As news broke of a ‘gas explosion’ in Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoon, no one could have anticipated the truly tragic story which was about to unfold. All of us in Scotland have been deeply shocked by subsequent revelations that three young children were stabbed to death in their own home, reportedly by their own mother, who remains in a critical condition in hospital after falling from a second floor balcony.
A frenzy of media speculation as to the possible causes of the tragedy predictably ensued and it soon transpired that the children’s parents had been locked in a bitter custody battle. The mother had recently been reported missing with her children after fleeing the family home in Aberdeenshire, but a BBC report on 21st July confirmed that they had been traced and found to be safe and well by Lothian and Borders Police who concluded that there was no reason to suspect the children were at risk.
Fast forward to Tuesday 3rd August and we learn that the mother failed to appear at a scheduled civil court hearing, at which point the judge was evidently persuaded that there was a need to alert the social work department in Edinburgh. Less than 24 hours later, however, the children were dead, having paid the ultimate price for being at the centre of an acrimonious tug of love battle.
We have since learned that Theresa Riggi and her children were well known and liked in the affluent area of Aberdeenshire where they lived until a few weeks ago. Tributes have been paid by those who knew them as a happy and loving family until the shocking news broke on Wednesday. Theresa has been described as a doting mother and her three children were said to be happy, well cared for, sociable and polite. They attended Highland dancing and riding classes and were very well liked in their community.
We have also learned that Theresa had separated from her husband, an oil executive with Shell in Aberdeen, and that the bitter custody dispute over the children is widely believed to have triggered her disappearance from the family home, which was reported at the time in the local press. It has further been reported that both parents are American citizens, the children were all home educated having never been to school, and that they were members of a thriving north east home education network.
Home educators across Scotland are deeply shocked and saddened to have lost members of their community in such terrible circumstances and their thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of eight year old twins, Gianluca and Augustino, and their five year old sister, Cecilia, whose short lives ended so tragically on Wednesday.
Home educators across Scotland are also deeply saddened by media mutterings that home education was somehow a relevant factor in this case when clearly it was not, and formal complaints of partial reporting have already been made to the BBC. Parental disputes over the custody of children on separation and divorce are sadly commonplace, regardless of where and how children are educated, and it is up to the courts to decide on what is in the best interests of children when they are not of sufficient maturity to make their own decisions. This was already underway in the Riggi case.
When parents separate, it is always sad to see children’s interests falling victim to bitterness between the adults in their lives. Disagreements about the upbringing of children, whether over diet, discipline, education, vaccination or a host of other issues, are not unusual, but they have the potential in some circumstances to spiral out of control until children become mere pawns in a power struggle between parents. Lawyers and the courts usually sort out a settlement which is deemed to be in the best interests of the children, but in this case, it was obviously too late.
Seeking to pin the blame on one aspect of this family’s lifestyle is a frankly futile exercise when the circumstances are clearly so complex and the case will be subject to a full investigation of the facts. What is not in doubt is that the Riggis were certainly different from the average Aberdonians, being wealthy Americans living in an affluent community and home educating their children rather than sending them to the local state school or the prestigious Aberdeen International School nearby. While it would be heretical to suggest that differences such as their American nationality, their chosen profession, their social circle or their level of affluence might pose risk to their children’s wellbeing, it appears that no such respect for difference applies to their choice of home education for the past several years, despite this being the accepted and successful practice of well over a million families in the USA and a now sizeable minority in Scotland.
Although the blame culture is prevalent these days, the reality is that there is no way to eliminate all risk to children, either from their parents or from others, including vetted professionals who have access to them, not to mention accidents or illness. Let us all mourn the loss of these poor children, but let us also accept that none of us – community members, parents, police, lawyers or other professionals – could have predicted Wednesday’s terrible events which have left a father bereft of his children and a mother, who alone holds the answer to the question ‘why?’, gravely ill in intensive care.
May Gianluca, Augustino and little Cecilia rest in peace.