The woman who is standing up to feral thugs - 4 October 2009


Callum, her elder son, has severe cerebral palsy, is almost blind and has life-threatening epilepsy. Asher and her younger son, Guarin, told me about the abuse and bullying by thugs that have become part of their daily life on a council estate in Poole, Dorset. At first I found it hard to credit as it seemed so inhuman. But when I walked with Guarin around the estate I discovered they were telling me nothing less than the horrible truth.


I have rarely met a more unhappy 10-year-old, worn down beyond his years, not only coping with the burden of having a severely disabled brother and being the only sibling, but also suffering persecution and abuse. Recently, after being attacked when he dared to go out to play with a friend, he began acting out attempts at suicide with bleach and the cord of his dressing gown.


As the mother of a disabled child — my 14-year-old daughter Domenica has Down’s syndrome — I know how ferociously protective any mother is of a vulnerable child. I am hypersensitive to any slight she might receive. I cannot imagine how painful it must be for mothers such as Asher and Fiona Pilkington to have their children subjected to deliberate torment.


One of the most upsetting things in the Pilkington case — revealed at the inquest into how she killed herself and her daughter — was that she kept logs in which she recorded that the police said the abuse she suffered from neighbours was a problem for the local authority and the local authority said it was a problem for the police.


Asher, too, has kept records of her efforts to get those in authority to put a stop to the unceasing abuse. “They just kept passing the buck,” she told me.


She feels that because she lives on a council estate she is pigeonholed as being thick and stupid and crimes seem to be taken less seriously than if she lived in a “nice” area. Police and councils do not react and the lack of empathy or any desire to help makes her feel crushed by the whole of society.


Far from being thick, she is an intelligent and inspirational 39-year-old who, before giving up work to look after Callum, made a good living in car sales.

 I spent two days with Asher and her boys in the course of filming a BBC documentary on the difficulties facing such families in Britain. They were housed by Poole council in May 2006 — unaware that members of the family next door had convictions for assault and a long history of terrorising the neighbourhood.


The council had tried to evict this family, the Hambridges, in 2000. What was it thinking of, housing a single parent with two children, one of whom is profoundly disabled and requires 24-hour care, next to such a family?


Asher’s new home was a pleasant semi, specially adapted for Callum’s needs and the carers who helped her look after him. The streets outside were far from lovely. The estate was dominated by several problem households inter-related in a nightmarish extended family.


Neighbourhood children began terrorising the newcomers almost immediately. Within weeks Asher was keeping a journal. Here’s her summary for September 2006: “All windows smashed on my car. Police came out, gave us an incident record, case closed.


“Car covered in gloss paint, verbal abuse every time I go outside. They shout abuse out of their bedroom windows when I walk up the path and they shout at friends who come here. My son is getting verbal abuse when he walks outside even to the car.


“Continuous verbal abuse and threats including saying I would get my f****** head kicked in because I was a grass — reported to police. Council asked us to keep diary logs. Council now involved in taking these people to court.

 “We are now so scared over Callum’s safety the window on his downstairs bedroom is padded with sofa cushion covers in case a brick comes through the window. As the police are taking fingerprints from car, I am threatened in front of police.


“Care is pulled and I feel more desperate. Carers are now having cars targeted and fearful of coming in. One carer resigns.


“AH (Adrian Hampton, father of two of the four Hambridge children) comes after me one night but gets the wrong house as my car is parked up a neighbour’s drive, he hits a 13-year-old who opens the door, he is drunk and abusive.


“Further smashing of side window on car. Three people saw AH do this. Despite witnesses seeing this happen, the police took no action on the damage to my car. However, he did get taken to court for resisting arrest and the police managed to get themselves compensation for their bruises. Car insurance want to write car off and I plead with them not to as it is suitable for Callum. Have to pay more than £500 in excess costs. Feeling desperately low and ill.


“Threatened with assault outside my home. Police lost my witness statement despite me being the one who called 999. They had no account of my statement being taken despite the fact I had a record of the crime number and the PC who took the statement down. Police admit failure. I go round in some kind of primitive daze, worried constantly of what they will do next.”


Asher is a strong, forceful, determined and tough lady — a tigress when it comes to anything to do with either of her children, yet she has thought of killing herself “lots and lots of times”.


Her bleakest moment came after a week of constant abuse and so much damage to her car that she was unable to drive it. She had to rent a car to drive Callum to a hospital appointment in Bristol. A group of women watched her carry his floppy, disabled body out of the house and struggle to get him into the car. Then they stood, laughing, smirking, calling her a grassing bitch.


These are women with children of their own.


After driving off the estate, she pulled the car over and sobbed uncontrollably. She screamed with frustration, with the anger of being housed next to this family, when she was already vulnerable and alone. Callum, who is unable to speak, started crying too. He could not understand what was happening. That was the moment when Asher knew she would either go under or swim for her life.


She wondered how Fiona Pilkington had felt before driving her daughter, Francesca, to a lay-by and setting fire to the car, killing them both — perhaps that in death there would be no more torment, no more sleepless nights feeling so tired, so alone and so afraid.


She set off for Bristol but the thoughts of suicide stayed with her. “I kept seeing heavy lorries coming towards me and I thought it would be so easy to turn the car into one of them . . .” She can understand completely the frustration and isolation that Fiona must have felt. If you decide to take action against these thugs, you get reprisals. Fiona knew how weak the system was and she had lost faith, as Asher has, that anything could be done for her and her family.

 Asher can see that for Fiona there was no way out but death. Fiona had reached a moment where she could no longer cope and knew she could not leave behind her vulnerable daughter, so she would have to take her with her. In death there would be no more suffering. This is the way she could finally protect Francesca.


Asher’s decision to fight on was briefly boosted by a small victory in February 2007, when the Hambridges were evicted from next door for more than 100 incidents or allegations of theft, criminal damage, verbal abuse, threats or violence against neighbours. But they were rehoused only a quarter of a mile away.


Adrian Hampton and his girlfriend Kerry Hambridge were banned from Asher’s road but the children were free to come back and continue their reign of terror. She recorded in her log: “After eviction hearing the car was keyed along the new bodywork after it had just been repaired. Police informed, can’t do much but have logged it as a crime (again!!)


“My youngest son followed by one of the youngest children, verbal gestures and abuse and followed into the local swimming pool. His friend doesn’t want to come back here and Guarin is upset and scared he can’t go outside or walk anywhere.


“Police said there was nothing they could do: the youths were free to go where they like. I explained the injunction and court case etc — not interested. Frustration and anxiety mount as our lives are impaired and we can’t do anything normal at all. We become prisoners in our own home.”


Two months later: “I am at my wits’ end knowing that we still have no rest from these people, they refuse to leave us alone and no one can stop them! Powerless and hopeless. I can’t sleep at night and I can’t go on medication as I have to be up in the night for Callum. I haven’t slept properly in months and I feel like I have a permanent headache. I feel short-tempered with the kids and then feel guilty about seeing little Callum’s gorgeous innocent face looking at me and I’m in a mess. I keep crying but know I must carry on.”


She was so exhausted — looking after her sons, maintaining the daily log of abuse, calling people to try to get help — that when Callum needed physio, feeding or changing she felt as if she was doing it “wearing a lead body suit, because everything became so much effort”.


And so it continued: more abuse, more visits to court, more intimidation, more exhaustion and more excuses from the authorities.


The council said keeping order on the estate was the responsibility of the police. The police said the case was one for the council’s housing department. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) told her the police had not got the right evidence for prosecution. The police said the CPS was not taking enough cases to court.


Asher wrote to two local MPs, Robert Syms and Annette Brooke, who in turn wrote to Dorset’s chief constable, Martin Baker, who wrote to someone else down the line, which resulted in a junior sergeant writing to Asher to tell her she had an unrealistic expectation of the law. She wrote to James Meston QC, the crown court judge who had evicted the Hambridges, who replied that he was “greatly concerned” by the abuse — and referred it to the council.


She wrote to Detective Inspector Stephen Thorpe, intelligence manager for Bournemouth and Poole. He referred her back to the Safer Neighbourhood team. Although a councillor, Tony Woodcock, was “marvellous”, pointing out this was a child protection case, the agencies passed the problem around like a game of pass-the-parcel while Asher and her family were barely surviving.


The toing and froing between police and local authority mirrors the bureaucratic buck-passing and impenetrability that parents of children with severe disabilities come against the whole time. This constant official prevarication and inability of any authority to take full responsibility are horribly similar to the Pilkington case. It does not have the element of persecution that Asher and her boys face, but the result is the same: complete despair and a feeling of helplessness.

 It becomes particularly difficult when the child reaches the age of majority because at that stage the state has no obligation to continue its care. The vulnerable child just becomes another adult and the safety net disappears.

One of the reasons alluded to as to why Fiona Pilkington killed not just herself but also her daughter was that her daughter had reached the age when there was no longer a school for her to go to during the day to get away and there was no daycare provision.

Even with a young disabled child Asher felt the authorities regarded her as a nuisance — that she should simply put up with the violence and abuse.

June 2008: “My carer is walking with my 10-year-old and my disabled son, just got to the bottom of the road, kids threaten him and say that ‘he will need surgery when they are finished with him’. Reported in diary sheets and to the police — no action taken. ASB \ team and police seem irritated now because I keep reporting things.”


September 2008: “Paint gloss poured over the car because I’m returning back to court against the family. Police response unit come out and are really rude, totally unsympathetic, and when I try to explain this is an ongoing hate campaign they say, ‘We haven’t got all day’.”


At midnight two days after Christmas last year, Asher and Guarin were curled up on the sofa watching Jurassic Park. “A brick comes through the window, the new TV we got for Christmas goes flying over the lounge, curtains are ripped and the floor is covered with razor-sharp shards of glass. My son is running about, hysterical. I had to get Callum into emergency care to keep him safe. I was stressed to breaking point.”


All this year the abuse has continued. By the end of the summer holidays Guarin had had enough. Asher found him sitting on the window sill, telling her that he hated life so much he wanted to die. He also put a bottle of bleach to his lips in front of her and, on another occasion, tied his dressing gown cord round his neck and tried to hang himself, she said. “He doesn’t really want to do it. It’s his way of saying, ‘I can’t cope. I can’t live here’.”


When I had a word alone with Guarin, he told me about his suicidal thoughts. Asher burst into tears when I recounted this to her because of course she already knew.


They could move out of the estate but they would not get another specially equipped home and Callum would have to go into care, which Asher will not countenance: “I won’t give up my boy. I love him.”


What does her former neighbour think of her predicament? Kerry Hambridge, 38, now lives with her three sons and daughter in another semi-detached council house five minutes’ walk away. She said: “I’ve got no sympathy for that woman because she got us evicted . . . I’m the victim because I’ve been barred from the estate.”


She added: “They accused me of being the ringleader and telling my kids to do those things to her. It’s just kids being kids . . . Being evicted from our house after 10 years there has affected them.”


Because of enlightened legislation that, among other things, demands equal access to education, the language that is used about disabled children is meant to strip away any suspicion of stigma. But in their day-to-day lives the disabled confront attitudes that have not advanced since the medieval period.


On these sink estates you have feral youths who are themselves so inadequate that they seem to alight upon the disabled as people even lower down in the human pecking order whom they can kick unmercifully.


Sitting at home now, in my comfortable, civilised, well ordered surroundings, Asher’s world seems unreal. It was a huge shock for me to see it and to realise that this is modern Britain. For so many of us the death of Fiona Pilkington has brought to life something almost unimaginable out of Lord of the Flies — but for Asher it is not a discovery. She lives with it. Gordon Brown talks about educating the family and tough love. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality is the widest it has ever been.


I think the reality is that the number of people in these estates who are good and decent vastly outnumber those who are feral and disgusting. We are talking about a small number of people causing a huge amount of distress. But until the community as a whole rises up against this minority and shames them into different behaviour, the battle is lost.


In an ideal world the entire estate would stand outside their homes with placards telling this minority what they feel about them. This is not going to happen because society is so dislocated. We have no nuclear family and therefore no extended family and no sense of any community. People live out their lives in terrible isolation.


Acting on its own, the state cannot civilise people or enforce civilised behaviour. That requires the good people of the community acting out of compassion, common sense and a righteous anger. The law is so ineffectual at protecting the most vulnerable that the public has the right, and indeed the duty, to act.


Meanwhile, what happens to families such as Asher’s? How can we, as a society, allow this behaviour, this intimidation, to continue?


If society is to be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members, then we are all guilty. Where is our basic decency, our common sense, which must triumph over bureaucracy and “procedures” and our compassion? Surely every family has a right to feel safe in its own home.