Today's guest blog is by Eva Dolan who is an Essex based copywriter and an intermittently successful poke player. Her third novel is After You Die.
On 23rd October 2007 police discovered the bodies of Fiona Pilkington and her severely disabled teenaged daughter Francecca Hardwick in the burnt out shell of the family's Austin Maestro, parked up in a lay-by on the side of the A47 in Leicestershire. Fiona had doused the back seat of the car with petrol and then set it alight, killing them both.
The women died barely five minutes away from their home in the village of Barwell, a home that had become a prison for them. Local youths, their neighbours, had mounted a fifteen year campaign of violence and harassment, ranging from property damage and verbal abuse, up to outright assault when Fiona's son was threatened with a knife and beaten with an iron bar. Calls to police across a decade and a half resulted in exclusion zones, which went un-respected and unenforced, and the promise of a beat officer who would monitor the street. With only three PCSOs to serve a village of almost 9000 people, one with more than its fair share of anti-social behaviour, the result was predictable; nothing changed, Fiona and Francecca were no safer, and the harassment continued.
It's easy to look at a murder/suicide such as this and think 'how could she? How could any mother do that to her child?' But even the briefest details of the torment this vulnerable family were subjected to give us a glimpse into the hopeless situation many disabled people and their carers suffer when they become the target of thugs, and Fiona's decision, however shocking, begins to seem depressingly inevitable.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission's final report into the handling of the case lays out, in dry, emotionless language, the sheer scale of the harassment suffered. 182 pages of broken windows and taunting, threats to kill and counter-accusations by their attackers. It also lays bare the police force's inability to deal with the problem.
Ironically Hate Crimes policy came into force for Leicestershire Constabulary in the month that Fiona and Francecca died, but officers had been in place, and presumably correctly trained, to deal with hate crimes for three years at that point. And yet, as the IPCC report concluded, those officers failed to appreciate that they were dealing with a hate crime and, in fact, 'seemed confused by the inclusion of disability as a hate crime.'
Is it that difficult to understand? Did the responding officers really not comprehend that prejudice against the disabled is no different from racism or homophobia?
Steve Ashley, programme director to HM Inspectorate Constabulary suggested this particular form of hate crime is "...not as easy as identifying a religiously-motivated attack or a racially-motivated attack. Police officers don't like to say to people 'Are you disabled?'"
Are we to believe frontline police officers are so bashful?
In the aftermath of the report much was made of the 'embarrassment factor' but I think the problem is the hierarchy of victims. Some victims are easier to ignore than others and vulnerable disabled people, already ground down by years of illness or infirmity as well as abuse, simply don't have the energy left to demand better from the disinterested or 'embarrassed' officers who respond to their calls for help.
And so, after fifteen years of suffering and no improvement in sight, Fiona Pilkington drove her daughter six miles away from their home and sat with her in a burning car until they were both dead.
I'll admit that this case passed me by back in 2007. Some tragic deaths get blanket coverage, others don't, and it was only when the report was published in 2013 that I started to look into disability related hate crimes.
The figures are striking. According to disability charity Mencap 90% of people with a learning disability have been victims of a hate crime. The Disability Hate Crime Network report twelve murders in 2013/14 and eighty-five attacks and acts of torture, not including those suffered in care homes or inflicted by carers. All hate crimes are reprehensible but targeting the most vulnerable in society, knowing they are less capable of fighting back, is even more sickening.
In some small, maybe naive way, I wanted to try and bring this terrible state of affairs to the fore. I wanted my police officers to be better. Zigic and Ferreira wouldn't ignore a cry for help would they? They've both known prejudice, they've both seen suffering minimised and marginalised because of the nationality of the victims or the colour of their skin.
But, when it came down to writing After You Die, I couldn't bring myself to twist so far away from reality. So Ferreira has missed the signs, she's opened a report into the harassment of Dawn and Holly Prentice but not pursued it and now they're both dead and a share of the guilt falls on her shoulders, because even she failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.
After You Die is a book about what it means to be under constant attack because you are disabled. Holly Prentice, paralysed at fourteen in a rock climbing accident, is a vocal right to die campaigner, stubborn, intelligent and eloquent enough to attract enemies on both sides of the debate. A campaign of cyber bullying is waged against her and when it crosses into the physical world Holly and her mother find themselves under siege.
I wanted to explore what that does to a family, how they cope, what they can be driven to, and hopefully, along the way, to expose an under reported and under prosecuted crime which no civilised society should be content to tolerate to the point where a dedicated mother sees no solution other than murder and suicide.
AFTER YOU DIE by Eva Dolan is out now
Eva Dolan is speaking at Essex Book Festival on Monday 23rd March at 7.30pm