serious case review to investigate the care offered to Ms Pilkington and her children.

During the inquest Ms Davison regularly criticised the police for their behaviour. When one police officer claimed the youths who abused Ms Pilkington and her family, could not be prosecuted she angrily retorted: "There are seven or eight Acts of Parliament that are smack-on for dealing with the problems that this family were facing. I don't think that officers would have needed specific training as this family was patently vulnerable and it would not have needed training to identify this."

She added: "If somebody had just sat this woman down with a cup of tea they could have perhaps helped her."

The Pilkington case: A decade of abuse

*2000: Fiona Pilkington makes the first of 33 calls to Leicestershire Police about abusive youths.

*December 2002: An antisocial behaviour committee is set up to deal with complaints in the Bardon Road area.

*July 2004: Ms Pilkington meets Hinckley and Bosworth council.

*February 2007: She has another meeting with council, and writes to MP.

*March: A community support officer speaks to eight young people aged between 11 and 16. Ms Pilkington reports damage to a sign on her property.

*April: The council writes letters to parents of children throwing stones at Ms Pilkington's son Anthony Hardwick.

*September 2007: The family report that five windows have been smashed. Police make inquiries and a youth's father is "spoken to".

*October: Pam Cassell reports the sixth stone attack in five days.

*22 October: Statements documenting 18 months of abuse and bullying are given to the council.

*23 October: Fiona Pilkington sets her car on fire while she and her daughter Francecca are inside.