Even in his darkest moments, Michael Cole can still feel the touch of his son’s skin.
It was a hot summer’s day. Leon Jayet-Cole, on the spectrum of autistic and Asperger’s, and somewhat non-verbal, sat with his father under a running tap.
For hours, he wrapped his little body around his dad, the cool water tumbling over them. Leon hummed contentedly.
“When I think of him now, I can still feel his warm skin on that summer’s day against me, with the water coming down… I can feel the whole thing,” says Cole.
He can also vividly recall the day, May 27, 2015 that he got the police phone call. Leon was hurt, on his way to hospital.
Rushing there, Cole got another call: Leon probably wasn’t going to survive.
After the little boy died from his horrific injuries – blunt-force head trauma, broken jaw, spinal bleeding and retinal haemorrhaging – Cole descended into darkness.
His son had been murdered. And the agencies had let him down badly. Cole couldn’t cope.
“His death affected me so badly … The pure concentration of grief … I’m a pretty tough man, but nobody can be ready for that,” says the 52-year-old.
“The grief was so bad, the chest pains, the internal haemorrhaging of my thoughts … I had no control over how sad I was. I was trapped in the pain.
“When he first got taken, I didn’t shower or sleep for six months basically. I just cried. It affected me hugely, I nearly had a breakdown.”
For the past five years, Cole has fought to try to get some accountability over his son’s death.
The boy’s mother, Emma Roberts, had a protection order against Cole at the time of Leon’s death.
Cole had access to his children through the Family Court but it was limited.
It meant Cole knew little about Emma’s new man, James Stedman Roberts.
But he was so concerned about the injuries to another child inside the household in January 2013 that he phoned police and Child, Youth and Family (CYFS).
He says he wasn’t kept in the loop though.
“CYFS kept everything from me,” said Cole, who believes there is an “entrenched bias” against fathers in New Zealand from social services and the Family Court.
“They kept all of the notifications, hospital visits, everything from me. They took all of my rights away.”
Even at his own son’s funeral, Cole was under police guard at the rear of the funeral home.
But in hindsight, he thinks it was maybe a good thing. Under such grief, he doesn’t know how he would’ve handled the situation.
Roberts was charged with Leon’s murder. But he died before his murder trial at the High Court in Christchurch.
It left many questions unanswered.
Cole then fought to have an inquest hearing into his son’s death, in a desperate attempt to find some accountability.
He wanted to know how the agencies managed to miss so many red flags.
But he was left disappointed.
During the inquest process, he felt no compassion was shown towards him and his family by the various government agencies.
“They were always trying to wriggle or wrangle themselves around a corner – it was never to front up and face it,” Cole says.
“As it stands with CYFS, police, the hospital, they’ve left me with the same feeling that I’ll always be left with – that he died for nothing.
“It’s a private hell and a private battle which is an ongoing thing.”
He is especially disappointed with CYFS – which has since been restructured to become Oranga Tamariki – describing it as being “extremely broken”.
“They’re only ever going to be held accountable once a lot of the issues they have have been fixed,” Cole says.
“One thing I’ve noticed with these inquests is that they try and tell everyone they will try and change but that’s as far as things go.
“But I don’t believe at all that sticking a wee plaster on will stop the bleeding. This organisation is completely broken and you have to start at zero, there’s no doubt about it. It’s got to be running at 95 per cent at least, not 5 per cent.”
Cole hasn’t read the coroner’s report. He doesn’t see the point.
“When you live it, that’s the real truth there,” he says.
“I don’t hold my breath … I don’t think anything the [coroner] can recommend is enough to change anything.
“Because you’re telling people to do their job, when what you’re telling them should just be common sense.”
Cole feels a changed man since his son’s killing. His personality has changed. He doesn’t hang out with mates any more.
He doesn’t know what he would’ve done if he didn’t have the support of his family, including his wife, Eve.
He’s just left feeling extreme sadness.
He flinches at Roberts being referred to as having been Leon’s stepfather.
“You have to earn the right to be a parent. It hurts me, my wife and kids. He was never a father.”
Every day, he misses Leon – someone he calls a “beautiful little character” and “special little angel”.
“I cherished every second with him,” Cole says.
“He was so different to most humans on the planet, regardless of [Roberts].
“He just had love for everything. Everyone he touched just wanted to hug him.”
And he can still feel Leon’s skin on his, humming under the running water on that hot summer’s day.
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