Police in the UK face misconduct charges after an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report found that they had failed to properly help the family of Fiona Pilkington. In 2007, Pilkington killed herself and her severely disabled daughter, Francecca Hardwick, following years of chilling harassment by youths who threw stones, flour, bottles and other objects at their house, jumped in the front hedge, and sometimes just loitered around for hours shouting abusive language.
According to the Guardian, Pilkington contacted police — 33 times in ten years, 13 times in the year in which she took her life — and “discussed matters with two antisocial behaviour officers from her borough council, dealt with a series of social workers and even wrote to her MP.” But — even though police and council officials knew who are the main culprits were — the abuse continued, with Pilkington’s son, Anthony Pilkington, who has milder learning disabilities, also targeted.
In a diary she kept until the year of her death, Pilkington writes about teenagers and children as young as 10 years old keeping the family “under siege” in the house she had lived in for 15 years. One night she wrote about hearing shouts outside her living room window from 11:30pm into the early hours.
The IPCC report said that police had erred in not identifying the family as “vulnerable” and the abuse as hate crimes. Says the Guardian:
In October 2007, Pilkington, then 38, drove herself and her 18-year-old daughter, Francecca Hardwick, to a layby near her home in Barwell, near Hinckley. She also took the family’s pet rabbit to soothe Hardwick, who had severe learning disabilities and a mental age of about four. She then set the Austin Maestro on fire, killing them both.
An inquest two years later heard how the family had been kept virtual prisoners in their home ….. The jury ruled that failings by police contributed to the deaths, as did the failure of Leicestershire county council and Hinckley and Bosworth borough council to share information.
The report singles out the police’s failure to identify the abuse as hate crimes against individuals with disabilities and their caretakers:
The case prompted wider concern that many police forces were failing to properly identify hate crimes motivated by disability and thus treating them as low-priority antisocial behaviour, something disability campaigners say too often remains the case….
The IPCC concluded that one of Leicestershire police’s main failings was in not identifying the abuse as hate crime. The report found that the force had systems in place which should have recognised the scale of cumulative harassment faced by the family, but that these were not used properly. Officers failed to take note of Pilkington’s repeated assertions that her family was being specifically targeted for abuse.
The watchdog cited several incidents to which the police should have responded more robustly, including one in July 2004 when Anthony, then 13, was threatened with a knife by youths and locked in a shed. Police did not visit the family until four days later.
Says David Congdon, the head of MENCAP, a disability advocacy organization:
Mencap estimates that as many as nine out of ten people with a learning disability are verbally harassed or exposed to violence due to their disability. If similar cases are to be prevented from happening again, this report underlines that police must treat disability hate crime as seriously as racial, religious and homophobic crime.
In June, MENCAP will launch a three-year campaign against disability hate crimes, the Stand by Me campaign.
This tragic case sheds a harsh light on the bullying and verbal and physical abuse that students with disabilities too often suffer from and endure. Disability hate crimes are under-reported, says the Guardian. Individuals with disabilities are “still reluctant to go to the police, and when they do, they struggle to be taken seriously.”
No one has been charged of any crime in Pilkington’s death or arrested in regard to it. While the police officers involved face misconduct proceedings, they will not lose their jobs, says chief constable of Leicestershire police, Simon Cole. He also issued an “unreserved apology to the family.”
But I am afraid that is too little, and way, way too late.
Image by blakeemrys.