Here, Joanne, tells the story in her own words.
I￼t was almost time for school to start but my mum was still asleep in bed.
‘Come on, get your coats,’ I said to my younger sister Catherine, four, and brother Chris, three.
‘You don’t want to be late.’
I was only 14, but it was my job to look after them.
Our mum, Bernadette Quirk, just didn’t seem to care. She was always out drinking with different boyfriends. The house was filthy too.
Chris would scurry out early in the morning and steal milk from the neighbours’ doorsteps and I would take soap from the school toilets to wash our clothes.
I knew it was wrong, but we had no choice.
‘Don’t answer the door to anyone,’ Mum warned, when social workers called to check on us.
We were too scared to disobey her. She had a terrible temper.
Then one morning, in November 1987, I went into Mum’s room to clean and saw a large bloodstain on her cream carpet. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘I had a nose bleed,’ Mum told me.
The following year, I had a little girl, Natalie.
I didn’t want to leave Catherine and Chris, but Mum’s was no place to bring up a baby, so I moved around the corner and still saw them most days.
When Natalie was three, I had another daughter, Samantha.
They were my world and I made sure they were well looked after. I didn’t want them to suffer as I had.
Despite everything, I still worried about Mum and kept in touch with her. She continued to drink heavily.
Sometimes, she’d put on lots of weight, then, almost overnight, she’d lose it all.
‘Are you pregnant?’ I asked once, half joking. But she shook her head.
My own weight went up and down so it made sense that Mum was the same.
Besides, she always wore baggy clothes, making it hard to see what shape she really was.
Then one day, Catherine, then 16, called me sobbing hysterically. In between gasping for breaths, she said there’d been a bad smell in the house.
‘Mum told me it was rotten bacon,’ she sobbed.
But the stench was so bad that when Mum went out, she’d decided to investigate.
‘The smell was in her wardrobe,’ she said. ‘I found a shiny red bin in there. And inside there was a baby.’
Stunned, I collected Catherine and we sat in the car and talked.
‘I put my hand inside the bin and I felt a baby’s head,’ she said.
I was sure it must be a mistake, but I knew I had to confront Mum.
Leaving Catherine at my house, I drove to see Mum.
‘What have you done?’ I blurted. ‘Have you had a baby?’
‘Yes,’ Mum replied calmly. ‘It was stillborn.’
She explained she had given birth to a little girl who wasn’t breathing, so she’d put her body in the bin in her wardrobe.
‘What’s her name?’ I whispered. ‘Helen,’ Mum said after a moment’s thought. I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t seem at all upset.
‘You need a doctor and we need to report the baby’s death,’ I said.
Mum swung around, her eyes suddenly blazing.
‘No!’ she screamed. But I couldn’t bear the thought of that little girl – my half-sister – lying in a bin upstairs.
‘Let me bury her,’ I pleaded. ‘She deserves that.’
Eventually, Mum shrugged her shoulders. ‘You can do it,’ she said sharply.
When I returned the following morning as planned, Mum emerged from the house, carrying a canvas bag.
She popped it in the boot, as if it was a bag of shopping.
At our family plot at the cemetery, I dug a shallow grave with my bare hands. Then I laid the canvas bag gently in the ground and covered it with earth.
Driving home, I was blinded by tears. And once inside, I was violently sick. I knew what I had done was so terribly wrong. But I felt like I had no choice.
If I reported the death, Mum might go to prison. The most important thing was the baby was at peace.
But Catherine and I found it hard to live with the burden of our secret.
Together we cried for the little sister that we would never know.
As years went by, Catherine left home and had three children. Mum carried on drinking, moving house often. And at the end of 2007, Catherine and I were helping her pack up her possessions once again. Suddenly, I caught sight of the red bin. My heart was in my mouth.
‘What are you looking at?’ Mum snapped. Why has she kept that? I shuddered.
When Mum went in the removal van to her new house, Catherine and I looked inside.
There were air fresheners, old cloths and under those, a bin bag, securely tied.
‘I can’t look,’ I gasped, banging the lid shut, before we took the red bin to Mum’s new place.
‘What have you got in there?’ Catherine asked, trying to sound casual. ‘Books,’ Mum snapped.
I wanted to believe her, but I remembered how Mum had sometimes gained and lost weight suddenly. Then there was the time there had been blood on her carpet. It ate away at me until it was too much to bear.
So I finally called the police and they agreed to search Mum’s house.
Afterwards, two officers knocked on my door.
‘We’re arresting you on suspicion of murder,’ one said. My jaw dropped. I’d been trying to help. Now I was being blamed? I was terrified.
At the police station, I was told that Mum had been arrested too.
When my solicitor came, he asked if I knew what the police had found. I held my breath.
‘Three babies,’ he replied. ‘Three stillborn babies.’
They were wrapped in bags in the bin in Mum’s bedroom.
My head fell into my hands and I sobbed.
As the case was investigated, I didn’t see Mum.
She’d watched me bury her baby with my bare hands and I’d kept her secret. Now I was mixed up in this horrible mess.
Eventually, I learned I would not be charged with any offence. It was a huge relief.
In 2010, my mum Bernadette Quirk, 55, appeared in court and admitted four counts of concealing a birth.
She’d kept three babies in the red bin with an air freshener.
There was also the fourth – Helen – buried in the graveyard.
The court heard she’d hidden the bodies for up to 20 years, wrapped in newspaper, sheets and plastic bags.
She said she gave birth to the babies between 1985 and 1995, but could not be more specific.
Mum claimed she had no recollection of the fourth baby but forensic tests had proved it was hers.
The defence lawyer said she insisted all the babies had been stillborn and police had been unable to prove otherwise.
DNA tests enabled police to trace three separate fathers. None of them knew she was pregnant.
The judge sentenced her to a two-year community order, under supervision.
After the court case, Catherine and I arranged a funeral for the four babies.
It was important to us that they were given some dignity and respect at last. We invited Mum to attend the service, but she refused. I no longer have contact with her.
In September 2012, I had a little boy I named Alex.
I have made sure that my own children have had a good and loving upbringing – nothing like my own.
My kids are everything to me, which makes what Mum did even harder to understand.
We will never really know the truth of what happened and why. Those babies were true skeletons in her closet. I am just so relieved that they have finally been laid to rest.
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