Suzie Barnett was asleep at home when the knock on the door came. It was 20 minutes past midnight and two police officers, one male and one female, were standing on her doorstep.
Their first question was “Are you Alice Barnett’s mother?”, and Suzie knew immediately that something awful must have happened.
Her 19-year-old daughter was on the government’s International Citizenship Service (ICS) programme with an organisation called Lattitude, volunteering for 10 weeks in a South African township outside Port Elizabeth.
The officers said: “We’re really sorry to have to tell you but she’s lost at sea." The news didn’t compute. “I said, ‘She can’t be, she’s not at sea, she’s just on this project,'” Suzie recalled. “I had no idea she was anywhere near the sea.”
Over the next few minutes the officers told her that a "freak wave" on a remote beach that Alice was visiting on the Eastern Cape had swept her out to sea. They said another young woman – who Suzie later learned was Alice’s volunteering partner, 21-year-old Summer Robertson from Shropshire – had drowned.
It was another six hours before Suzie got a phone call to say they had found Alice’s body. And it was many more days before she found out – from a coastal safety campaigner in Belgium – that what killed Summer and Alice was likely not a freak wave but a powerful rip current that the coastline is notorious for. The young women had not even been swimming when they were swept out to their deaths, just wading fully clothed.
This December will mark three years since that dreadful night. In the intervening years Alice and Summer’s families have battled to get to the truth of what happened. ICS has since terminated its contract with Lattitude, and as details have emerged through the inquest and an independent investigation, the families have come to believe Lattitude failed to look after their daughters as it should have.
This week the four parents began civil proceedings against Lattitude for negligence. The landmark case raises questions about what duty of care gap year and other volunteering organisations owe to the young adults they enlist. Can teenagers, who are officially adults, expect protection from the organisations that host them?
Clare Campbell, the lawyer at Leigh Day representing the families, believes they can. She told BuzzFeed News: "The people on these trips are just kids really, and they go abroad to places that aren't the safest places in the world and their parents let them go because they feel they're in safe hands.”
Following the inquest Lattitude said in a statement that all volunteers received training before leaving the UK, including warnings about swimming. It also said the company “robustly implemented” health and safety training.
The organisation has since introduced further risk training, including more specific advice about water safety. In a four-page response to the coroner it laid out in detail the new risk assessments and safety briefings being implemented.
On its website, Lattitude Global Volunteering boasts that it has an “extensive support network” and has been sending volunteers abroad for over 40 years. “With this experience we feel confident that we provide the best support available for our volunteers," it adds. "Which gives you and your loved ones peace of mind.”
It was this support, Suzie said, that motivated Alice to choose Lattitude rather than strike out travelling on her own. After leaving school in 2013, Alice had been to Cambodia for a brief stint of volunteering. Deferring university another year, she wanted to do something similar again, still with an organisation.
Sitting nervously with a roll-up cigarette in the garden of her partner’s house in north London, Suzie recalled: “She wanted to do more but she wasn’t ready to travel on her own, so this was the ideal solution – this was a safe way to do it, with a group, with experts, with people who have local knowledge. The whole package is sold as the ideal way for a young person to do this kind of thing before they set out on their own.
“Alice was also wise beyond her years. She was never silly, never did anything stupid. She was mature enough to realise that there was stuff she didn’t know about that she would need to know about before setting off on her own.”
Though Lattitude was delivering the project on the ground, it was part of the government-funded ICS scheme overseen by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), one of Britain’s most established volunteering organisations. The knowledge that VSO and the government were involved gave Alice and Summer’s families further reassurance that their daughters would be looked after.
The first inkling Suzie had that Alice might not be as safe as they thought came nearly two months into her daughter's trip.
Alice and Summer were posted together in Walmer Township near Port Elizabeth working on a youth health education project, staying with a family in the impoverished neighbourhood.
After feeling homesick while volunteering in Cambodia, Alice had vowed to avoid social media on this trip, leaving her smartphone at home. Suzie recalled: “We made an agreement. She said, 'We’re not going to Skype, we’re not going to call, because I’d miss you too much. I need to really fully experience this.'”
The pact meant that from the time Alice left in September until her death, Suzie had just one phone conversation with her daughter – a fraught one.
It was just after Alice had texted to say that a week earlier one of the other volunteers had been stabbed in the stomach while walking home. A fellow volunteer had tried to call for an ambulance, only to discover that the township was considered too dangerous for them to enter, meaning the young volunteers had to scramble to find a car to drive him to hospital.
The young man survived and was flown home along with the traumatised volunteer who had tried to get him an ambulance, but the incident set off alarm bells.
An independent investigation into Lattitude ordered by VSO following Alice and Summer’s deaths has since established that the weekend after the stabbing, the traumatised volunteers were left in the township. Meanwhile, the Lattitude staff member in charge went to the UK for a week’s training, taking with him a key to the safe containing their passports.
According to the investigator, Charles Watt, the stabbing “should have initiated a Critical Incident Management response” resulting in the volunteers being relocated until a fresh risk assessment took place.
Watt said there had been an “institutional failure to respond appropriately to a significant incident”, and that the volunteers had been left “without responsible managers and decision makers at a time of crisis”.
Lattitude has said in previous statements that its volunteers were briefed about personal safety when staying in places like Walmer. For example, they were not supposed to travel alone or after dark. No more volunteers were placed there after August 2015.
In her one phone call home Alice said she was fine and wanted to stay. Suzie recalled: “She said, ‘I want to complete the project. It’s really important to me, don’t come out’ – she knew I’d be on the next plane – ‘everything’s fine.’”
For the next month Alice and Summer’s parents worried about their daughters’ safety in the township. They were relieved when December came round and it was almost time for them to come home.
The last part of the placement was a debrief at Woody Cape Backpackers and Nature Lodge, near a remote beach on South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Alice and five other volunteers walked down to the beach together. Hours before Alice was swept out to sea, she remarked to a friend that the beach they were on was “paradise”.
The official health and safety policy for the project was not to swim at dusk or on an unpatrolled beach, and to seek local advice before swimming. Lattitude says its staff were not aware of any rip current at the beach, yet the inquest heard that locals would have known of it.
The in-country manager, who wrote that health and safety guidance, was one of the first of five people to wade in the water just after 7 o’clock that evening, contravening every single one of his policies. The one volunteer who had stayed on the beach ran to get help when she saw a strong rip current sucking them out to sea.
The country manager and two other volunteers eventually made it to safety – but Alice and Summer were not so lucky.
There was no lifeguard on the beach, and Watt’s investigation found that the situation “was compounded by [the in-country manager] entering the water thereby negating any previous conditions in the minds of the volunteers and making the intent 'not to swim' redundant as a result of that action.”
The in-country manager said at the inquest that the policy related to to swimming and not wading, and that they had no intention of swimming. "We were just paddling and splashing about," he told the coroner.
Suzie said: “I’d not heard of rip currents before, I had no idea. And as far as I know Alice hadn’t either. … She was a very strong swimmer but having no knowledge of a rip I can imagine the first thing she’d do would be to try and swim to shore, but that’s the worst thing to do.
“In these powerful rips, you have to swim sideways, parallel, because the rip itself, it might only be a metre, it might be a couple of metres – they all vary. But if you swim sideways to it, you get out of it and the water’s calm and you can get to shore.”
Following the inquest in 2015 the coroner, John Ellery, wrote, in a ruling to prevent further deaths, that there was only “a generic risk assessment of swimming”, rather than something looking at the specific danger posed by the stretch of turbulent coastline in the area. He added: “In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.”
In his independent investigation later that year, Watt wrote: “The Shropshire coroner and this enquiry both determine that ‘anyone with responsibility for those entering the water should have known the risk of rip currents.'"
Going further than the coroner, Watt concluded that “Lattitude staff were responsible for the event and participants and so were ultimately responsible for the failure to identify and mitigate the risks.” He added: “Tragically, the institutional failure to investigate the risk associated with the primary draw-card of the Woody Cape Backpackers’ lodge, namely the ocean, and the failure to abide by reasonable nominated safety rules led to the drowning deaths of Alice Barnett and Summer Robertson.”
But since their deaths, Alice and Summer’s parents – Suzie and Peter Barnett, and John and Sarah Robertson – say they have never had an apology from Lattitude. They believe Lattitude had a duty to seek local knowledge about the current, warn them of it, and tell volunteers how to escape a rip.
Lattitude has previously said that volunteers were trained in personal safety and warned specifically about taking caution while swimming.
“Alice went away on an adventure,” Suzie said. “She was told she was going to be supported; she was told she was in safe hands. A series of incidents, many of which I was not aware of until afterwards, clearly showed that she was not being supported in the way that she thought she was. This resulted in the ultimate tragedy that I believe was easily preventable through education and communication.”
She added: “We have had a very strong sense from the beginning that Latitude don’t understand what went wrong and don’t believe they did do anything wrong. We believe that whether it’s through breakdown of communication, through lack of staff training, whatever caused it, this was preventable.”
Speaking about the families’ motivation for a lawsuit, Suzie said it was not about money or blame: “We’re not looking for someone to blame, but it is about accountability here. They need to recognise that fact, and they refuse to… I completely get that accidents happen, but this was preventable.”
The families’ lawyer, Campbell, said: "They were sensible girls but they were never told of the potential danger, which would have meant they could make an informed decision. There was information available locally that should have been picked up in a risk assessment. It was incumbent on Lattitude to inform them."
She added in a written statement: “Lattitude had a duty of care to all its volunteers and our clients believe that they neglected that duty and exposed their volunteers to serious risks that could have easily been avoided.
“More than two and a half years after the tragic deaths of Summer and Alice their parents are still having to fight to get answers about why their daughters were exposed to these lethal rip-currents.
“Not only do their families want answers but they have relentlessly campaigned to secure assurances from Lattitude that their safety processes have improved so that no other families have to go through what they have been through and are still going through now.”
Lattitude confirmed that it received a letter from solicitors acting on behalf of the families of Alice Barnett and Summer Robertson.
Chair of trustees Dr Pat Upson said: “The loss of these two young lives was a terrible tragedy, and the grief suffered by their families must be unimaginable. We have been absolutely committed to ensuring that they have an accurate, full and proper understanding of all the circumstances surrounding this horribly sad situation. Since this is now the subject of a legal claim, we are unable to comment further.”
In the initial months after the tragedy, VSO did not respond to the families’ pleas for an inquiry into what went wrong. But when a new chief executive, Philip Goodwin, joined in 2015, Watt’s independent investigation was commissioned and the parents were invited to their offices to discuss its findings with them.
Suzie was emotional recalling the start of that meeting: “[Goodwin] held his hands up and said, ‘I just want to tell you how sorry I am.' And he was about to go on and we all just burst into tears. He didn’t realise that was the first time anyone had said to us, ‘I’m sorry.'"
VSO continues that apologetic tone to this day. Goodwin told BuzzFeed News: “We are profoundly sorry that Alice and Summer died so tragically whilst on placement with Lattitude. We can’t begin to imagine what the last three years have been like for their family and friends. We also recognise that we could have worked with the parents much more constructively in the months immediately following this accident. We have stayed in close touch with them and as they know, we will always be available to them.
“Latitude is no longer a participant in the ICS programme, its contract was terminated by VSO following these incidents. We have endeavoured to learn the lessons and to work hard each and every day to improve the safety and security for the thousands of volunteers who take part in the programme every year.”
Since the beginning of 2015, VSO and the Department for International Development (DfID), which funds ICS, have suspended placements in Burkina Faso, Bolivia, and Guatemala – as well as this one in South Africa. It has also sacked another provider for failing to comply with ICS operating security standards.
A spokesperson for DfID said: "Our thoughts and deepest sympathies remain with the families of Alice and Summer.
“The safety and wellbeing of all ICS volunteers is the first priority for DfID. There are constant assessments and reviews of the delivery of the ICS programmes and we have clearly set out the standards that are expected of VSO in their programme delivery."
Before her daughter’s death, Suzie had a career as a teacher specialising in helping those with emotional needs. But since December 2014 she has struggled to put her working life back together. “I tried to go back to work and then I realised I wasn’t in any position to deal with their problems,” she said. “All the stuff I was trying to help them with I was also going through myself.”
Suzie knows she cannot change the fact of Alice’s death, but she wants to use it as a driving force to bring about change for others. She has dedicated much of the last two and a half years to a series of campaigns – including getting to the bottom of what happened that evening and preventing a similar tragedy from happening again.
After the parents of Alice and Summer lobbied for it, work has begun on an internationally recognised safety standard for volunteering organisations that would function like a kite mark. At the beach where the young women died – after an 18-month fight with the South African government – there is now a sign warning of the potentially deadly rips. There is even a music festival in Alice’s name – the Beautiful Alice Festival – to raise money for causes she supported.
Raising awareness of how to escape rip currents has also become a passion for Suzie. “I think it should be mandatory," she said. "That lack of information is dangerous. There are deaths all over the UK every year but also all over the world.”
“Why are we not taught through geography lessons, through swimming lessons?” she asked, with the zeal of someone ready to make that happen. “Alice was a fearsome campaigner and fought injustice wherever she saw it, and was very loud and very vocal. That was never my way, but for her I have to try and do what she would’ve done. I think to myself, OK, what would Alice have done?”
Suzie wants to make young people better aware of the need to look after themselves travelling. Speaking directly to any young person considering enrolling on a volunteering programme, she said: “My message is, educate yourself [about any risks], don’t expect that somebody else is going to do research for you. Treat the trip as if you were going independently. If you have the network there then great, but if you don’t then at least you’ve informed yourself.”
Before her life was taken away, Alice hadn’t yet decided what she wanted to do with it. She toyed with the idea of being an actor, speech therapist, or teacher. She was 6 foot tall, with wild hair and a “massive heart” – and her mother wants to keep her memory alive.
“She was an incredible human being,” Suzie said. “Who knows what she would’ve done. I believe she would’ve changed the world, and she is changing the world through the things we’re doing now. I describe it as shining her light.”
Emily Dugan is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Dugan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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