This is one of my articles which appeared (in an edited version) in the Gazette & Herald newspaper in Wiltshire in September. I’m re-producing it at the request of several people who wanted to access an online link.
- Wishing my godmother well on her final journey….
Remembering Will Filer….
One of the hardest jobs a journalist has to do is to interview people who have lost a child – particularly if that death is sudden and unexpected.
Meeting Rachel Filer-Higginson, Ashley Higginson and their children Joshua and Hallie-Jane was no exception.
Many people may feel as they read this article that I, as a journalist, am invading the privacy of a family in grief. However, that’s not true. This interview was a mutual decision discussed over several months to share the journey these parents have taken.
Today they still struggle to come to terms with the death of their son William, known as Will. For them, many questions are still unanswered. His death was reported in a national newspaper as a suicide after Will had been taking a drug known as meow meow. Indeed his parents believed for weeks that drugs may have been involved. However, no drugs were found in his system.
That was the spring of 2010. Will had been found dead, or dying, by a local walking his dog in a field in Chippenham. Attempts to revive him failed.
“It was Monday 1st March,” Rachel tells me as she sits in the kitchen of her home in Oaklands.
“The kids had gone to school and Ashley said he’d just bumped into Will who’d said he would be up later. We were upstairs stripping the beds as we usually did on a Monday, when the front door bell rang. We thought it was Will and he’d lost his keys again.
“I saw this high-vis coat through the door and it was a young woman police officer or PCSO and she looked at me and said they’d found Will and he had hung himself and he was dead. She just kept on talking and she just wouldn’t shut up…he’d been airlifted to Swindon but I couldn’t see him for ages. You just keep hoping that it isn’t true because your kid wouldn’t have done that to you, he wouldn’t have hurt you so much.”
Quietly Ashley, stepdad to Will since he was four, also relives those moments.
“I was walking back from taking the children to school, I didn’t get home until 8.50am that morning and I saw Will who said ‘tell Mum I’ll be up later.’
“When Rachel went downstairs to answer the door, I just heard screaming, terrible screaming. There was a WPC, she didn’t know what to do with Rachel and we had to call our GP. Life as we knew it ended that day, I don’t think we slept for weeks after that.”
These terrible memories will resonate with any parent. However, there’s another side to Will’s story which has, and still is, torturing his mum and dad.
Will was a special child who had learning difficulties. From a very early age, it was clear he was different to other children. He couldn’t concentrate on anything for very long and he couldn’t keep still. He was statemented with a diagnosis of ADHD and went to various schools in Wiltshire where he was generally encouraged.
Although he couldn’t read or write by the age of eight, he went on to learn and exceed all expectations. His parents felt he was in a safe environment.
Rachel said: “My son never ceased to make me proud. I remember one sports’ day at school, there was a boy in the three-legged race who didn’t have a partner and no one seemed to want to be with him. My Will went up to him and tied their legs together and off they went. They came last – but they were the winners that day as the parents cheered and cheered them across the line.”
However when he turned 16 – things began to change for the family and for Will.
“There’s very little support for teenagers like Will, who have hidden disabilities, once they leave the school system,” Ashley said.
“And that’s got to change. Will may have been 16, 17 and 18 but he was not mature enough to cope on his own. I don’t think he matured beyond age ten or 11.
“He wasn’t so severely affected that his need was very obvious but he just couldn’t integrate or understand other people in the same way as most of us. Anyone who knew him, and talked to him would soon spot he was special.
“He so wanted to cope on his own but it didn’t work – and the problem was that we didn’t know how badly it wasn’t working until it was too late.”
Will wanted to leave home and live independently and he went to extraordinary lengths to make it happen.
“Once he went to the police station to say that we’d kicked him out,” Rachel said. “I told them to send him home as his tea was ready.”
“We understood he wanted some independence and when he was offered some accommodation he was thrilled but he was still here a lot of the time for his meals and for his washing to be done.”
However, Will’s unique response to life led to a number of difficult situations for him. Rachel gives an example of an incident, not in Wiltshire, which didn’t become known to the family until some time later.
“Will was an attractive boy and once went for a night out with some friends in another town. He met a girl and went back to her place. In the morning, she told him he had raped her. Will believed her, went straight to the police station, told them and was arrested, his clothes were taken, he was put into a white paper suit and the police went to interview the girl. She told them it was all fine, she was only joking. Will was released. We just didn’t know about it until after the event.”
Will was given a placement in accommodation which supports disadvantaged young people, some are homeless, some have drug or alcohol issues. His parents thought he was happy there but now they are not so sure.
“One of the rules of the home was that no alcohol was allowed. Will saw another young man drinking alcohol and told on him. This was not well received. But Will had a thing about boundaries, he always did,” Ashley said.
At the inquest into his death, Rachael and Ashley found out several things which they didn’t know. Statements from friends also suggested that he’d been taunted racially.
The most shocking revelation was that Will had apparently made three previous attempts to take his own life. This had included stealing someone’s medication and taking the tablets and trying to jump off a bridge, but he was found by police.
“We didn’t find this out until the inquest. When we questioned it we were told that he was 18 years old and he was entitled to his confidentiality but we were totally kept out the loop. In my view, this was wrong,” Ashley said.
“Will was vulnerable and because of that his vulnerability, we believe, was interpreted by some as weakness.”
“If we had had any idea that he felt so fed up we could have done something. He never showed that side of himself to us. He just walked with a smile, ” Rachel said.
There will be some who say that these parents had an opportunity to know the details of Will’s passing prior to the inquest – as they did receive the paperwork before the hearing. However, the stark detail of the post mortem was so traumatic, they told me, that they burned the paperwork, unable to read more.
There was one sad story which his parents believe did have a major effect on his mental health. He had a dream to join the Army – a dream which could never come true but which he believed for a time was in his reach.
“He did an Army preparation course at a local college. He really wanted to join the Army and ironically I begged him not to as he might die. He really saw it as the opportunity to have a new life, a career,” said Rachel.
“But he would never have been accepted because of the medication he had to take for his ADHD. He would have had to be clear of that drug for three years before he could be considered. He was told this but it just didn’t seem to register. When he finished the course, we were told that physically he was perfect but it just wasn’t going to happen.”
Some of Rachel’s and Ashley’s concerns around their son’s death still exist. But they’ve now decided to engage actively in a campaign to raise £20,000 to perhaps set up a helpline for other young people in Wiltshire who are similarly vulnerable and their families.
“We created Will’s Friends to raise awareness of people like Will who need some extra support in their lives. If I won the lottery, I’d set up a residential home for people like Will where they would feel safe with other adults around to ensure that they couldn’t be exploited but they could have some independence.”
No one knows how many adults with learning disabilities suffer abuse – and it’s possible they never will. It’s sometimes now known as ‘hate crime’.
A report by the NHS’s Information Centre in March this year said there had been a 24 per cent rise in ‘safeguarding alerts’ around vulnerable adults between 2011 & 2012.
‘Alerts’ are the first contact between a concerned person about a vulnerable adult and a local authority safeguarding team.
Of those alerts, 20 per cent relate to adults with learning disabilities.
The most common outcome, in around a third of cases, was ‘no further action’.
Will’s Friends can be found on Facebook.
Racism has been on my mind this week for three reasons.
One I’m making a film for broadcast which, by its nature, brings up issues of racism. The film is not about racism but the subject matter means that it’s inevitable that it’s discussed during filmed interviews.
There was also the case of footballer John Terry where he was found not guilty by a magistrate. That too made me think. And we’ll hear more on that one as he’s also subject to a further investigation which doesn’t require the overwhelming burden of proof that the criminal court demands.
So imagine these things are spinning around in my space.
Then the third thing happened – racism walked through my door.
One of my children was talking with a friend, who doesn’t go to the same school. Indeed, this child’s parents were so anxious to give their child the best possible education they sent her to school miles and miles away. This child doesn’t have white skin, though I’ve never even considered that to be relevant to anything.
This child is beautiful, intelligent, a positive influence who has brought my family into contact with a new culture, new beliefs and has generally enriched our lives.
But she is suffering racism at school – it’s bullying with a ‘black’ tag and it’s something she’s never experienced before. It appears she got into spat with a child who had been a friend and it’s escalated, involving other voices and messages on Facebook and texts which involve racist comments.
This child appears at a loss to know what to do, we’re not even sure she’s told her parents. We feel that this is because the family have sacrificed much to send her to this school and she doesn’t want to let them down. In her primary school life this child didn’t have any moments like this so it’s come as a real shock.
And it came as a shock to me. I’m amazed by how terribly angry I feel and how impotent. What can I do? I don’t know her parents well enough to go around and tell them what’s going on – my child will feel like I’m betraying a trust. Something that needed to be discussed with me in confidence. I don’t know the name of the school.
But my anger is this – why would any child think it’s okay to do that? If my child did anything like that there would be such serious consequences at home – no phone, no tv, all rewards removed until earned through respect. And what about that school? What action would be taking if it was drawn to their attention?
Would they call in parents and then the police? Or will they gently talk through it, chat to the children concerned and hope it all goes away. What’s the betting it’s the latter.
There are no easy answers to this but we must make it clear that it’s utterly intolerable. A teenager today should not have to spend even one second of their life worrying about a racist slur.
What would you do?
Life isn't black or white....
My stepdaughter is a few days away from finishing school, A levels completed. It’s a time that she, and many like her, have been waiting for – that moment when you are free and able to take charge of your own destiny.
Or is it? Looking back, I wonder just how much it’s ‘the world’s your oyster’ or is it really ‘I’m all at sea”? It’s easy to think what a wonderful time this is – but for those young people who don’t have a clear plan of where they are going, it’s a scary time.
Before you know it - she's 18.....
Suddenly you are an adult, almost overnight. You are expected to take a certain path – is it university? is it college? is it a job? Which way do you go? And how much time do you have to get there? Some young people are expected to immediately start earning in order to pay their way. But right now, it’s not that easy. Our young people communicate in a totally different way to us – so picking up the phone to push yourself, or going in to personally hand in a CV is something which scares them. E-mail is great, but it keeps those experiences, those rejections at arms’ length.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing – but today, it’s a hard, hard thing. This is especially true if you are not driven in any particular direction. Passion for a certain profession comes through so strongly and can be infectious but if you don’t know what you want to do – how can you be passionate?
For me, there was never any question of not going into higher education – even though no one else in my family had ever done it. Indeed my Gran thought I was mad to continue ‘studying at school’. For her it was all about getting a job, getting married and having children. That was a woman’s path and any woman who didn’t follow that path was slightly odd.
When I was 16, my father made me go out and get a Saturday job. He said I needed to earn my own money. I remember him putting pressure on me, I have no memory of finding said job or how that came about. But I worked in the Littlewoods store in Southgate, Bath in the small food hall. My monthly earnings came to about £23 – and I felt so rich.
When I finished school, I floundered horribly – I had a steady boyfriend who worked and didn’t get the whole education thing – students were a drain on taxpayers. No surprise we didn’t last the distance.
In fact I didn’t do well enough to get to university to study my beloved English literature, but I did get on to a course in a college of higher education. It was a wonderful period of my life and I’ve never regretted it. I worked every summer holiday so that I could pay off debts and save some cash. Somehow my life bounced along. I wanted to train to be a teacher. Little did I know that would not be the case.
As I look at my beautiful step-daughter and see her juggling her options, I understand how she feels and I haven’t got the heart to tell her that grand plans at her age generally go completely to pieces.
I haven’t got the heart to tell her that life is like that, you make a plan and something comes along to mix things up unexpectedly.
I suppose the lesson is that, the crossroads before her is the start of a scary adventure – one of many – and that’s okay.
Today many children went back to school – as a mum of three, I have three of these days to deal with this year as all three children are at different stages.
Today will possibly be the most long-winded and it reminded me of the trauma that many working parents feel when they are trying to do the right things for their children at school – and get to work on time. It’s a daily battle.
Being self-employed I’ve deliberately kept all three days as free as possible and I’ve not regretted it. After years of children at school, I finally found that it’s best to be as free as possible on days like today. It’s brought the stress down to a bearable level.
Last Friday it was first child to secondary school – getting up far too early, stressing about uniform, putting a tie on for the first time and the horror of my daughter in realising that she has to master this every day for the next few years! What a trauma. Then it’s the ‘what if’ period – what if I can’t find my friends? what if I get lost? what if I can’t find the toilets? what if I’ve forgotten my PE kit?
Notice that these ‘what ifs’ are not the same as us parents? Like, ‘what if the work is too hard? or what if my child gets bullied? or what if my child is naughty?’
What I did not have to do was take my child to school – no it’s now an early bus there and back, but that brings it’s own trauma about safety, on the road and on the bus.
Still we got over that day and today it was child number 2.
This trip is a move from Yr 4 to Yr 5 of a very laid-back child who is having a new teacher and some new cardigans but everything else is familiar.
However, what a parent so easily forgets over the summer is the hurdles one has to deal with in simply getting your child to school.
The traffic is worse and finding a parking space that a) isn’t a daft and unsafe place to park b) isn’t inconsiderate to residents. And then there’s always the risk that residents will simply object to you parking outside their house, even if it’s not unsafe or illegal to do so. I had this the other day (not on a school day) but on a new estate where there were no road markings at all. I was a visitor to the area, there were no yellow lines, no parking signs at all but a resident wrote me a snotty note and put it on my windscreen informing me that I should ‘park round the back or else’. Clearly he or she thought I was psychic and would know by osmosis that there were parking spaces elsewhere.
Back to today, my child gave me a quick kiss and disappeared, eager to see her friends and to find her way around a new classroom.
I then had to have at least five conversations with other parents about their particular experiences. Some clearly were parents who were short of adult company over the previous six weeks. I had the time, so it was no problem. But when you are working it’s so rude to say ‘that’s great, bye!’. Then I remembered her new cardigans and also the medical form for her asthma medication.
On entering the school office, there was a queue of mums waiting to do similar things.
I could see those eager to be away, hopping from one foot to another – knowing how they felt, I was relaxed about letting them jump the queue.
But then the form-filling – is it really necessary to fill out at least two forms saying the same thing? My child has asthma, she can self-administer her medication when she needs it – which is about once a week. She’s proficient at it, she’s learning to carry her inhalers herself at all times – but she’s not allowed to at school. This I know and accept. But there must be a more efficient way of dealing with this. There was one form and then another, both asking the same thing. This exercise took about 20 minutes and then I had to wait for her new cardigans – luckily that took about a minute.
So my youngest child was pretty bored by the time we left school at about 9.30am – goodness knows what it will be like on Friday when he starts for the first time. I’ll be lucky to get a coffee in before I’ve got to pick him up at lunchtime. Oh joy!
First day at school can seem like a long, uphill slog