Voices: Our Zara wasn’t just failed by the man who murdered her – but by the system. Enough is enough

We are a tight-knit, interdependent family, we live in each other’s shoes. We were all close to Zara. Zara Aleena was the heart of the family. She was a daughter to us all. She was our Zara.

She announced at five years old that she wanted to be a lawyer, and the dream stuck. It was the concept of justice that really struck her. She was popular, too, she had so many friends, old and young. Beyond that and still to the day she was murdered, she had good friends from her toddler years. Zara was an active, good, citizen. The local community all know her well and they all adored her. She always had time to stop and talk to the neighbours. She also loved animals and you could say she was the local Cat Samaritan. She would rescue abandoned cats, get them seen to by a vet and then rehouse them in the neighbourhood.

Zara had great empathy for people less fortunate, and like the rest of the family also did voluntary work, she worked in soup kitchens with the homeless and refugees. Zara had a strong moral compass. One of the things she would confidently say was, “I know I’m a good person”. This would give her the confidence to speak up for herself and others. Zara brought a zest to our lives. Zara brought joy, colour and light to our family, to her friends and to the community.

The report released today, presenting findings on an inquiry on probation services, in relation to Jordan McSweeney – our Zara’s murderer – is absolutely devastating.

What we have been presented with is a litany of errors that were made. It is devastating because the mistakes have been made before – and tabled in an independent report before. It is devastating because the recommendations have also been presented before.

The report points to elements like “poor management”. In the week preceding Zara’s murderer’s release into the community, we read that a manager allowed six staff members to be on leave at the same time – meaning the remaining staff were overloaded. How could a manager have done this given the high stakes of public safety?

Women and children have been the victims of a service that is supposed to keep us safe (Family handout)
Women and children have been the victims of a service that is supposed to keep us safe (Family handout)

It concedes that good practice and protocol were not followed in planning for McSweeney’s release. And it states he was incorrectly assessed as being a “medium risk of serious harm” and should have been assessed as high risk, considering his record of offences. A probation officer is quoted as saying they “did not have time to read his records”. What kind of data storage is there at probation? Why isn’t information presented in an accessible format? This is key to the correct licence agreement for releasing someone. If you get assessments wrong, you get every step, thereafter, wrong. The report shows an astounding 43 per cent of assessments are inaccurate throughout the UK.

Full intelligence on McSweeney was not available to the community-based probation service. How can information on an individual who has spent most of his adult life in prison not be shared by the prison staff with probation? We have a minister of prison and probation – but we don’t have good communication between these two services which should be working together. This is outrageous, considering the stakes.

The licence was issued with the knowledge both by the probation officer and by the offender that there was no fixed address. A licence to do as he wished was handed to him – what was the point of setting up a licence if there were no consequences to him breaking his conditions? Why are countless offenders released with no fixed abode? How are these offenders supposed to live? Crucially, the only home they know becomes prison.

We read that timeline protocols were not followed in recall procedures. Why was this? There is a comment about setting up reminders for staff – why aren’t these vital processes quick and easy to make? Even when, eventually, police were notified to make an arrest, there was no address – so evidently, he was not found. He continued to be free to do as he wished.

McSweeney has spent a lifetime in prison. Prison is his “home” – and clearly not a deterrent. Prison is where his friends are, where he has status, where he knows how to live, where he has meaning, where there are rules. So, what was to stop him doing what he needed to, to secure a home?

Let’s be clear, none of these mistakes can be accounted to a heavy workload or a lack of resources. These errors are all down to incompetence, carelessness and irresponsibility. The report refers to probation officers lacking “professional curiosity”. They clearly lack more than curiosity. Even worse, is that the leads in probation have allowed this lack of professionalism to fester – they have fostered it through poor management.

We want accountability. We want change (Family handout)
We want accountability. We want change (Family handout)

These services are regularly checked by the inspectorate, so how many times have these mistakes been highlighted and nothing has been done? It is utterly pointless to have a probation service; it is pointless to have an inspectorate if leaders are not going to respond to recommendations. It is pointless to apologise to us, because no apology will bring our precious Zara back. We want to see change.

The report criticises probation services, but who is asking about what the police did to find him in the two days they had before he went on to murder Zara? Granted, the police were told he was “medium risk”. Does that mean that in these circumstances medium effort is made? And what about prison services? Why isn’t prison intelligence readily available to community officers?

This man had a long career in crime, starting when he was 12 years old. Between those years and June 2022, what kind of rehabilitation was he given? He claims to have been sexually abused – who noticed this? What about his teachers? When he complained of not being able to control his anger, what was done? When he tried to kill himself in prison, what kind of services were offered? Education, youth offending services, mental health services, the NHS, the police, housing, probation and the prison service all have a part to play here.

Probation has Zara’s blood on their hands. Heads haven’t rolled. They should.

Enough is enough. Women and children have been the victims of a service that is supposed to keep us safe. A licence was given to a dangerous man to do whatever he wanted – and he did. We are not safe. We want more than an inappropriate apology that we inadvertently spot in the paper. We want accountability. We want change.