It takes astonishing strength to bounce back and create a positive from tragedy. But it is exactly that which Jennifer McDermott has so successfully achieved. She had the courage to turn the living nightmare and pain of losing a child into work that has the potential to help thousands of young people and even save lives in the battle against domestic violence.
Jennifer’s courage is remarkable, apparent in the way she maintains her composure when talking about her daughter Cassandra’s tragic and brutal death just three weeks before her 20th birthday in October 2001. The young girl’s body was discovered covered by a duvet at her mother’s home by her two sisters, Sophia and Andrea, who where in their early 30s at the time. She had choked to death on the contents of her stomach after a violent assault by her boyfriend of four years, Mario Celaire, now 37, rendered her unconscious.
But the trauma did not stop there as Cassandra’s killer was acquitted of her murder after a trial in 2002 due to the absence of forensic evidence. He claimed he had left her alive and well and it must have been an intruder that broke into the house and attacked her. It was not until July 2009 that Celaire, from Sydenham, became the first person in UK history to be convicted of a crime for which he was previously found not guilty after new evidence from a second victim came to light.
The landmark double jeopardy case saw Celaire plead guilty to the manslaughter of Cassandra and the attempted murder of Kara Hoyte, who was also 19 when he attacked her with a hammer in February 2007, leaving her with severe brain damage and partial paralysis. Celaire, who had previously served time in jail for taking part in a gang rape of a 17-year-old girl at Lewisham College when he was 15, was sentenced to life in jail with a minimum term of 23 years.
However, it was before Celaire was behind bars that Jennifer, 65 and a probation officer from Norbury, knew she had to do something to try to save young lives from the plague of domestic abuse, with one in five teenage girls having been assaulted by a boyfriend, according to statistics. With that she started a domestic violence advice service from her home and worked hard to raise awareness by speaking in colleges, universities and schools.
“I thought about it from when the trial ended in 2002,” she said. “I thought, ‘oh, he’s got off, what am I going to do?’ You think how on earth can he get off this. It was just a terrible, terrible feeling and so that’s when my friend, Cassie’s friend’s mother, and I got together and we decided that we would start something in her honour.”
What started as a one-woman crusade against domestic violence has grown considerably over the years and Jennifer opened the Cassandra Learning Centre and charity on London Road in Norbury this February. The impressive facility, part donated by Lloyds bank on the town’s high street, sits on two floors and offers a range of services that include drop ins, appointments, therapy sessions, youth activities and skills building workshops for both boys and girls. The service also has a psychotherapist, who is the mother of one of Cassandra’s friend’s, and Jennifer said she would like to take on trainee social workers from local colleges who are looking to build up the experience they need for their courses.
Despite a lot of the furniture and equipment being donated by local businesses and organisations and other elements being paid for by fundraising activities, Jennifer estimates she has personally spent about £50,000 so far on setting up the centre. But she did say she would not have been able to do it without the support of the local community. “Even on the day of the opening there were local people who did decorations. It was absolutely beautiful, I was gobsmacked. Even people who had nothing were helping with whatever they could. Local shops, Sainsbury’s also contributed. So we were quite fortunate.”
Jennifer truly believes the hard work is worth it and she feels it is vital that young people have a safe place to go if they need help. “Because of what happened to Cass, I feel that young people are entitled to know what happened and use the experience for their own benefit in terms of risk assessing and being in a safe space,” she explained. “I very much feel there needs to be a place donated to young people and that’s what I am trying to do. I’m not doing it for the sake of doing it; if I can save one life I feel that I will have contributed something. Cassandra, wherever she is, will be happy for that too. Doing this is a help. It’s helped me to heal and to help other people heal as well.”
Jennifer knows, however, that she cannot do this alone and is also urging for considerable changes to take place to stop domestic abuse and save lives. She feels the issue is “swept under the carpet” by Ministers and those in authority all too often. “There are a lot of policies that have been made within the last few years, including the lowering of the age of reporting to 16 years old (from 18) in 2012 by Theresa May (the then UK Minister for Women and Equalities and now Home Secretary),” she said. “But I feel that nothing has been done in terms of a 16-year-old calling up the police and saying, ‘I’m being abused by my boyfriend, what help can I get?’ Do the police suddenly drop what they’re doing and go to the rescue of that young person? No they don’t. [There needs to be] less of a lip service and more action to protect, more awareness raising, more funding for accommodation for young people. Where do they go when abuse happens? We need to be addressing the issue.”
She also criticised how Cassandra was portrayed during the 2002 trial, with facts such as her being found dead in a vest top and knickers being used to paint a false image of the young girl. When Celaire was first acquitted she said she felt more anger towards the Crown Prosecution Service than she did her daughter’s killer.
“It was more the criminal justice system that I was so, so, so angry with because I felt the CPS failed her terribly,” remembers Jennifer. “When you work in the field you feel you are just doing your job but when you become a victim of that very organisation that you work with it’s very, very hard to deal with. When he got off and when he was on trial there were so many flaws in how the case was presented by the CPS and received by the defence that I left there thinking, ‘this is like a theatre, they’ve just used my daughter’s name to present to the general public a play’. It was a joke, the whole thing and its disgusts me. But then when you look back and you see other cases since Cassie’s case in 2002 you realise this is how the criminal justice system portrays young women. They would portray a young girl in the extreme.”
Equally, Jennifer does not believe 23 years in prison will ever be enough of a punishment for Celaire. “It doesn’t matter how much time he gets, it’s not going to bring her back, but what I need to know is that he is learning about the consequences of his behaviour and he will be a better person when he is released,” she said. “Of course, he will have to be released at some stage, he will be an old man but I would like to know that he has spent all that time in prison and he knows why he’s there.” She added that she would also like to meet with Cassandra’s killer again soon, for what she said would be restorative justice.
For now Jennifer makes clear that she wants the Cassandra Learning Centre to be filled with lots of good work that is representative of Cassandra and urges young people to get in touch if they need help. What would she say to a young person going through what her daughter was? “Seek help. A lot of young people tend to feel they can manage it themselves and think ‘if he hits me, I’ll hit harder’. But you can’t. I’m sure Cassie was thinking the same thing. Whenever you find yourself in that situation seek help, speak to a family member or somebody who can reach out and get that help for you. Don’t keep it. Please, tell somebody.”
For more information about the Cassandra Learning Centre please visit http://www.cassandralearningcentre.org.uk/ and to donate visit here https://www.justgiving.com/cassandralearningcentre/.