[Solved] Tragedy after Family Court Ruling
AS Claire Throssell held her dying son Jack in her arms, tears pouring into his fair hair, she whispered 'I love you' and promised him his voice would be heard.
She had already been forced to say goodbye to his nine-year-old brother, Paul, hours after both suffered horrific injuries in a house fire started by her estranged husband, as a bitter act of revenge.
In October 2014, Darren Sykes lured the boys up to the attic of his Yorkshire home, with the promise of a train set, before trapping them in, dousing the house in petrol and setting 16 fires throughout.
Brave Jack tried to save his little brother by dragging him across the loft, before falling through the hatch and into the flames, which also killed Sykes.
The two boys had been forced to spend time with their abusive dad by a court order - even after Claire warned he was capable of killing.
Their tragic story is one of three that features in a new documentary Family Man, which airs on Crime and Investigation on Wednesday and delves into why men commit familicide.
Last year an NSPCC report found that, since 2004, 63 children had been killed by parents after warning signs were ignored by the authorities.
Now Claire, 48, is calling for the rights and the safety of the child to be put at the forefront of family court decisions.
In an emotional interview with Sun Online, she says: “My boys were frightened of their dad, who had a history of abuse and assault, but he was granted unsupervised access.
“On the day Jack died he was due to be interviewed by CAFCASS, the child protection service, but his voice was never heard and his wishes and feelings never listened to.
“I held both my children in my arms as they died and I promised them that no other parent should ever have to do the same, knowing it's at the hands of the person who should have loved them the most.”
Claire met Darren Sykes in 1995, when they were both working in the carpet trade, and he wooed her by sending a rose to her work every day for three weeks.
The pair married and moved to a home in Peniston, Yorkshire, but the passion soon turned to abuse, with up to 40 phone calls a day, verbal abuse and rape.
If Paul was slow to finish his food, he was forced to eat from the floor and Sykes hit the boys on several occasions.
Claire says the constant abuse left her feeling “like a piece of dirt underneath the whole world's shoe," but, in April 2014, she found the courage to leave, after falling down the stairs during an attack.
“Jack said something flippant, as 12-year-olds do, and his dad went for him with his fists. I acted on instinct, pushing Jack into his bedroom and shutting the door and I took the punch on my arm which spun me around and I fell down the stairs.
“Paul and Jack both came running to me. They were devastated.
“I realised then that, as hard as it was to leave, I didn't want my boys thinking that's how you treat somebody in a relationship. And I didn't want them to see me hurt, because that broke their hearts.”
Claire took the boys to her mum’s but Sykes was furious, launching a campaign of harassment, slashing her tyres, threatening to commit suicide and sending vile texts to her, to her family and even her sister, who was dying of cancer.
The boys didn’t want to see their father and, after Paul had an emotional breakdown at school, Claire managed to get an emergency residency order so that they didn’t see him for four months.
But in July, after a bruising family court hearing in which she was forced to sit opposite her abusive husband in a boardroom, he was awarded five hours of unsupervised access a week.
“A year before I left, we watched a news item on a man who killed his children in Wales and then hung himself and I was shocked,” she says.
“But [Darren] said, ‘I can understand why the father's done that, because we don't have any rights.’ That was a warning sign.
“I told the court that I knew he would hurt the boys and that I believed he was capable of killing them. They knew he had been arrested for assaulting a neighbour, and they still granted him access.
“I was devastated. Because I knew I wasn't going to be there to protect them and I knew they weren’t safe.”
“When your kids are clinging on to your leg and crying, saying they don't want to go somewhere, your heart starts to break.
“On one occasion, I found the boys spraying themselves with my perfume and they told me they didn’t want to go to their dad’s because they were frightened, but if they sprayed my perfume they could take my smell with them.
“You try and stay strong when a child tells you that but it rips you apart.”
On the morning of October 22, 2014, Claire drove Jack to his grammar school before dropping Paul off at primary.
“As I did every morning, I said to Jack, 'Love you' and he replied 'to infinity and beyond',” she recalls. “As he walked towards the door, he'd always take a look back, but for some reason that day he looked back again, to see that I was still there.
“Paul was totally different, he’d never walk when he could run, so he bounced out of the car and I said 'love you'. He shouted 'to infinity and beyond' over his shoulder but he was already running to the school. Those were the last words that we ever spoke to each other.”
That evening, Claire was late returning home from work and missed the boys by five minutes. As she walked through the door she spotted both their phones and her stomach lurched.
“We'd set up a code, at the police's advice, so if the boys texted ‘Mum’, I knew they were in danger and I could go and get them,” she says.
“I felt uncomfortable straight away, because you always have a knot in your stomach when your children are going somewhere that's not safe.”
In a twisted act of revenge against Claire, Sykes had trapped his own sons in the attic before torching his house.
Paul had been overcome by smoke and brave Jack fought his way across the loft and tried to save him, yanking open the hatch in a bid to escape before falling into the fire below.
“Both my boys were so loving,” says Claire. “We had a deep bond and they had a deep bond with each other, especially with what was going on with their dad.
“When they did go on a visit, it was Jack that looked after Paul because I wasn't there and in the end, it was Jack's hands that Paul felt and his strength that pulled him across the attic.
“He went towards his brother and tried to save him. I'm so proud of him for that.
“I'm just sorry that when they both needed me the most I wasn't there. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to not be there for your kids.”
Claire had just finished dinner when there was a loud knock on the door and a local police officer stood in the doorway.
With her heart in her mouth, her first words were “What has he done?”
The officer told her there had been a fire at the house and the boys were in hospital, before speeding her to the resuscitation unit.
“The first thing I saw was my youngest Paul, and they were doing CPR on him,” she says.
“Then the doctor took me aside and said, 'We're going to let him go now'. I said, 'No you can't'. But they'd kept him alive until I got there so I could hold him.
“I held him in my arms so tightly and his hair was wet with my tears. I kept saying, ‘Don't leave me, Paul. Don't leave me. I love you.’
“He looked at me and then his beautiful blue eyes just went grey. When people say the light goes out of their eyes, you don't believe it till you see it.
“The nurse came past and subtly closed his eyes and he looked like he was sleeping.”
Doctors then told her that Jack was still fighting, but that he had sustained 56 per cent burns to his face, chest, arms and back and had to be transferred to a specialist unit in Manchester.
“You never choose between your children, but I had to make the hardest decision ever in my life, to leave Paul behind and go with Jack,” she says.
“Jack was bandaged from head to toe and he was sedated but he could still hear, so I talked to him, read to him and sang to him and, for almost a week, he fought.
“I had to talk about Paul in the present tense because they were worried that if Jack knew his brother had gone, he wouldn't recover.
“But on October 27, five days after the fire, I held him tight as he too fell asleep in my arms and that huge heart that fought so hard finally gave in.”
'Judge signed my boys' death warrant'
Claire was left heartbroken, devastated and angry by the loss of her beloved boys.
“I was just a numb robot,” she says. “For the first month I was curled up in a ball with their blankets that still smelt of the boys, pulling them over my head with the theory that if the world couldn't see me, and I couldn't see the world, it couldn't hurt me anymore.”
Even the knowledge that Sykes was dead was no comfort.
“I heard he was dead about 20 minutes after Paul passed and I was so angry because I wanted him to face what he had done,” she says. “Because that's what he always did - he caused chaos and destruction and then walked away.”
For the first month I was curled up in a ball with their blankets that still smelt of the boys, pulling them over my head
Shockingly, a serious case review heard that a female CAFCASS officer who visited Sykes two days before the murders had been barricaded into his house but had dismissed his behaviour as “normal” - and Claire was never told.
“Had I known about that I would have risked being arrested because I'd never have let them go on that visit, and they’d probably have been alive today,” she says.
Just half an hour after that incident, Sykes was spotted on a CCTV camera buying petrol cans.
“I was so angry at the serious case review, because nobody accepted responsibility,” she says.
“They said nobody could have predicted what he was going to do but my argument is that they shouldn't be predicting how a child is going to be hurt, they should be preventing a child getting hurt.”
Amazingly, while still overwhelmed with grief, Claire decided to turn her anger into action.
“I needed to do something to protect the children that are facing the same situation as Jack and Paul,” she says.
“All too often their voices get lost in the midst of this battle going on between divorcing parents.
“You hear a lot about parental rights but what about the rights of the child? They don't have any. There's no law in this country that protects children within the home.”
Since 2016, Claire has been working with Women’s Aid, campaigning for children’s safety to be paramount in access rulings and helping push forward the Domestic Abuse bill - currently on hold despite making it to the House of Commons twice.
She also launched a Child First campaign, to make sure that children are kept at the heart of every decision made by family courts, and has managed to get 73,000 signatures on a petition to change the law.
This is an awful story. how on earth did CAFCASS not do anything after having been barricaded in his home? How has that not rang any alarm bells that he was dangerous!! Those poor kids, they did not deserve that.
Agreed, such a shame for kids and the mother.
yes what a terrible tragedy. even if both parents do not have convictions, there still a chance they could be mentally unstable/erratic, anger issues due to divorce and conflict. It seems quite dangerous that cafcass make important decisions about child contact, after having just interviewed a parent for 30-60 mins, then write a report.
Standard practice by Cafcass and SS, this is my worst nightmare and I can see the same happening in my case, so sad.