Last November, hundreds of mourners gathered inside a chapel to say their final goodbyes to a young woman and her son who died in their apartment without anyone knowing for weeks. The crowd at the funeral begged the question; how come these much people cared about them yet no one noticed they had been dead for long?
Their death painted a picture of an isolated mother and son left to die alone in an East London tower block. Did anyone ever love 24-year-old Esther Eketi-Mulo and her 4-year-old son, Chadrack?
Those questions were answered seeing the depth of sorrow the mourners exuded. There were a lot of tears as heartbroken mourners stood inside the chapel at Manor Park Cemetery in East London to await the arrival of the bodies of the deceased last November. Their coffins arrived surrounded by a sea of flowers, one smaller than the other, with two giant floral displays fashioned into the words “sister” and “nephew”. Old school friends of Esther wore T-shirts with a picture of her face and her name printed beneath them. As Chadrack’s coffin was being lowered into the ground on top of his mother’s, his headmistress placed a flower on it. It was obvious they were loved but how did they not notice their absence for so long?
Esther died suddenly after suffering an epileptic fit at home last October while Chadrak was mute because of his autism, therefore, he could not raise the alarm. He remained by her side and died two weeks later. When they were found, Chadrak’s body was clinging to his mother’s decomposing body.
“The likelihood is that Chadrack lived alone in the family home for over a fortnight after his mother’s death,” wrote Coroner Mary Hassell who investigated the case. “He was found a couple of days after his own death, with his arms around her body. She was by then very decomposed.”
Friends and family of Esther and Chadrack are racked by guilt at how such could have happened without them noticing. People questioned how the institutions missed a school-age boy with disabilities to the extent that it led to such a grave consequence. It was discovered that Morningside Primary in Hackney, Chadrak’s school, visited the block where he lived with his mother to find out the cause of his absence after he had been missing from school since the end of September. They were unable to get a response via the downstairs intercom and they eventually gave up after two visits. Prior to that, they had called Esther’s mobile phone several times because they were worried about his absence but did not get a reply.
Preventive measures are now being put in place to keep such from occurring again. Coroner Mary Hassell, who investigated the case, has now demanded a nationwide schools alert system to ensure pupil absences are properly investigated in a bid to prevent anything like this happening again. She has sent a ‘Prevention of Future Deaths’ report to the Department for Education (DfE), which is due to respond to her findings.
Morningside headteacher Janet Taylor says she has “worked closely with the authorities” to consider “what more schools can do in situations like this”. She has already implemented a new system at the school. She now insists that for every pupil, the school has the telephone number of three different adults on file. If a child fails to attend school and none of these adults can be contacted then a member of staff is immediately sent to the family home. If they cannot get an answer, they will contact the police without delay.
All that is being done now are simply to prevent a reoccurrence and sadly cannot change what has happened. The close-knit Congolese community in the area where the mother and son died are struggling to understand how mother and son could have lain undiscovered for so long. Some people have criticised the woman’s family, while others blamed the school and the authorities. A friend believes that given Chadrack’s disability, social services should have been involved in his welfare.
“I blame the school and social services,” says a friend of Esther. “For nobody to go to the home for over two weeks, it doesn’t make sense. Someone should have checked.”
But pointing fingers can’t bring the dead back. Esther adored her only child and his birth had been for her a culmination of all the hopes and dreams she’d had when she first came to the UK from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the age of 16. Her parents had been living in London before sending for Esther and her younger sister so they could have a better life and education. Esther shared the same hopes for her son, who she had with a London-based Congolese chef before they went their separate ways. She devoted all her time to Chadrack who had severe special needs. Asides caring for her son, she had a lot of other skills including hairdressing, which she did for a fee, cooking traditional Congolese dishes and more.
Two years ago, she moved away from her family’s council flat in a tower block in Shoreditch and into her own flat just two miles away on the Trelawney Estate in Hackney. One of Esther’s friends, a Congolese shopkeeper, who used to see her almost every day, describes her as “happy” and “humble” and recalls how they often used to chat about life and politics back home in Kinshasa. He said Chadrack was Esther’s pride and joy and was often dressed in his favourite tracksuit and Nike trainers.
“If Chadrack started thinking we were talking too long he’d start pulling things off the shelves and fidgeting,” the friend said. “Esther would offer him something to eat, like a waffle, but he’d refuse and she’d just tell him: ‘Stay calm, stay calm.’ He’d calm down. She could communicate well with him even though he didn’t make a sound. He made no sound whatever, not even to cry.”
When Esther had not been heard from for a while, her family phoned her but did not think anything of it when they did not get a response. Esther had also separated from her long-term boyfriend shortly before she died. Had they been together, he might have noticed something was amiss. Neighbours who lived upstairs in the tower block also had no idea what was going on in Esther’s flat. Those who spoke to DailyMail say that they saw and heard nothing to give them any cause for concern. The decomposing smell coming from Esther’s flat was dismissed by neighbours as cooking smells.
Neighbours expressed guilt at not noticing what was going on under their nose despite the estate being a bustling hive of activity. Justin King, a 46-year-old Marie Curie nurse who lives next door to the flat, was away in Africa at the time she died and when he returned he didn’t notice that anything was wrong.
“It is so sad,” he says. “It makes me so upset when I think I could have been his saviour, but I just didn’t think anything was wrong. The police explained that she had a fit, banged her head and bled to death. Esther seemed a lovely, kind woman and her son was very sweet, but they were withdrawn as a family and to not hear from them didn’t seem strange. I wish I had thought more of not seeing them and been able to save his life. I did not hear the cries of the child and he could not raise the alarm.”
Another neighbour said: “It has haunted me for a long time that I could have helped and I didn’t know. Chadrack needed feeding and watering. He passed away because he was hungry, not because something happened to him. I keep thinking: ‘Did I hear him?’ But he never spoke. He just hid behind his mum and held on to her clothes. He couldn’t even call out or speak through the letterbox.”
Eventually, it was Chadrack’s uncle who came to find out why Esther wasn’t answering the phone and raised the alarm. As soon as he stepped out of the lift he knew from the smell that something was wrong and called the police, who made a forced entry. According to the coroner’s findings, Chadrack had probably only been dead for a couple of days at most when he was found on October 20.
Speaking at her daughter’s funeral, Esther’s mother, Bebe, said: “You know how we loved you too much. The door was always open to you in our home. I forgive the people who are trying to blame us without knowing the reality. We love you too much. Rest in peace.”
The family do not blame Chadrack’s school. They invited the headmistress, and three members of staff, to his funeral. Esther’s stepfather Mabu Kossa also said that the family had no questions for the authorities.
“Esther is gone,” he said. “She’s gone. It’s finished.”
In a statement, Morningside headteacher Ms Taylor said: “Chadrack’s tragic death has devastated all those who knew him. We will remember him as a happy little boy.”
Writing in her report, Coroner Mary Hassell said: “This protocol seems very sensible but is clearly driven by the appalling tragedy of Chadrack’s death. It seems unlikely that other schools in Hackney, elsewhere in London, or indeed in the rest of England and Wales, have such a system in place. In my opinion, action should be taken to prevent future deaths.”
Her report was sent to Robert Goodwill MP, the Minister of State for Children and Families.
He said: “This is a heart-breaking case and our thoughts are with all who knew Chadrack and his mother. Any concerns about a child’s welfare should be shared with social services or the police. We have written to the coroner and are immediately considering how to amend our guidance on school attendance and welfare to ensure it is as robust as possible.”