International Missing Children’s day is on 25 May and with the day a few weeks away, iMPULSE reporter, Melissa Wong spoke to Kerry Needham about her life as a mother of a missing child, Ben, who went missing nearly 19 years ago.
Ben disappeared on July 21, 1991. A young 19-year-old, Kerry had relocated to the Greek island of Kos and after finding a job as a waitress at a local hotel, she settled in and moved into her own apartment with her son.
She relies on the recollection of her parents to unfold the story of Ben’s disappearance. Christine and Eddie Needham were caring for Ben when he disappeared. As a routine, the family babysat every time she went to work. It wasn’t different the day he went missing.
Christine, with Ben in pushchair,walked to the farmhouse Eddie was renovating. Kerry describes the farmhouse and its surroundings. “It’s in a very remote area. It’s like a windy track up into the mountains. So, it took them a fair bit to get there. And Ben was just sat inside a doorway because, when you look at the house, it was derelict. It was like a shell.”
Ben was last seen playing with his toy cars in the sand. “He kept coming in and out of the doorway, pouring water over his head. Just generally being mischievous.” She smiles when talking about her son as a normal toddler, love clearly evident in her eyes. As she continues, her fingers move nervously in her hands.
At around 2.15pm, her 18-year-old brother Stephen, who also worked at the farmhouse, left on his moped. She says, “Not five minutes after Steven had said his goodbyes, Christine thought, ‘Ben’s quiet, he must be doing something that he’s not supposed to be doing’. You know, just being Ben. If Ben was really quiet, he’s probably touching something that he wasn’t allowed to touch.” Like any toddler, it wasn’t unusual for him to be a little mischievous. Christine went to check on Ben. He wasn’t there.
After an hour of searching with Kerry’s other brother, Danny, they assumed Stephen had taken him for a ride on his moped. Christine decided to walk back to her house with the empty pushchair. Stephen wasn’t there so Eddie went to Kerry’s apartment to find Stephen, alone. They returned to the farmhouse thinking that he had to be there. At 7pm, they called the police to report Ben missing. At 9.30pm, Christine, hysterical, went to tell Kerry the news.
Kerry’s initial reaction was that he couldn’t be far away and had just wandered off. She was unaware of how many hours had passed and assumed, as it had been a hot day, somebody had found him and taken him to their house for a drink. She expected that Ben would be handed into the police later on that evening. She never thought that he had been abducted.
When it was obvious his disappearance was serious, Kerry was unable to rationalise the situation. She admits it took her two days to acknowledge this. “As a mother, you don’t want to think that anything bad has happened to your child.” She remained positive, thinking of other reasons why Ben was missing. She felt losing control of her emotions was admitting Ben was in danger. She called it her protective mode and tried to stay calm, for her, her family and Ben.
In Sheffield, she recalls one experience when she was on a bus with her brother, “We were just talking, in general, and just laughed and somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You shouldn’t be laughing, you should be at home grieving for your child.’ And I said, ‘Well, my child’s not dead.’ She felt hurt by the comment. She was aware of her situation but, she felt it didn’t mean she wasn’t allowed to smile, laugh or have fun. She dismissed this as a one-off incident and says the UK public have been wonderful.
Despite the public’s help, Kerry feels there’s a lack of support from the British government and authorities.
“I’ve wrote to every single prime minister that there is.” She says. “I’ve wrote to the Queen, wrote to Princess Diana, I’ve written letters to the Foreign Office, the Home Office, everybody. And, I don’t get anywhere with them. All they tell me is what’s been done. Well I know what’s been done because I’ve done it…. There’s been no police investigation team assigned to Ben’s case. British police officers have not been over to Greece to investigate.”
The Family Liaison Officer of the South Yorkshire Police says, “South Yorkshire Police are not the investigating force. Ben disappeared in Greece and it is therefore the Greek authorities that look into any potential leads. We continue to offer Kerry support and to keep her up to date with any relevant issues, in a liaison capacity.”
Kerry has described this as ‘fighting a losing battle,’ but she will keep campaigning for her son’s return, with or without the authorities’ help.
After a brief reunion with Ben’s father, Simon Ward, the couple had another child, Leighanna in February 1994. Leighanna claims she doesn’t have any contact with her father. Kerry admits she found it difficult being a mother again. She felt a responsibility to Ben to keep campaigning for his return, but a newborn baby also demanded attention. She realised that she had to pull herself together.
“Leighanna was a totally different person.” She says. “She was her own little person and she needed me. Ben needed me to carry on the investigation and find him but there was a little person, solely dependent on me. I had to snap out of the depression. It was really difficult trying to juggle both children, one in Greece, one in this country – but I did it. I did it for the love of my children.”
The unconditional love for her children is undeniable. She struggles to describe how it feels having her maternal rights taken when Ben disappeared. Words sound too rigid, too final. She shows love by campaigning for Ben’s return whilst raising her daughter with the same love and effort. Despite many years passing, she has kept the investigation running. She will never close it and has never refused an interview. This is a mother who will use all the resources available to her. Her parents have since moved to Turkey but they still have a strong family network. Kerry does not blame them for Ben’s disappearance. She is aware that it could have happened in her own supervision.
In 2005, PACT claimed that over 100,000 children go missing in Britain every year. That’s equivalent to a child going missing every five minutes in the UK alone.
PACT founder, Lady Catherine Meyer, believes it’s important everyone understands how easy it is to abduct a child. PACT raises the profile of missing children which she hopes will warn potential predators that, ‘the public and the police are working together.’ By establishing a united community of authority and citizen, it determines the safety and wellbeing of the children of Britain.
Another UK charity, Missing People, not only publicises missing children and adults, they support the families who are left behind. On March 13, this year, Missing People arranged a charity run around Hyde Park to raise awareness about those that have gone missing and the families affected.
The charity’s chief executive, Martin Houghton- Brown took time out on the day of the run to explain it’s importance, “This is about building a wider community of support so that everyone across the United Kingdom understands that every woman, man and child who goes missing matters and that we care about them.”
Missing People and PACT support families and publicises cases of anyone who has gone missing but children need to be treated with more care and caution. “An adult has the right to go missing but a child doesn’t.” Explains Lady Meyer. “Children need different care, different understanding, different systems.”
Kerry acknowledges that Ben has been missing for a long time and would now be an adult. She accepts that her son may have seen her campaigning and may be unsure whether he should return. She says, “Come home. Get in touch. Pick up the phone. Just let me know where you are, that you’re safe.” She admits she would be devastated if he didn’t want to meet her but he would now be an adult and is old enough to make his own decisions. “It would ease some of my pain just to know that he was alright.”
But until she hears his voice or finds out how he disappeared, she will keep fighting and she will never give up. This is a mother of a missing child. This is the mother of Ben Needham.
If you’re interested in Kerry’s story, please go to http://www.benneedham18.blogspot.com
Words by Melissa Wong
Photography by Billy Cripps @ Munki Media Productions, Melissa Wong and courtesy of the Needham family.