Four months after Claire Throssell pleaded with the authorities that her abusive ex-husband Darren Sykes should be prevented from seeing their two sons after he told her he could “understand fathers killing their children”, he lured the boys into the attic with the promise of a new train set, trapped them and set the house on fire, killing them both and taking his own life in the process.
Two-and-a-half years later, Claire is fighting for an overhaul of the legal system - driven by a promise to her two little boys that no other children should die in the way they did.
“What happened to my sons should never happen again, no other parent should have to hold their child in their arms and comfort them as they die. My son’s last words to the fireman were ‘My dad did this and he did it on purpose’. I made a promise to my boys it wouldn’t happen again.”
On October 22, 2014, Claire Throssell said her goodbyes to her beloved boys, Jack and Paul, as they went off to another day at their respective schools in Penistone, near Barnsley. Her parting words to them were ‘Love you’; their response ‘To infinity and back’.
Just a few hours later she was plunged into a nightmare almost beyond comprehension. That evening, her ex-partner Darren Sykes lured his two sons into the attic with the promise of a new model train set. But rather than a loving father’s present, it was instead an appalling trap. While the children played in the attic, Sykes blocked the exits and set the house alight.
Paul, nine, died in the fire - his older brother Jack, 12, passed away in hospital six days later. Sykes also died. In a final act of cruelty, before starting the blaze Sykes had cancelled the house insurance, leaving Claire facing destitution in addition to dealing with the devastating loss of her children.
While a subsequent Serious Case Review (SCR) by Barnsley Safeguarding Children Board found “the catastrophic events could not have been predicted”, Claire believes much more could have done to better protect her children.
Now working with charity Women’s Aid, she is spearheading its ‘Child First’ campaign, which aims to put the safety of children at the heart of all decisions made in family courts over custody arrangements. In the last decade, 20 children have been killed by fathers involved in domestic abuse but given access to them through child contact arrangements - over half of which were ordered through the courts.
The campaign is already having an impact; a new Prison and Courts Bill has set out provisions to stop perpetrators of abuse cross-examining their former partners in family courts, while the Ministry of Justice has also asked Women’s Aid to review the training provided to family court staff on domestic abuse.
Claire’s own experiences of family court presents a deeply troubling picture. She left Sykes in April 2014 and in June, Paul told a teacher his father had shouted at him for not eating the crusts, dragged him by the throat and slammed him into a chair during a family holiday in February.
That led to Claire to apply for a court order preventing Sykes from having contact with the children until social workers had investigated what her son had said happened.
Later that month, the boys told social workers “their father emotionally abused them and that they were scared of him”. They referred to him kicking them and being “pure nasty” but wanted to continue seeing him for limited periods.
Sykes, who had a history of depression and in 1994 was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, had previously given a police caution in 2011 for assault after attacking a neighbour in a boundary dispute. And police were called twice about Sykes’ behaviour in June 2014 - once when took the children from their grandmother’s house at a time when he was not supposed to have contact. On the second occasion, police were called after Sykes went to boys’ grandmother’s house again and threw Claire’s belongings into the garden.
Claire submitted an evidence statement to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) outlining her concerns ahead of an urgent court hearing in early July. The application said Sykes had told Claire “he had nothing to live for and intended to commit suicide” and that he had previously said “he can understand fathers killing their children”, in addition to allegations of Sykes being bullying, controlling and verbally threatening and abusive to both her and the children.
However, the SCR revealed that the Cafcass family court adviser’s “probably did not read Claire’s application in its entirety” as their safeguarding letter to the court made no mention of Sykes’ comment about fathers killing children.
The review said: “It is impossible now to say what action would have been appropriate if the adviser had read the application to court more carefully and had addressed these issues with [Claire and Sykes]. However it may have been appropriate for him to have considered recommending the suspension of contact.”
Instead, an interim order was made saying Sykes could have five hours of contact with the boys per week. Sykes carried out the fatal fire weeks before another court hearing to decide on permanent custody arrangements.
Claire says social services and Cafcass handled the case “appallingly” and treated it as a “normal custody battle” despite being aware of the allegations of domestic abuse.
“The boys had got to the point where they were saying they didn’t want to go to him and we were due back in court in November. He knew the writing was on the wall for his access. He did what I suspected he was capable of.”
On October 20, two days before Sykes killed the boys and himself, another Cafcass adviser met Sykes to discuss with him the comments about “understanding why fathers kill their children”. The SCR said Sykes became “agitated and uncomfortable” and barred the door to prevent her leaving.
After the interview, the adviser emailed her manager describing Sykes as “intimidating, controlling and aggressive” and said she would not see him again on her own.
As Claire, who only learnt of the October 20 incident during the inquest process, puts it today: “Two days before it happened, he wouldn’t let the Cafcass officer leave the room and she didn’t want to be with him alone. So how did they think it would be safe for a nine-year-old and 12-year-old to be with him?”
Cafcass has subsequently accepted “the work undertaken in this case fell below the expected standards in several ways”, particularly in regard to the failure to address Sykes’ comment about fathers killing children.
Claire also hopes legal changes will encourage women in abusive relationships to feel more able to leave their partners, something she knows is far from easy. She says when she first started a relationship with Sykes, he managed to conceal his true personality for years.
“He was very caring, he was very attentive. I had never met anyone like that before, he would shower you with affection, buy flowers and was very loving and caring. But then when you look back on that time, what looked like very caring behaviour was actually very controlling.
“By the time I left him, he was ringing me 20 to 30 times a day demanding to know where I was. The mask slipped two years into our marriage. But just after that, I got pregnant and then lost my dad. Things went downhill from there. He was incapable of being a support emotionally, it was all about him, he was a narcissist. When the boys came along, he didn’t like the fact they took time, love and attention away from him.”
She said much of Sykes’ abuse was emotional. In one incident shortly before the break-up of the marriage, Sykes demanded that she weighed herself in front of the family.
“He said stand on those scales because you look fat. I said I’m not standing on the scales. The boys were nearby and were really upset. He went up to Paul and said ‘Your mum is fat’. I didn’t want the boys to grow up thinking that was how you treated people within a family.”
Claire still carries great guilt for what happened to her children and says she feels she “failed to protect them”, despite coroner Christopher Dorries making clear that she had nothing to blame herself for during the inquest into the boys’ deaths.
Claire says she would tell people suffering from domestic abuse not to delay leaving their partners. “It is awful to do it and it take courage but you have to leave. It is not easy when you have no confidence, it is a dark and lonely place to be. You have to have hope things are going to change. If you don’t have hope, than you have nothing.”
Claire has also set up a charity called Heads Together, designed to support families going through trauma. She says trying to help others is her way of attempting to rebuild her life without her amazing boys.
“Living without them is like treading through mud. They were my life. The day everything happened my life stopped and now I just exist. But if I can make a difference for others, then their lives haven’t been in vain.
“Jack was a musician and played the trumpet. Music just ran through his veins and he was very talented. Paul was just full of energy, he used to run in the South Yorkshire League. He used to say when he was running, he felt free. I’ll never forget one Bonfire Night, me and Jack went to watch him. He was racing down the track and a firework just exploded behind him and you could see his face lit up with the joy of running.
“At the very end, Jack tried to save Paul. He could have run away from the attic but he didn’t and tried to get Paul out. At the end they were there for each other.”
Claire says it is the people of Penistone that have kept her going. Local people rebuilt her home so it could be sold to pay off the mortgage.
“The community have just been amazing. They put me on their shoulders together and carried me as gently and lovingly as the pallbearers carried the boys into the church.
“Out of the devastation there is hope that proves love is stronger than hate.”
‘Significant lessons learnt’ from case
Cafcass officials say the organisation has made improvements to practice since the death of the boys.
A spokesman said: Cafcass accepts the review’s findings, which follow those of the coroner: that the death of the children was an unlawful killing and that there was no knowledge by a public authority of any identifiable risk of such an event taking place.
“We also accept the finding that none of the agencies involved with the family had fundamentally failed in their duty to the family.
“However, we also accept that there are significant lessons to be learned from this review. Our practice in this case fell beneath the standard expected and we have taken swift action to review our processes. Cafcass has completed all actions following the recommendations for improvement identified through this review.
“It is difficult to think of more tragic circumstances than this case and the lessons learned through our involvement in this review will reverberate through the organisation.”
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