Terry Philpot interviews Francis and Berthe Climbie‚ about how they hope the inquiry into their daughter’s death will help heal family rifts and provide some answers to how the authorities failed Victoria.
Francis and Berthe Climbie’s return to their home in the Ivory Coast for the Christmas and New Year break could have been marked by the pleasure of seeing their seven children again and a welcome break from the daily unveiling of the horrific circumstances of the death of their daughter, Victoria, as they sit through the Laming inquiry. But it was not to be so. For in all the cultural cross currents and the political and administrative entanglements that beset the case, their wider family has been riven with discord.
Francis Climbie’s family feel that what is said about the child’s death cannot be the truth. Marie Therese Kouao, who is serving a life sentence for Victoria’s murder, is, for them, a respected older member of the family. Victoria’s death must be an accident, they reason, and that being so, dishonour is being brought on the family by Kouao being arraigned in a British court and now having to appear before a public inquiry.
Ironically, the inquiry may be the salve for the family if its conclusion allows the rest of the Climbie family to accept what happened. The tension when Francis and Berthe Climbie‚ returned home was heightened because they had hoped to take that report back with them. The report is expected to appear in the early summer.
As it is, the wider family, not just Victoria’s brothers and sisters, are still “highly shocked”, especially the elders. “The reason is not just that Marie Therese killed our daughter”, says Francis Climbie‚ “but that she has created animosity between my family and my wife’s family.”
But no-one would ever say that the Climbies were wrong to entrust their child to Kouao. As Francis Climbie‚ explains: “I have said again and again that that was not so. She is a member of our family and her role is to give assistance when she can and she gave us assistance in times of difficulty. [Mr Climbie‚’s catering business was in trouble, his wife was selling soft drinks and prepared foods outside their house. He is now unemployed.]
“Our society is very matriarchal – when my mother died we lived with her sister [not Kouao] and never thought of calling her ‘auntie’; she was our mother. Marie Therese came to us and was going to help our child to study in Europe. This is not uncommon at all. Everyone was excited about Victoria going because there was a possibility that other family members could follow.”
When Kouao gave her unrepentant, self-serving and accusatory testimony at the inquiry she was only feet from the Climbies. When she held Victoria’s hand as they left for Europe, she looked “glamourous”, said Francis Climbie. Had she realised their hopes for Victoria, she would have been “greater” than she seemed when she left. At the inquiry she never looked them in the eye, they said.
Francis Climbie‚ is a small man and says all this articulately and at length. Occasionally, he offers a weak smile that suggests bemusement that things have come to this. During our interview Berthe Climbie‚ never answers a question – at the beginning her husband looks to her to confirm a point he is making but after that he never defers to her again. She sits abstracted.
At the end of the interview, the interpreter, Mor Dioum, tells me that she has been affected by what she had heard in the closed session of the inquiry an hour earlier about Haringey social work manager Carole Baptiste’s own child. She also looks very tired and by the end of the interview has closed her eyes and is resting her head on her arms. Francis Climbie‚ leans across the table; he strokes her cheek and asks her if she is alright. When we move to another room for photographs to be taken, she is more animated.
Baptiste has just finished giving her evidence when I meet the couple. What they cannot understand is how this should happen when, as they say, in Europe one cannot just become a social worker – one has to be qualified and then trained. “From what we have heard, it’s not [Lisa] Arthurworrey [Victoria’s social worker] or Baptiste – it is the whole of Haringey social services from the chief executive to the social worker. It was a total failure by all of them,” says Francis Climbie‚.
“It is not what we think about what happened – it is what we have witnessed at this inquiry. Most of the witnesses try to blame their failure on others. And even where they do admit their mistakes, they do not accept their responsibilities.”
The Climbies get no respite from the reminder of what happened. They are at the inquiry for the four days it sits each week. They live in a hotel in west London. At weekends Mor Dioum translates the transcriptions of the week for them. They get through each day, they say, because of their faith in God, although they have no affiliation to any church. They talk of the spirit of Victoria still existing and believe that that spirit will help ensure that no other child dies in such circumstances – “not just in England”, Francis Climbie‚ emphasises, “but anywhere”.
The Climbies are not just here to observe and give evidence. “Our daughter died in terrible circumstances,” says Francis Climbie, “and it is our duty to find out and understand what happened: that is the secret, that is the other thing from which we get strength – the hunger to find out the truth.”
When the Climbies were in the Ivory Coast, it never occurred to them that Kouao would use a child to gain welfare benefits – indeed, as Francis Climbie‚ said in his statement to the inquiry, they were not even sure they existed. Now they look out of Hannibal House, the department of health outpost where the inquiry sits, to the bland blocks that house the outreaches of the Westminster bureaucracy – and beyond that the extensive apparatus of the welfare state: the NHS, social services, housing departments, social security offices. How do they see this ornate system now?
Francis Climbie says: “We were not just surprised but shocked because in Europe everything is so organised or is supposed to be – at times in Africa we envied the way everything was organised. We were shocked at what had happened and how in more than one place people did not find what was happening. Victoria lived in Haringey for seven months and for some months in Ealing but no-one knew, no-one did anything. The inquiry is exposing that the system is not as effective as it pretends to be.
“And now we have learned about what happened with Baptiste’s child. We were not interested in how she lived her personal life, but it interests us that she may have been working with the council when she was in a mental situation [evidence was presented that Baptiste suffered a ‘serious psychotic mental illness’ when team manager], yet she was working with vulnerable people like our daughter. If it is revealed that she was unfit to work in an organisation such as social services, why was she allowed by the council to do so?
“However, we have not lost hope because the British government has set up a public inquiry. The inquiry team has been extremely well organised from our perspective. We have also observed the determination of Lord Laming [who chairs the inquiry] and his team to conduct the inquiry in the most transparent way.”
The report, then, will be as much about assurance for Francis and Berthe Climbie‚ and their family in Africa as it will be to discover why things went wrong.