When Sophie Mojsiejenka’s father died in unpleasant and mysterious circumstances, she spent weeks clearing up his blood-stained home.
‘The police hadn’t given any warning about the state of the flat,’ recalls the 30-year-old music composer. ‘They didn’t tell us to wear masks or gloves. The sinks were covered in blood – it was everywhere. On work surfaces, carpets, cushions, the remote control…’
It was a disturbing turn of events that left Sophie traumatised and unable to grieve for her father, which is why she is now calling for more help for victims.
Following a similar theme, just last month Leicestershire Police had to apologise to the family of a teenager who was stabbed to death after they were forced to clean up his blood from the street.
A member of the community at the time told a police officer: ‘It is absolutely disgusting. You’ve got the boy’s brothers putting on gloves to clean up the blood in the street.’
According to the College of Policing, the body in charge of police standards and accreditation, trainers advise officers that they should leave a premises in a better state than they found it.
The College’s Authorised Professional Practice guidance document Managing Investigations, states that after the crime scene has been examined and all relevant evidence collected, the scene should be ‘cleaned and released’.
However, for many families this isn’t the case.
Sophie was 24 when she received a call from her father Nicholas’ employer in 2015.
She and her dad, who was a successful composer, conductor and pianist, shared a strong bond, something made even stronger through their love of music.
‘He showed me love, laughter, freedom of thought, but also through sitting in his rehearsals and shows I was taught discipline,’ Sophie remembers. ‘He also taught me that all human beings have the capacity to give to something greater than themselves.’
However, when she was told Nicholas hadn’t turned up to work, Sophie contacted the police. Hours later that evening, they arrived at her house to deliver the devastating news that her father had lain dead in his flat for up to three weeks.
Not given any information about exactly how he had died, Sophie was unable to visit his home – which was being treated as a crime scene. It wasn’t until a week later that the coroner’s report found that Nicholas had drunk himself to death – a conclusion that Sophie contests because her father had repeatedly sought medical advice for a stomach problem in the weeks before.
When she was finally given the key to his Lewisham flat, she was not prepared for what she would find inside the previously warm home, which had held years of happy memories.
‘There was blood on the floors, on tables, there was a bucket in his bed full of blood and vomit,’ she recalls. ‘The police hadn’t even thrown away a basin of bile and blood – which was a biohazard. If you have people’s bodily fluid stagnating for three weeks, with someone who has been dead, you have got infestations. You have got insects coming in, flies, spiderwebs everywhere.’
Sophie set to work on the clean-up, with help from her mother. But the fetid atmosphere was overpowering and Sophie fell ill with the flu immediately afterwards – which she attributes to breathing in the foul air.
‘The smell was sickly and sour – very coppery. But the worst odour was in the cleaning process and how the blood mixed with bleach. It was putrid and acidic. Disgusting. I had never experienced anything like that in my life. The smell of bleach now brings it back. I can’t use it anymore. It is too distressing.’
Sophie spent months on her hands and knees trying to clean her father’s home and the traumatic experience left her devastated and unable to make clear decisions about the estate, and the flat was sold.
‘I felt very, very cold and very, very numb. It felt like being in a coma. I spent months completely disassociated, cleaning up with bleach – which is the wrong thing for the job. I would go over the same area again and again and I couldn’t get it out. That in itself is incredibly distressing because you want to clean it. You want to make it safe again, and make it into a nice home again, and you can’t scrub it away. There is this continuing upset and despair and horror that you can’t clear it up.’
It was only after she had completed the clean-up that Sophie was distraught to learn from the charity Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, that there were professional companies that could have done the work in a matter of days. She cried for two days when she heard that.
‘When it comes to processing or getting over the death, how do you do that when you have seen something so awful? I used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, having terrifying nightmares. And I am sure that it would be the same for anyone else going into a home where you are clearing up your parent’s blood.’
Sophie was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder last year which she says was caused by the clean-up in 2015.
‘It’s taken so many years to recover,’ she admits. ‘I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I want better procedures implemented because I couldn’t stand what happened to me happening to someone else. It has the capacity to fundamentally ruin lives.
‘If the police had arranged for a cleaning company to come in and do that work, I would be able to go in and it would have been my dad’s home again, rather than his grave site. My father would never have wanted me to go through that.’
Therapist Zoe Clews, who specialises in trauma, says family members who find themselves in this situation can be forced into a triple shock, whereby the unexpected loss is compounded by the violence of the situation, which is then made worse by their being at the scene.
‘Many people end up dealing with the protracted nightmare of having to clean up, without knowing what they’re going into or how long it will take,’ she explains.
‘If you go into a big enough shock you get shunted into a state of hyper-arousal where your body shuts down. You then need time and a safe space to process that and lots of connection and appropriate trauma therapy.
‘Smells are particularly evocative as triggers,’ Zoe adds. ‘I work with a lot of people who will be fine but they will smell something and it sends them into emotional flashback and all those feelings, the horror and the terror, comes flooding back.’
Like Sophie, 47-year-old Ian was left traumatised when he had to clear up after a messy death. Ian, who has asked for details to remain anonymous to protect his family from further upset, had to clean up after his father-in-law was stabbed to death at home.
‘It was a vicious attack that required a lot of medical activity at the scene,’ he explains. ‘His house became a crime scene and was locked down under 24-hour police guard.’
Ian was told the police did not have the budget to clean up the house, and unwilling to let his wife see the scene, he took on the job alone.
‘I met the officer in charge of the case the next morning at the house to see what was involved,’ he remembers. ‘He explained to me what I was about to see when I went inside, so I could prepare myself. He described the medical debris from where the paramedics had left their stuff, and the blood to the right of the door where the body was.’
But nothing could prepare Ian for the shock of what he found: ‘When it is your loved one, you shouldn’t see something like that first hand – you shouldn’t be put through it. It tells a story.’
Ian describes how blood was on the carpet, walls, ceiling and furniture. It was also on the sinks and work surfaces – and on the phone from where Ian’s father-in-law had dialled for help.
It is a photograph burned into your brain and you can’t get rid of it
‘You are standing there in the middle of this violence that has taken place and you can see what happened. You can see where the blood has gone, and the marks left, and the gaps get filled in by your brain and it is just horrible. It leaves you feeling horrendous, disgusted, and numb. The violence is painted on the walls. It is visceral and real.’
After Ian left the house, he was surprised to find out from the police that a clean-up operative would in fact come and help. But he had already made a start on the horrific work.
He adds: ‘I saw my father-in-law two days earlier – I shook his hand. Now I was scooping him off the floor. It’s not human. Every time I go into the house now it is there. It is like a flash.
‘You are just there back in the moment. It is a photograph burned into your brain and you can’t get rid of it. I don’t think there is any need for [families] to have to see that violence.
‘Things can be cleared up respectfully. There was so much unnecessary traumatisation and re-traumatisation. Cleaning up forces you to revisit what happened over and over again.’
Paramedics who encounter traumatic scenes are offered a debrief afterwards and additional counselling support through work, while police officers are supervised through a trauma risk management system designed to protect them from emotional distress following a shocking or disturbing event.
Like Sophie, Ian says he would like to see better policy in place to protect bereaved families.
‘Cleaning up your own flesh and blood is gut-churning, repulsive, traumatising, upsetting. It should be blanket policy across the country that mess and violence is eradicated from family homes before they go back in.’
These stories are replicated across the country according to Victim Support, an independent charity dedicated to supporting victims of crime and traumatic incidents in England and Wales.
They listed one case where blood stains from a murder ruined a number of items of furniture, but the police would not remove them as they had been not used for evidence.
In another case, a family had to clean an entire property because they were told the police didn’t have a crime scene cleaning budget, leaving relatives distressed and exhausted.
‘It is both shocking and unacceptable that some bereaved families are left to clean up the homicide crime scene by themselves,’ says Victim Support’s Ellen Milazzo.
‘Losing a loved one and coping with devastating impacts of homicide is an incredibly difficult and traumatic experience in itself and no family should have to go through the distressing task of cleaning up the crime scene in addition to that. This should not be the responsibility of the bereaved family and friends.’
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, says: ‘[These cases are] very upsetting, and we completely acknowledge how difficult this can be for families once crime scenes are released back to them.
‘In the rare instances where a force cannot clean up themselves, for reasons known to them, they should be able to direct affected individuals to appropriate services which can assist with this work, alongside organisations who can help with other difficult aspects of coping with a death.’
Frank Mullane set up the Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse charity after his sister Julia Pemberton and her son Will were murdered in 2003.
‘I know that many police do great work in helping victims after the most horrific of crimes. But I’m afraid I have had families come to me telling me they have literally had to clean up their own family’s flesh and blood,’ he says.
‘This should simply never happen. Police leaders need to walk into some live cases and make absolutely sure it is not happening. You can be sure that murder traumatises people. It seems to me that having to clean up the aftermath will compound that trauma.
‘In my own case, a very kind police officer took home and washed the bloody jumper worn by my nephew and then brought it to me. It is moments of such humanity that unite us after indescribable horrors. There were many other acts of kindness. Frankly, these moments stick in my memory. They are what makes us heal.’
WHAT THE FORCES SAY:
A spokesperson for the Met says the force has recently improved its policy: ‘Providing the highest level of support and assistance to victims of crime is an absolute priority… When a homicide takes place within a private dwelling, the investigating officers will arrange for the scene to be cleaned. This will also now be funded by the Metropolitan Police Service. The scene/property will not be released back until it is in an appropriate state. We have taken steps to ensure this altered practice is well-understood and implemented by our homicide teams.’
Thames Valley Police says that the cleaning of crime scenes is assessed on a case-by-case basis: ‘We would not want to send a bereaved family back into an address that has not been cleaned of blood or associated matter. Sometimes there is not a requirement to clean a scene, however where it is deemed that cleaning is required, police will make efforts to get the premises cleaned using appointed contractors. The senior investigating officer or deputy will make this decision and the request for this and the cost will be met by the force.’
Victim Support offers support to survivors of rape and sexual abuse. You can contact them on 0333 300 6389.
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