Cloudy Williams Inquest
14 October 2010
Nearly three years after her death, an inquest for Cloudy Williams will be held in the Whangarei District Court on 15 December 2010.
Following the suicide of her daughter, Cloudy’s mother Deb Williams was actively discouraged by the Coroner’s office from having an inquest. She was told very few people bother and that it wasn’t necessary. Deb however thought differently. “How can it not be of the utmost importance to investigate why 10 people a week are killing themselves in New Zealand and why we have a rate of youth suicide double that of the US and Australia?”
Deb considers that any lessons learned from her daughter’s death can directly prevent suicide in other families. Despite huge barriers to investigating Cloudy’s death having been put in her way by the Court and with her experience of pre-inquest process as abusive and unsympathetic, she has not wavered in her commitment to having her daughter’s death investigated.
“There are so many unanswered questions around suicide which require investigation. What contribution does childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, the depressive effects of hormonal contraceptives and relationship break ups make to suicide? What do families need to know and do to keep their children safe? How should the police investigate suicide to ensure Coroners have all the information on which to make recommendations for change?”
In Ms Williams’ case there was very little scene investigation and virtually no investigation into the circumstances surrounding her daughter’s death till 8 months later when she approached the Whangarei Police directly. She considers that by not collecting her daughter’s phone records and computer history, valuable evidence was irretrievably lost. Most witnesses were not interviewed until a year after the death and for some it was almost 3 years later. The police job sheets were dated over a year after Cloudy’s death. Ms Williams will present evidence on these issues to the Court during the inquest.
“It’s been hard,” Ms Williams stated. “The Court had repeatedly declined my requests to obtain information about Cloudy’s health at the time of her death. They have refused to request information on the prescription medicine found in the car in which she died. They have discussed information on whether my daughter was pregnant at the time of her death with other witnesses but refused to discuss it with me.” Ms Williams repeated efforts to obtain files and court records about her daughter’s childhood traumas have also been meet with silence and inaction. Ms Williams asks, “How will we ever uncover the causes and develop effective strategies to prevent suicide if we don’t collect data that may be a factor in suicide?”
As late as two days ago the Coroner decided that a series of photographs of Cloud’s life from babyhood until when she died, be vetted against section 79 of the Coroner’s Act to determine relevance. “I just want to show a tribute of my beautiful daughter and show the court Cloud is a real person, not just a statistic.”
“There is certainly no focus on seeing a loved one as a real person or supporting families through inquest and no recognition of the emotional trauma their processes heap on top of the trauma of losing your child,” Ms Williams said.
Local Coroner Brandt Shortland has invited the Chief Coroner to hear Cloudy’s inquest and has invited Ms Williams to make submissions on the reporting of suicide.
On 12 August this year – Cloudy’s birthday – the Chief Coroner expressed a view that it may be time to lift the restrictions on reporting suicide in NZ and start talking more openly about the subject. The same day, Ms Williams and another mother who had lost a child to suicide launched CASPER a group that supports families bereaved by suicide to promote change to NZ’s approach to suicide prevention.
CASPER is strongly of the view that suicide flourishes in secrecy and that information and informed discussion, combined with collecting much more comprehensive data such as prescription drugs, financial difficulties, childhood sexual abuse, relationship issues and gender is necessary to reduce suicide.
“We have the most restrictive regime in the world in relation to suicide reporting and the highest rate of youth suicide. Silence hasn’t worked and its time those who have a vested interest in it like SPINZ and the Ministry of Health admit their approach has failed and support change” Ms Williams says. The Ministry’s guidelines on media reporting were published 11 years ago. They rely on outdated research and fail to take account of more recent studies that reject theories of copycat suicide and find evidence of real benefits in more openness around suicide.
In addition to media reporting, Ms Williams will provide the coroner with information on the harm done to families when they are legally prevented from talking about the suicide of a loved one. “Families need to talk about what happened, they want to use social networking sites to reach out to others, they want to use their experience to warn other families. There is good evidence that all of these activities have benefits for families and communities and can prevent suicide. In New Zealand however these things are offences under the Coroner’s Act with breaches attracting fines of $1,000 - $5,000. “We applaud families who engage in the prevention of deaths from domestic violence, child abuse and alcohol abuse but why criminalise those who do the same for suicide? If 10 deaths a week are not sufficient for an admission that current policy is not working I don’t know what is.”
Currently there is a 2-year lag on reporting suicide figures with the next report due out a few days before Christmas. Ms Williams asks, “If the Chief Coroner can release more current suicide figures, why do we have to wait this long for the Ministry to do the same?”
In the case of road traffic deaths there are specialist road crash investigators and figures are released almost on a daily basis. We don’t have any billboards for suicide, we don’t get to talk about it and the average New Zealander doesn’t know we have such a huge rate of suicide. “The rate of suicide is 50% higher than car accidents,” Ms Williams says. “I always worried about my kids having a car accident, I didn’t know anything about suicide rates in NZ. I was shocked to find that Whangarei has the second highest rate in NZ. If this isn’t a silent epidemic then I don’t know what is?”