Elizabeth Grice talks to Anthony and Debbie Walsh, who believe that the authorities let them down over the care of their heroin-addict daughter.
By Elizabeth Grice
Published: 1:09PM GMT 04 Nov 2009
THE official inquest into Kate Walsh's death may be over, but her exhausted parents were conducting their own inquest yesterday into how the authorities let down both them and their heroin-addict daughter.
Debbie and Anthony ("Wal") Walsh speak and move like people who have been pulled dazed from a road accident. They are quiet and spent. The harpsichord they bought for their 16-year-old Kate has been closed for a long time. It stands like a monument to their loss, just as poignantly as the school picture of a smiling, open-faced 13-year-old on their mantelpiece.
Mr Walsh suffered a nervous breakdown after his daughter was found dead in a derelict squat. He has hardly been out of the house for two years and did not attend Kate's inquest, which ended this week. "I have lost faith in the police, in doctors, in the Government, in the whole lot," he says. "The only thing I blame myself for is trusting the professionals to take care of my daughter. To me, they have shown a shocking level of incompetence."
His wife, who gave up work to try to rescue Kate, says she feels "absolutely stunned and disappointed" that the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner, David Masters, did not recommend a change in the law to protect children between the ages of 16 and 18.
"They talked about Kate falling into a 'grey area' [when a person is too young for adult care services but old enough to leave home] but I would call it a black hole. I feel we have been fighting for six years for nothing. Ways must be found of protecting children of 16 and 17 Ė because children is what they are."
Delivering a narrative verdict, Mr Masters said: "If various opportunities to take a different course had not been missed and lost, the final outcome may not have been her death."
The Walshes believe their daughter was brainwashed by the drug addict Alex Charlamow (now in jail for stealing and being in possession of a Samurai sword in the street), as effectiverly as if she had been snatched by a cult. On her way to and from school, she passed the Salvation Army rehabilitation centre where he lived, close to her home in Highworth, Wiltshire.
He persuaded her to leave home and took away her mobile phone, so that her parents had no means of contacting her. Within months, she had lost her smile and developed the dead eyes of an addict.
"Kate was no angel", says her mother. "She would push the boundaries Ė but we didn't have a clue at the time why she was pushing them. We didn't know about Alex Charlamow till they had been together for 18 months."
The couple repeatedly asked for help from social services and the police, with limited success. Once, their daughter was rehoused with people who were supplying her with drugs, they say.
At least two other men were implicated, and may have been with her the night she died - most likely Christmas Eve or Christmas Day 2003 - but they could not be traced to appear at the inquest.
"There are still many questions unanswered," says Mr Walsh. "It just goes on and on. We are still trying to get information from the police but there is evidence they won't show us. There are so many barriers. I feel totally deflated."
When Kate's relationship with Charlamow, 11 years her senior, came to light he was expelled from Gloucester House rehabilitation centre but they remained in touch.
Her parents are aghast that Charlamow was placed in a halfway house. "That meant Kate was ablwe to see him more freely," says Mrs Walsh. "That way we lost our daughter."
They are angry that he was later able to cement his hold on her when she was allowed to visit him in prison. "She should never have been allowed in at the age of 16, unaccompanied."
Her mother is convinced that Kate wanted to be free of her addiction but each time they tried to help her she was drawn back into a web of drugs and petty crime. After she overdosed for a second time, in November, 2003, her mother pleaded for "secure care" to be considered but the authorities refused because she was not deemed to be "a danger to the public" and not mentally ill.
Throughout the inquest, Mrs Walsh, 45, says she was haunted by images of Kate at her wildest and happiest, performing Irish folk dances in pairs with other girls. "I was upset most of the way through," she says, eyes filling with tears. "All I could see were pictures of them spinning each other around in circles. Kate loved to dance and learned fast. She was so full of life and energy. She loved messing about, making people laugh."
She still writes letters to her daughter about what is happening in the family circle and of her dreams of her. "It is my way of making her still be here."
Her father says: "I miss playing music with her. Shortly before she died, I took her to a gig in Swindon where I was playing with a folk band Ė to get her mind off drugs. She played the penny whistle."
Mr Walsh is a sound recordist who composes songs. Until now, he has never written the lyrics but says: "I might start now, now I've got something to write about."
He describes the moment they heard their daughter confess to taking heroin. "You screamed," he tells his wife. "You sat on the bathroom floor crying. I went up to Gloucester House and put a brick through the window and kicked the front door open. Someone picked up a table and hit me. I was fined £500 for trying to protect my daughter. I think any father would have reacted the same way."
After her two heroin overdoses, Kate briefly returned home from hospital. But every time she renewed contact with Charlamow, she would relapse. "We'd get her right and he'd ring up and it would start again."
Her mother's one regret was that she didn't make more fuss. "I wish I had shouted and stamped my feet and refused to leave the hospital until something was in place. We knew nothing about 'secure accommodation' till Kate was dead. I wanted to stage a sit-in because I knew she was not getting the help she needed but I told myself it wouldn't have done any good.
"At least I don't have to regret ever having given her money for drugs. If I had done that and it has been used for her last hit, I would have killed her."
Her father says: "We try to remember Kate as the carefree girl she was but it's really hard. It's like being stuck in limbo."
"We have separate bad days," says his wife. "So we can hold each other up. They say 96 per cent of marriages end in divorce after a tragedy like this but it's made us stronger in a way, brought us closer together."
Kate Walsh died of an overdose heroin. She was found in a desolate squatting house. Her death has been examined; bur her parents feel like there wasnít given enough priority to the case. They started their own investigation to see where the police force failed.
Kateís parents are in silence. There are a few memories to Kate in the living room. Kateís dad has lost his trust in the authorities. He blames himself, to put Kateís lot into the hands of professionals. Kateís mother stopped her job. She put a lot of energy into Kate, she tried to help her.
Children in the age of 16 or 17 are not protected by the law. Kateís mother wanted to change that, but unfortunately it didnít happen. She feels very disappointed about that.
Kateís father believes that if the professionals handled differently, Kate now wouldnít be dead. He thinks his daughter was badly influenced by a drug addict and jail-bird called Alex Charlamow. She got admitted in a cult. Alex made her go away from home. He also took her phone. Her parents had no contact with her.
According to her mother, Kate has never bin well-behaved. She didnít tell her parents about Alex. They found out when they were already together for a year and a half. Alex and Kate did get help sometimes, but it didnít work out. Kate even got replaced with a family that gave her drugs.
There is reason to believe two men were involved and might even be with here when she died. But they are never found.
Kateís parents still have a lot of questions. Why was it still possible for Kate to meet Alex? She was even allowed to see him while he was in prison. That made her parents very upset.
Kate arrived in hospital a few times because of an overdose. Her parents wanted her to be admitted, but that didnít happen because she had no mental illness.
Kateís parents miss her a lot. Her mother misses her dances and humor. She still writes letters to her. Her dad misses the music they made together. Kate gives him inspiration to write songs.
The moment Kate told her parents she was using heroin was very emotional. Her mother had to cry and her father demolished things. He got a penalty for it.
Kate came out of the hospital and was willing to end her addiction, but as soon as she met Alex again, her addiction would start again.
Kateís mother regrets that she didnít made more tumultuousness and didnít ask for more attention. But she is happy that she never gave money to Kate. She feels that if Kate bought drugs from her motherís money, she would have killed her.
Here parents try to remember Kate the way she was, but itís difficult for them.
Their relation has become stronger and they are a good support to each other.
In my opinion, a lot of professionals that are working with youngsters donít work together very well. The hospital, the foster families, the rebounds, the rehabs, parents, school, they should all work together for one case.
When I read this story, I believe Kate could have been saved when she was admitted to an organization. Or her parents could have moved to the other side of the country to get her away from her boyfriend