Kirstie was 12 when her stepfather killed her mum. Now living with her aunt in Wakefield, she has told her story for a domestic abuse documentary. Laura Drysdale reports.
“Natalie doesn’t have a voice anymore. We are it,” Joanne Beverley tells me. She is sitting by the side of her niece Kirstie, who, less than three years after the murder of her mother, Natalie Hemming, has told her story publicly for the first time in a heartbreaking documentary on domestic abuse.
Kirstie was just 12 when her stepfather Paul Hemming beat her mum to death at the family’s Milton Keynes home. Her body was found in woodland three weeks after she seemingly vanished in May 2016. Mother-of-three Natalie, 31, had been subject to violence and coercive control by her partner for years.
Kirstie, now 14 and living in Wakefield with her aunt, was too frightened to tell anyone about his behaviour for fear of the consequences. “I was really scared as to what would happen when I got home. I wouldn’t have felt safe if I’d told someone,” she says in the programme.
She even remained silent during a police interview at the time of her mother’s disappearance, keeping quite about being scared at home, in case Hemming found out she had said something and became angry.
“I asked her why she never spoke to anybody, why she never felt that she could speak to anybody,” Jo is filmed saying. “And her response was ‘because he would have hurt my mum’.
“Can you imagine having that kind of pressure put on you?
“That you can’t tell anybody what’s going on at home because this person would take your mum away from you.
“That’s what she’s been living with.”
In the documentary, Behind Closed Doors: Through the Eyes of the Child, Kirstie is one of four children talking for the first time about domestic abuse they have witnessed or experienced and the effect of living in such a frightening home.
Little things like a room not being tidy would trigger Hemming’s anger, Kirstie says, and there were naughty corners all around the house. The schoolgirl told the police that on one occasion, she was made to stand in a naughty corner overnight for 13 hours over a soggy apple she had left in her bag. Hemming exerted control over the entire family, Jo tells me.
“I think Kirstie was forced to grow up very quickly. I think she took a lot of responsibility for the other children [Kirstie has two younger siblings] and had to step in to keep them out of harm’s way as much as possible.
“Her life was not as it should have been. Until she came here, she had never been able to go out with her friends, go to the park.”
Hemming was jailed for life, with a minimum of 20 years in November 2016. “He was just incredibly controlling,” Jo says. “From the outside looking in, they looked like this perfect family, with the kids, a nice house and nice cars, but the reality of what they were living in was very different.”
In June 2017, a documentary following the police’s investigation of what happened to Natalie aired on Channel 4. Catching a Killer: The Search for Natalie Hemming, made by Leeds production company True Vision Yorkshire, was BAFTA-nominated and won two Royal Television Society Yorkshire awards.
True Vision Yorkshire, based in an old mill in Rodley and set up and run by Anna Hall, was also behind 2016 BBC documentary Behind Closed Doors, which followed three women and their domestic abuse stories.
Behind Closed Doors: Through the Eyes of the Child is a follow up, looking at abuse from a child’s perspective. One in five children in the UK have witnessed or experienced domestic abuse – and research suggests the effects on them will last a lifetime.
“The main point was to try and help people understand that children are affected by witnessing domestic abuse. They are the hidden victims,” says Anna.
“The thing for me is that we need to realise that children who are living in households with domestic abuse are victims in their own right,” Jo explains. “They are also being affected at the hands of the perpetrator. They are not just bystanders, they are living in it.
“That for me is what we need to be highlighting, because actually Kirstie wasn’t a bystander. Yes, she did witness the physical violence and the moods and the control that he exerted, but she also experienced it first hand.”
Kirstie was unable to be identified in Anna’s documentary on Natalie’s case, Jo says. “It was done for all the right reasons because obviously all of the children were incredibly vulnerable, but by the time the documentary aired, Kirstie’s perspective of things had changed and she felt safe, and she was opening up.
“When she actually saw the documentary, the first thing she said was ‘Why am I not in it?’. Because everything had been cropped really close and it didn’t really look as if she was there. We explained but she said ‘it feels like I’ve just been erased and that’s my mum’.”
Taking part in this latest documentary has helped to give Kirstie a voice and an opportunity to express her feelings. “We sat down and had a long talk about it,” says Jo. “And that was for the whole family because obviously it doesn’t impact on one person – it impacts on everybody, because it’s all of us having to relive the whole thing all over again.”
It wasn’t difficult speaking out, says Kirstie, “mainly because we’ve spoken about it as a family”.
“I think it’s important that people know that I’ve moved on and we’ve all moved on and we’re doing better things,” she says. “Raising awareness of it now is one of the good things about moving on.”
Kirstie hopes to help other youngsters experiencing domestic abuse. She has trained to be a domestic abuse ambassador at her school, acting as an ear for other students, who can talk to her about abuse at home or in a relationship and about where they can seek help.
She is also patron of Operation Encompass, a partnership that sees police inform schools when they have attended a domestic abuse incident at a child’s home, so immediate support can be put in place.
“It feels like it’s a good thing to do,” says Kirstie, who tells me she is a more confident and stronger person than three years ago. “I don’t want anyone else to experience what happened to us.”
Natalie is never far from the thoughts of her sister and daughter and her family use the #wearehervoice hashtag on Twitter in her memory.
“Natalie doesn’t have a voice anymore. We’re it,” says Jo. “And there are lots of women out there that don’t have a voice either because of what has happened to them or because they’re living in fear of domestic abuse.
“By doing this, we are Natalie’s voice and we are being the voice of those women out there who don’t have it.”
Behind Closed Doors: Through the Eyes of the Child airs on BBC2 at 9pm tonight and will then be available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
Following in Natalie’s footsteps
Kirstie says she looks like her mum and she thinks she will follow in her career footsteps too.
“I’m pretty sure I will end up in the Navy like mum did,” she says on the documentary.
She recalls her mother baking cakes for the family, taking her on shopping trips and helping her with make up.
“She was a really nice person, she was very funny. She was one of those people that had a good feeling about them. It was good to be around her.”
As for Hemming, she is filmed in the documentary saying she feels “numb” towards him.
“Most of my childhood I trusted him and the next thing I know he’s killed my mum and I don’t really understand why he would do that,” she says.