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August 11, 2006

The Murder of Toni-Ann Byfield: if future such cases are to be prevented the practice of bringing young children into the UK to be educated / exploited in a welfare-rich country must be challenged, argues Lilian Pizzichini

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Seven-year old Toni-Ann Byfield witnessed the murder of the man who was looking after her - and was herself murdered so that she could not identify the killer. Her murder raises disturbing questions as to who was responsible for this young girl, who came to the UK without her mother and was then passed placed in the care of a succession of "relatives". The Birmingham Social Services have been investigated and found to be at fault. Yet - argues writer Lilian Pizzichini - no one has investigated or challenged the practice of bringing children into the UK to be educated / exploited in a welfare-rich country.

The sentencing of Joel Smith for Toni-Ann Byfield's murder at the Old Bailey on Friday 4th August reminded me of when I first came to view the flat I subsequently bought in Kensal Green. I fell in love with it - the garden backing on to more gardens, a historic cemetery and railway lines; the front door plunging me straight into the bustle of Harrow Road. It was September 2003 and a few days after the shooting of seven-year-old Toni-Ann. As I walked back to the tube station I saw the tell-tale tributes to death: bouquets of carnations wrapped in plastic, hand-written signs spelling grief. Police notices requested information into the shooting of a man and his daughter. Since then, I have heard many rumours about these deaths.

It has taken three years for their killer to be convicted. The police often complain of the wall of silence that surrounds black-on-black shootings. There are currently seven murder victims in Brent awaiting justice. The black community refuses to speak. The wall they have erected is as long and impenetrable as the wall that encloses our famous cemetery. Their children are being buried there, but they are too frightened to speak. But I have heard such strange rumours about the Byfield case that it begs questions not just about Yardies and drugs and gang warfare but attitudes towards children and paternity.

Despite the intense investigation into this crime it is still unclear what relationship Toni-Ann Byfield bore to the man alongside whom she was killed. Bertram Byfield was a convicted drug dealer who had survived a previous attempt on his life. The house in which they were killed is a "half-way home" for drug offenders. Detectives believe that Bertram, aka "Blacka", was a "middle-tier" dealer who sold crack cocaine to addicts and other dealers. Described as a "ladies' man", the 41-year-old is thought to have entered the UK using the passport of a Jamaican national named Bertram Augustus Byfield. Detectives believe (and, again, they are not in full possession of the facts) that his real name was Anthony Pinnock. What they do know is that they are not "100 per cent sure" of his real name and they do not know his real date of birth.

The father-of-four (but where are these other children?) is known to be a close associate of the British Link-Up Crew headed by Owen "Father Fowl" Clarke who is currently serving a 13-year sentence for drug offences. According to detectives, the crew members were predominantly Jamaican-born males in their mid-thirties to early forties. Between August 1997 and October 2001, Bertram served a nine-year sentence for possession of a Class-A illegal substance. A stash of drugs with a street-market value running into thousands of pounds was discovered at his home following the murder.

This is what we know of his life. We also know that he regularly sold crack in front of Toni-Ann. These transactions took place in a hostel designed to prevent drug offenders from using drugs, let alone selling them. Nevertheless he was said to have "doted" on the girl. Hours before their murder, he took her on a shopping trip to buy her a new school uniform. Detective Superintendent Basu, who led the investigation, is quoted as saying:

Tony Byfield [Tony?! This is really getting confusing] was quite a good father. His style of parenting was not one I would want to adopt but he doted on her.
I heard a disquieting rumour about the Byfields. It came from a council official at Brent who is herself Anglo-Caribbean. She told me that it is quite common for Afro-Caribbean families to send their children to the UK, and house them with friends and relatives in order to claim child benefits for their upkeep. This little girl, she told me, had been shunted around families all over the country, who all took it in their turn to claim benefits on her behalf. The cases of Damilola Taylor and Victoria Climbie revealed that African families are eager for their children to be educated in this country as a means of gaining them a better life. But this is a level of callous cynicism that is hard to believe. I am still not sure if this rumour is merely apocryphal, but what it does reveal is the cloak of mystery and fear that clings to this community.

The facts of Toni-Ann's short life can be read as confirmation of the rumour or as an indication of the attitudes of a community that has never really recovered from the ravages of 19th-century colonialism and slavery. Paternity became something Afro-Caribbean men could not lay claim to as their children bore their "owners'" names. The legacy of this is that fathers are wispy, fly-by-night creatures, and anyone will do to take their place.

On 24th May 1996, in Jamaica, Christine Richards gave birth to a girl she named Toni-Ann. She had two older sons by Anthony Pinnock (aka Bertram Byfield). She claimed her third child was sired by him. Posthumous DNA tests later showed he was not related to Toni-Ann.

In November 1996, six-month-old Toni-Ann was snatched from her mother by Bertram Byfield who handed her into the care of Marcia Ashley, his then girlfriend.

In January 2000, Toni-Ann arrived in the UK with Ashley. Bertram was serving his nine-year prison sentence.

In December 2001 he was released and placed Toni-Ann in the care of Birmingham-based Curline Byfield, his daughter with Ashley.

In September 2002 Toni-Ann was placed in the care of Birmingham social services after allegations of physical abuse. In October she was placed with a temporary foster family.

In August 2003 she was back in the care of the social services because her foster family were going abroad on holiday. As an illegal "overstayer", she was unable to obtain a British passport. Social services allowed her to stay with an "aunt" of Bertram Byfield. It was stipulated that while she was allowed unsupervised visits with Bertram, she was not allowed to stay overnight with him.

In September 2003, she was shot dead in a hostel with a man she believed was her father, less than a fortnight after arriving to stay with him.

Her mother spoke movingly last Friday of justice for Toni-Ann. She last saw her child as a four-year-old when Toni-Ann made a brief visit to Jamaica (in whose care we do not know). We are then told she was duped into letting the child go back to the UK for "an educational visit". Christine Richards is currently fighting a deportation order herself. Outside the Old Bailey she told reporters:

Almost three years ago I lost my daughter Toni-Ann. My young sons lost their sister and their father. Whatever people may think about Bertram Byfield he was their father. Today the jury returned a guilty verdict for the muders of Toni-Ann and her father. The judge in his sentence has recognised these cold-blooded and callous killings and has taken the steps to impose a 40-year minimum life sentence.
I do not doubt a mother's grief. But I cannot help doubting her commitment to her daughter while the girl was alive. It was the fact of a child's death that galvanised a reticent community into speaking out, or "grassing up", as those caught up in the criminal world would put it. The man who killed Toni-Ann and Bertram was "shopped" by cell mates and fellow drug dealers. They were shocked by the killing of a child.

As I said before, there are seven other murders unaccounted for in this borough. One of these was the murder of Junior Ogie, 20 years old. He was shot dead in broad daylight in front of at least 12 people on the South Kilburn estate on 15th July 2005. The identity of the gunman is common knowledge amongst the community and even the police know who he is. But he has fled to the Caribbean and detectives are unable to extradite him without a signed witness statement. The six other murder investigations - all involving young, black men - are similarly stymied.

His community needs to help the forces of law and order. We need also to speak up to attitudes towards parental responsibility and the role of the father, in particular as it pertains in this community. It is strange that Christine Richards still maintains Bertram Byfield is her late daughter's father. Strange, too, that no one has challenged her or what, exactly, her child was doing in the UK.

The rumour has stuck with me. Desperate people with few resources do desperate things, even if this means putting their children at risk. But we have to ask what that little girl was doing here. Who was taking responsibility for her? Birmingham Social Services have been investigated and found to be at fault. They have revised their child-care procedures. No one has investigated the practice of bringing children into the country to be educated / exploited in a welfare-rich country. No one has uncovered what is going on under our noses amongst our black neighbours: the choices they are forced to make, the compromises, and the attitudes towards paternity. The result is an atmosphere of mistrust and fear and nasty rumours.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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1. How many children are there in Britain who are 'genuinely' being educated while living with relatives? What is the criterion? Who decides, on what basis? When officials are charged to police these actions of ordinary people, how many _real_ mistakes will these officials make? How will they know? How to have the lessons from these mistakes fed back into official regulations? When the officials concerned are on career paths, their incomes guaranteed from taxes, with inflation-proof pensions?

2. Why is is so easy to 'claim child benefit'? How many kudos do officials get for _not_ spending the money allocated? i.e., for _not_ handing out the money to 'claimants'? How can it matter when the flow of tax revenues continues & increases, year after year after year..?

Posted by: Sudha Shenoy at August 12, 2006 09:36 AM

As someone who has volunteered for a good number of years in the communities of Kingston from which Toni-Ann and her mother lived, what I read above is not the real story at all.... it is not for financial gain more time that people send their children to relatives in UK, but for what they believe is safety and education, giving them a chance in life.... If you came from some of these communities you too would send your child as far away as possible... away from the nightly gun-battles that kill and maim children of all ages.... What, because it doesn't hit the UK headlines it doesn't happen...... it does all too regularly. Since 2000 over 500 children have died violently in Jamaica, murdered, killed in crossfire etc,.... hey there is even a monument bearing their names(not that it bears the names of them all)..... many more just disappear off the face of the earth...... yes I too would take or send my children and particularly my girl children as far away as is humanly possible..... I still live and volunteer in Jamaica...... I will continue to do what I can for the children..... one broken spirit at a time.....

Posted by: AuntyMo at May 21, 2010 05:14 PM
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