As Claire Throssell cradled her two dying sons in her arms, she promised both that no more children would be killed at the hands of someone who should protect and love them most.
Now, six years after their father ambushed them in an arson attack, a petition that Ms Throssell supports calling for a change in British family law has gained 50,000 signatures in a week.
The campaign, Child First: Safe Child Contact Saves Lives, launched by the leading domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid is urging the Lord Chancellor to ensure that the family court takes children’s feelings into account when considering custody and access cases. So far, more than 72,500 people have signed the petition.
It is time, Ms Throssell says, to put an end to a “deadly culture” in the family court system - and time to put children at the heart of judgements about parental contact by listening to their voices.
The last words that her own boys, Jack, 12, and Paul, nine, spoke to her were on the morning of October 22, 2014, when she dropped them to school and told them she loved them. “To infinity and beyond,” they responded, as they did every morning.
Later that day, Jack and Paul were lured to the house of their father, Darren Sykes, in South Yorkshire with the promise of an expensive new model railway set. As they played in the attic, Sykes, 44, barricaded them in with a chair under the handle of the door, poured petrol around the house and started an inferno.
Paul died after being pulled from the flames by firefighters, and Jack, with burns to more than 50 per cent of his body, died five days later in hospital. At the inquest into Sykes’s death, the coroner said that he had died from inhaling the by-products of the fire. A verdict of suicide was recorded.
Ms Throssell, 48, had not wanted Sykes to have unsupervised contact with the boys, having been the victim of years of domestic abuse by her ex-husband. Her sons, she says, had decided that they did not want to see him after months of custody hearings. The family court awarded Sykes unsupervised contact for a certain number of hours a week.
“No parent should have to hold their children and comfort them as they die, or be told that their child has been harmed in an act of revenge or rage,” Ms Throssell said.
“My son Jack’s dying words were, ‘My dad did this and he did it on purpose’.
“Throughout the whole humiliating and barbaric family court experience we had endured, Jack’s voice had never been heard. His dying testimony was the only time his voice was heard.
“Too often, unsafe rulings are made in a hostile and intimidating room where children like Jack and Paul’s voices are lost, their wishes unheard and feelings ignored.
“Tragically, these children are merely letters on serious case reviews, but their lives, however short, must be recognised and remembered for who they were – children let down and harmed by government bodies, which did not do enough to protect them.”
Ms Throssell and Women’s Aid hope that the Child First petition will protect other families from similar tragedy by bringing about an amendment to legislation to put children’s safety at the centre of any decisions made by family courts about contact with a known perpetrator of domestic abuse.
They point to a review of the family courts earlier this year by the Ministry of Justice which found that a “pro-contact” culture – a commitment to maintaining contact between a child and both parents – minimised allegations of domestic abuse.
The campaign is seeking to change the legal presumption of parental involvement in the Children Act 1989 for cases in which offspring are at risk of harm from abuse, to make clear that contact arrangements must be based on the child’s best interests.
According to Nicki Norman, the acting chief executive of Women’s Aid, there have been real changes in the family court response to domestic abuse since the Child First campaign and petition were launched in 2016.
“These include new guidance for judges in making decisions about child contact in domestic abuse cases, a commitment to ban abusers cross-examining victims in the family courts, and a major Ministry of Justice review of the family courts led by an expert panel,” Ms Norman said.
“Survivors continue to tell us that their abusers use the family courts as a weapon of coercive control, and that unsafe decisions impact their children’s safety and welfare.
“Since we launched this petition, we know at least two further children have been killed by an abusive parent in circumstances related to unsafe child contact. We cannot wait any longer. We must change the presumption of parental involvement in domestic abuse cases – for good.”