Smiling for the camera, cheek to cheek in the summer sun, baby Charlotte Clifford and her proud mum Clare are the picture of happiness as they enjoy a picnic on a hot June day last year.
But just 10 hours after this photo was taken, the seven-month-old was dead.
Plunged into every parent’s worst nightmare, Clare was then horrified to learn that the police were launching an investigation into whether she was to blame.
Little Charlotte had died in her mum’s bed - somewhere she had slept numerous times before, like many other families across the country.
But on this occasion Clare had had five drinks over the course of seven hours that Saturday evening, June 17.
It was this admission that sparked the police investigation which became what Clare calls “five months of hell” before she was eventually exonerated in November last year.
In an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post, Clare, 35, of Rodley, has slammed the length of time it took police to clear her name and warned other mums about the law and risks surrounding alcohol and bed-sharing.
The Children and Young Person’s Act 1933 states over-16s could be prosecuted if they go to bed “under the influence of drink” with a child under three, who then dies due to suffocation. In Charlotte’s case, a Home Office pathologist found there was no evidence of suffocation and her cause of death was given as “sudden, unexpected death in childhood”.
But for five long months, Clare was left facing the possibility she was responsible for her daughter’s death - a nightmare scenario she still struggles to shake off.
“They said even though there’s no evidence of it, they can’t 100 per cent rule it out. I’ve just got to find a way to live with that somehow. When your own child has died, you blame yourself, no matter what. I’m always going to be wondering if I didn’t have her in bed that night. I’ll wonder that for the rest of my life.”
But she added: “In my heart of hearts I know I didn’t roll onto Charlotte. I just wouldn’t. I’m such a light sleeper and she was a very vocal baby.”
Clare said she and husband James, 49, are a normal couple who like to “unwind on a Saturday night” with a few drinks - and that night was no different.
Alongside a large meal Clare had around five drinks between 5pm and midnight, when she went upstairs to bed and heard Charlotte stirring. She gave her a bottle of milk in her bed before they both fell asleep - with covers off and lying well apart due to the hot summer night.
At 4am, Clare suddenly woke to find her daughter not breathing and immediately began CPR, screaming to husband James, 49, who was asleep on the sofa downstairs.
They called an ambulance and Charlotte was taken to Leeds General Infirmary but tragically nothing could be done to save her. Clare said it was “terrifying” to find herself immediately investigated by police - with officers waiting outside the resus room while doctors battled to save Charlotte, accompanying Clare to the hospital toilets, guarding their home while specialists examined the house, and interviewing both parents at the hospital and later, under caution at Elland Road police station.
Three months into the investigation the couple were told the Crown Prosecution Service were being consulted on the case.
By this time Clare, who also has daughter Layla, six, had found out she was pregnant, with baby Jack due this April.
“That was a complete shock,” she said. “But it’s made me look after myself. “If it wasn’t for Layla and the pregnancy, I wouldn’t be here. But suicide wasn’t a choice for me. Layla had already lost her sister, she wasn’t going to lose her mum as well.”
She added: “It was hell, absolute hell. I thought I’m pregnant, I have Layla, what happens if they do decide I’m to blame? I worried they wanted to make an example of me. What if I went to prison? But I also blamed myself. My baby had died and I was supposed to look after her. I deserved to be punished.”
Clare said she received no support in the months after Charlotte died and ended up paying for therapy herself.
“Until November when the police came to tell me they were dropping the investigation, no one had been to our house since June.”
It is only recently that Clare feels able to try and move on with her life but she called for the introduction of fixed time-frames for future investigations into children’s deaths.
“I don’t feel I have been able to grieve for Charlotte until now. My life was on hold for too long. If they can turn around reports in 72 hours to prosecute someone in custody, then why not a dead baby?
“Why should a murderer jump the queue of a grieving family? Why should I wait five and a half months?
I’d like to see 28 days really or six weeks for a final report. Just something.”
She also urged other mums to be aware of the law – and for antenatal services to emphasise the risks. “I was given little advice on co-sleeping (and alcohol).
“I don’t know anyone who has come to me and said they don’t do it.
“When your baby is whingey or crying, what do you do, as a mum? You bring them in with you.
“But people need to be aware that they could be committing an offence.
“There are so many bloggers and funny mum stories about having a drink. But if a kid ends up in bed with you and you’ve had a drink and a child dies, they can put you through five months of hell while they decide if you killed them.”
n Read Clare’s blog at https://sunshinecharlotte.wordpress.com.
Detective Inspector Phil Jackson, of Leeds District CID: “We are always acutely aware that the sudden death of a baby is an incredibly traumatic situation and we never underestimate the impact it has on the parents and family involved.
“The police have a duty to fully investigate the circumstances surrounding any such deaths to establish whether there is any evidence of criminal offences and also to assist the Coroner.
“As we have done in this case, we do everything we can to provide families with support and regular updates and information through a specially-trained family liaison officer.
“We always aim to conclude our investigations as quickly as possible, but we also have to ensure that all necessary steps are gone through, and this can take time.
“A detailed report by a specialist Home Office pathologist was required to help us to establish the circumstances surrounding her death.
“We received that report [in November] and after a comprehensive review of it we have been able to conclude our investigation on the basis that no further action will be taken.
“We contacted the family to make them aware of this at the earliest opportunity and will continue to do everything we can to support them through the inquest process.”
According to the Infant Sleep Information Source (ISIS), studies have found that around 50 per cent of all UK babies have bed-shared by the time they are three months old.
The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) has the following safety advice on co-sleeping:
- Make sure your baby can’t fall out of the bed or become trapped between the mattress and the wall.
- Keep your baby cool by using sheets/ blankets rather than a duvet.
- Ensure bedding does not cover your baby’s face or head.
- Don’t co-sleep with your baby if you or your partner smokes.
- Don’t co-sleep with your baby if you either you or your partner has drunk alcohol or taken drugs (including medications that may make you drowsy).
- Always put your baby to sleep on their back rather than their front or side.
- Keep babies away from pillows.
- Never fall asleep with your baby on a sofa or armchair.