My husband Chris was a stay-at-home dad. I’d often have to travel for work throughout the UK and abroad, so he’d always be the one doing the school runs and domestic jobs around the house.
In October 2016 I had to take an overnight trip to London from our home in Halifax. At the time, our daughters Iris and Pearl were aged 2 and 4 respectively. I arrived in London on a Monday and spoke to Chris that evening, just to check that everything was okay.
I spent the following day working at a conference. I tried calling Chris in the morning, but his mobile just rang out. That wasn’t too unusual – he had two small children to get up and out and the house before 8.30 in the morning, after all. I tried ringing him few more times throughout the day, and the calls started going to voicemail. He wasn’t responding to any messages.
I was due to get an 8pm train back from Kings Cross. Around 7pm I received a call from our neighbour, telling me that our milk was still out on the front doorstep, our cars were parked outside and the house was in darkness. That’s when alarm bells started ringing.
I called a couple of other school mums to ask if they’d seen Chris on the school run, but they hadn’t. It was now 7.30. I rang my mum, who has a key to our house, but she was unable to gain access because our key had been left in the lock on the other side. She then called the police.
I’d just got on the train when I received another phone call, this time from a paramedic. That’s when I was told that my husband had been found dead from heart failure, but that the kids were both okay.
Iris and Pearl had been with Chris all day. They’d got themselves out of bed and gone into our bedroom to try to wake him up, then seemed to have spent time playing with my shoes and jewellery.
I know that my eldest understood what had happened. We had a number of cats, a couple of which we’d recently had to put down, and neither Chris or I shied away from discussing life and death with the kids. Pearl was a real daddy’s girl. The first word she’d say on waking up was nearly always ‘daddy’. When I finally got back from London and saw the kids, both were asleep. The following morning, Pearl didn’t ask for him. She was only four, but I’m convinced she knew he’d died before I told her. Iris didn’t have a clue.
Soon afterwards, I challenged Pearl’s school about why they hadn’t called me. They told me that since she’s wasn’t on the vulnerable child register, they would only ever ring the first contact number of the four that we’d given them. They hadn’t even called promptly – the first call they made to our home was at 10.30 that morning, nearly two hours after the start of the school day.
Unsatisfied, I contacted the safeguarding officer at our LA and explained to him what had happened. Unbeknownst to me, the LA later sent recommendations to all schools in the area, citing a couple of other cases similar to ours where children had been put at risk after the unreported death of a parent. The schools were told to review their systems and ensure they had at least three contact numbers for each of their pupils, including one contact not based at the pupil’s home. The advice was that they should all be called in the event of no one answering. The next step would then be to carry out a home visit, and if necessary, call the police.
A change in procedure
In October 2017, almost a year after my husband had died, I discovered that the school’s reporting policy hadn’t changed. I queried the LA about this, which is when I was informed they’d had since May to sort it out. After submitting a formal complaint to the MAT, a response came back, stating that due to ‘workload pressures within the school’, it was impossible for them to conduct home visits.
I’m not suggesting that schools should immediately try physically locate every child who doesn’t turn up for school in the morning and carry out a health check – but if you’ve rung all the contact numbers you have with no response, then there’s plainly something wrong.
I eventually secured a meeting with the MAT chair a couple of months later, and the school’s procedures were changed the day after. That was the same day that I finally removed my daughter from the school. I knew by then that they had consistently failed to observe their safeguarding obligations and that I couldn’t trust the school to keep her safe.
Pearl started at her new school three days before the end of the winter term, and they’ve been brilliant – though surprisingly, it’s actually part of the same MAT. The school’s absence procedures are clearly displayed in the school’s boardroom and headteacher’s office, with details of the safeguarding training staff have received and who’s responsible for which stage. They’ve not just implemented those policies, but also communicated them to parents and that’s the key thing – the messaging needs to be clear.
However, the issue remains that the only statutory pupil absence requirement for schools presently is that they hold one contact number for each child, with no stipulation for how quickly those numbers should be contacted. They need to keep a minimum of three numbers, including one for someone at a different address, and to call them promptly when needed.
I’m currently working with the Good Grief Trust, and recently spoke before the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Funerals and Bereavement, because schools need to be made aware of what can happen and change their existing reporting policies. If Pearl’s old school had done so, the police would have found my husband far sooner. How robust are your own school’s policies? Could they result in a similar situation? Could the same thing happen to one of your parents?
There’s nothing more important than locating a child – and in a school, you might be the only adult who knows that a child isn’t where they should be.
Learning from tragedy
In October 2016, Chadrack Mulo, a four-year-old boy living in Hackney, was found clinging to the body of his mother, Esther Eketi-Mulo. According to a coroner’s report, Esther had died suddenly two weeks earlier from an epileptic fit.
Soon afterwards, Chadrack’s school introduced a policy of collecting three contact numbers for each pupil, and tasked staff with making immediate home visits if no adult could be contacted in the event of a pupil’s absence.
What should schools do?
- Hold a minimum of three contact numbers for each pupil, at least one of which should be for a different household. If a pupil’s absence is unaccounted for, they should be called in a timely fashion.
- Call every contact number as required. If there’s no response from any of them, carry out a home visit.
- If no one answers the door at home, inform the police that there’s a missing child.