Timeline of West Cumbria mass shootings, 2010



AFTER YEARS OF NEGLECT and abuse in foster-placements, Cassie (15) is sent to a loving family, but Stella,(35) her psychotic mother, tries to find her, desperate to prove she can be a good mother.


What’s behind this title for my latest novel? I once said to fellow writer Matthew Connolly that the violence we inflict on children in the care system is as bad as serial killing. He thought I was being unduly provocative.  Am I overstating the case?


I was a headteacher in three very different schools. Children don’t choose to be born. Adults choose to give birth, whatever the circumstances. I worked out long ago that it’s the adults who are responsible for how children turn out. Three cases haunt me – they are just examples.


  1. A 13-year-old boy, very difficult in school, sits in my study. His father points at him. ‘I don’t fucking want you. I’m taking you down the social. They can have you.’ He thumps the desk. Tears roll down the boy’s face.
  2. A 14-year-old girl is brought to me for slapping a member of staff. Am I to exclude her from school? I discover she is on her 14th foster-placement and her grandmother has just died.
  3. A magistrate friend describes the case of a woman who has discovered her birth mother, who did not want to be found, and now stalks the mother’s new family. Magistrates fear she will regularly reappear in front of the bench. They cannot help her by sentencing.


I followed the media frenzy in 2010 about a serial murderer, Derrick Bird, who killed 12 people and wounded 11, in the beautiful countryside of West Cumbria. He called bystanders to the window of his taxi cab and shot them in the face, beginning by shooting his twin brother.


Little media attention is paid to how we manage children removed from neglectful, abusive or violent parents. Well, they aren’t shot in the face, but too often we leave them with poor education, ill-health, poverty, rootlessness. A Sky installer told me about going into a home where he passed a room full of black bin liners, stuffed with rubbish, and a naked baby lying on his/her back in the middle of the room. He rang the police. Good man.


Social worker friends struggle to find secure placements for children who must be kept safe. I learned about the mothers – ‘maternal outcasts’ – whose babies are repeatedly removed at birth.   


I read everything I could find about Derrick Bird, including a major police report. Bird erased people’s individual identities by shooting them in the face.


We inflict a different kind of violence on children in the care system – but it’s still a threat to identity. This sense drove me to write my novel When the Killing Comes Home.

Woods above the River Esk where Derrick Bird shot himself