Mother knows best
Sara Payne’s campaign for a national sex-offenders register divided Britain. And now the Government’s ‘Victims’ Champion’ is making waves — again. Joanna Moorhead met her
She was an ordinary mother, but her child's shocking death gave her a national platform — and the power to make a Prime Minister sit up, listen and respond to what she was saying.
It's a description that applies to Sara Payne every bit as much as it applies to the woman who is this week centre-stage on the nation's news bulletins, Jacqui Janes.
But while Janes — whose son Jamie died in Afghanistan last month — has only just embarked on the role of bereaved mother-turned-campaigner, Payne is an old hand.
She has spent the last nine years living, sleeping and breathing a legacy she'd have done anything to have avoided: that of trying to make the world a safer place so that other parents don't lose their children as she lost her child.
In Payne's case it was a daughter, Sarah, who died, aged eight, at the hands of a man who snatched her from a field where she was playing on a summer's day in 2000.
Payne had to wait 17 agonising days before her daughter's body was discovered; then there was another wait before the killer, who turned out to be a convicted paedophile named Roy Whiting, was caught and tried. As the truth about Sarah's death emerged, her mother realised that if things had been done differently, her child might not have died.
While Jacqui Janes argues that the provision of extra helicopters in Afghanistan might have saved her son, Payne argues that the existence of a sex offenders register might have saved her daughter.
So where, more than nine years on, has her tireless campaigning got Payne?
Today the woman who once sat where Janes sits — looking, like her, gaunt and tearful under the TV lights — is rounder-faced and far from tears. She is every bit as determined as she was back in 2000: and though her fight for 'Sarah's Law' — a measure which would give parents information about the whereabouts of paedophiles — has already led to 15 new pieces of legislation taking her some way towards her goal, she is still fighting.
One thing Payne couldn't possibly have foreseen is that, almost a decade on, she'd be a Government insider. Since January she's been working at the Ministry of Justice as ‘Victims' Champion'.
When we meet at the ministry, in central London, I'm immediately struck by how incongruous all this is: Payne looks entirely out of place surrounded by civil servants — and in the nicest possible |way. She's too straight-talking |and down-to-earth to spend long playing politics.
Some critics have said that the decision to pull Payne on board was inspired: from being a potential troublemaker for politicians, they say, she's become part of the team. When her report into the criminal justice system from the viewpoint of the victim was published last week, some lobbying groups — Victim Support among them — hinted heavily that it said nothing new, that it failed to grasp the bigger picture, and that it was likely to lead to few real changes.
Payne, though, is having none of it. “If people are saying nothing is going to change, I find that incredibly defeatist,” she says. “Lots of things have changed already, like all these bits of legislation about paedophiles. I genuinely believe this report will spark change — the Government is considering it at the moment and will respond at the beginning of next year.”
There may be a touch of naivety about her here, but there again, there's a strength in that kind of naivety. Do the civil servants ever patronise her?
“Absolutely not,” she says. “When I started this job, as much as I may have been sceptical of them, they were sceptical of me. But people here have been fantastic — we're a team and I bring what I bring to the team just as each person who's part of it does.”
If she could only change one thing, says Payne, it would be the way victims are treated when they find themselves, through no fault whatsoever of their own, caught up in the criminal justice system. “I want to see a system in which each victim is properly assessed, and his or her needs are met. Different people will need different things — some people might need help sorting out their locks, others will need years of trauma counselling. It depends on the crime, and it also depends on |the individual.”
Another big concern for Payne is those victims who never see anyone punished for what happened to them, because no one is ever caught.
“If that happens, there's no need for the police to keep up a relationship with you,” she says. “They might update you on the case — but then again, they might leave you in the cold.” What's needed, she stresses, is an overhaul of the system that takes proper account of the needs of victims, who at the moment are usually treated as no more than add-ons in criminal investigation rather than as individuals who have been through a traumatic event, and who need tailored and caring support. Payne is adamant that she has no criticism whatsoever to make of the way her own family was treated, either in the days, weeks and months after Sarah's disappearance and death, or during Whiting's trial.
“We were treated very well,” she says. “The police started searching for Sarah from the very first night, and they kept us properly informed throughout.
“The family liaison officers were helpful and inclusive, and we had trauma specialists to help the children [her sons, Lee and Luke, were 13 and 11 when Sarah went missing; another daughter, Charlotte, was five]. But not everyone has the support we had — and that's what I'd like to see changed.”
Payne seems perfectly at ease talking about people as ‘victims', but her very role seems to be another incongruity — while she's every inch the ‘champion', she's about the least likely ‘victim' you could ever expect to meet. But, even though it's nearly a decade since Sarah died, Payne still has bad days and even bad weeks when it's hard to cope with what she had to go through. “I have times when I can't and won't do anything because it's too close to the surface. But I get through because I've got the support to get through,” she says, not missing an opportunity to bang the drum for her cause. “If I have nightmares, I know who to talk to; if I have flashbacks, I know who can help.”
One legacy of losing Sarah the way she did has been a gripping fear that something similar will happen to one of her other children. Luke and Lee are now in their twenties, and Luke and his partner have a three-year-old, so the 40-year-old Payne is a grandmother; she also went on to have a fifth child, the now five-year-old Ellie, soon after she split up with her husband, Mike. But it's Charlotte (15) who causes her the most headaches. “As a family we even joke about it, but the fact is that everyone understands why I need to know my daughter is okay — I've got all her friends' mobile numbers, as well as hers. I've even been known to go off searching for her when she's not told me where she is.
“But the bottom line is that my children are a lot more aware than other people's children about stranger danger — and about |the risks.”
Although she wants to focus on the ways in which the criminal justice system fails the needs of victims, Payne is candid that seeing Whiting caught, and tried, was vitally important to her — so her own experience seems to underline that the system is right to put its biggest effort into what matters most, for victims as much as for the wider community. “I was there every day of the trial. Yes, it absolutely mattered to me to be there — it was important to me.”
Payne is clearly making waves — her post of ‘Victims' Champion’ will be wound up in January to make way for the substantive post of Victims' Commissioner — and Payne isn't ruling out applying for that. For now, though, she can't wait to get back home to her family.
When you've had to live through the unthinkable, you never take the people around you for granted again.