Children Heard and Seen

A Parent’s Story 3: Chicken Noodle Soup

Below is the third in a new series of blog posts created by those caring for children with a parent in prison that we have supported. The series aims to shine a light on the harms experienced by children and families when a parent goes to prison, and highlight the benefits that providing good support can bring.

The bowl of steaming chicken noodle soup lay untouched, in front of my husband’s empty seat at the dining table. Our children sat down, with their usual excited chatter echoing around the room, as they began to eat lunch.

I was able to consume small meals again, now into the fourteenth week of what had so far been a sick and exhausting pregnancy, and chicken noodle soup was a favourite with everyone. The children looked up toward their father’s empty seat

 

        ‘Mum, where’s Dad?’

 

        ‘Perhaps he’s outside talking to the neighbours?’, I offered, not quite feeling satisfied with this explanation. It was so uncharacteristic of him to miss lunch. 

 

He suddenly appeared in the kitchen, flustered and ashen faced, asking for a word with me outside. My heart sank, immediately overwhelmed by the feeling that someone had died.

As he led me into the back garden, out of earshot of the children, he spoke quietly.

 

      ‘The police are here, and they want to take the computer…’ 

 

This has been a challenging story to write. I fear that I have not told it well enough. I fear that nobody will care. I fear we will be judged. It is a huge burden of responsibility, but it’s a story that needs to be told. How an ordinary family can be blown apart.

 

I’m willing to be vulnerable because I hope to highlight the terrible situation that children are placed into, through no fault of their own, and how they simply become collateral damage, the fallout of someone else’s crime, their needs overlooked.

The public response to parental offending, of any kind is often unhelpful, and frequently looks like this:

 

         ‘The parent shouldn’t have done it, then!’ 

 

          ‘Let’s be clear, it’s them who did this to all of you!’

 

         ‘Perhaps they should have thought about their family before they offended!’

 

What this narrative achieves is to deflect from the suffering of the families and crucially, the children. The point is, that families are left in awful circumstances, with no aftercare.

 

If we finish the sentence with blame, we neglect to open the chapter about support. 

 

What followed the brief garden conversation, was entry into our home by two plainclothes officers, removing my husband’s computer tower and drives, one by one, bagging the potential evidence carefully, and placing it into black plastic boxes in the hallway. I was given very little information about what was going on. Despite my questions, I was in the dark.   The children looked on, with blank faces, unable to comprehend the enormity of what was about to happen in their innocent lives, and the fact that life as we knew it had just ended forever. 

 

In hindsight, I am thankful that the police arrived in plainclothes, at a sociable hour and that there were just the two of them, a man, and a woman.  This meant that at least my children had been spared the horrors of a uniformed dawn raid, and the additional despair that must encompass.

 

The trauma instead for my children was the sudden and abrupt change to family life, the new and confusing narrative about their father (who had been a good dad to them and had never harmed them) the shocking lack of support available, and how to possibly navigate a lifetime of repercussions.

 

Naively, as the police had stated that social care would ‘just want to talk’ to us, and conduct an assessment, I hoped that they would see that my children were thriving and happy, and perhaps give us some advice, guidance and signposting about how to get through the coming weeks and months, and how to get the right help.

 

Nonetheless, what ensued looked nothing like support, and more like a thundering freight train.  

 

A MAPPA meeting (a round table with some attendees who had known us as a family for years) was swiftly convened, (without my knowledge), followed by a section 47., followed by a section 17. The next ten days were a blur, culminating in me being handed a piece of A4 paper, over my kitchen table, containing a list of 5 life-altering conditions from social care, with no offer of support to help to achieve those conditions, nor any advice on how to implement them. Just the acknowledgement that if we did not, that an initial child protection conference would be convened.

 

I had immediately become, by default, sole carer of our children, in our home, whilst pregnant and working.  My relationship with my husband broke down on the day of the knock, although he continued to be in the home, supervised by me, to try and keep things as normal as possible for the children. The death of my marriage, though, was the very least of my concerns. 

 

If you can imagine the horror, of being a respected member of the community, with several responsibilities, a job, plus voluntary work, and then in the blink of an eye, facing a husband under investigation for viewing indecent images of children online.  My sense of identity was shaken to the core. Suddenly, the rug was swept from under my feet due to someone else’s crimes.  Crimes which I had no idea about and never would have imagined in my wildest dreams. 

I spent many days and nights in tears, shaking, dealing with terrible insomnia, angry with the children’s father, and confused by his actions. I would be terrorised by the thought of these images of children online, someone’s children, somewhere in the world…I would wake up twenty times a night, in panic, thinking of them…Who were they? What had happened to them? Where were they now? 

 

Meanwhile, my own children, equally confused and perplexed by events, and blissfully, unharmed (up until now), had to continue to be checked on by the social worker, ultimately causing them to retreat, especially the oldest two.  From the children’s perspective, there had been nothing at all wrong with our lives. We were a happy family, or so they (and I) had thought. Out of the blue, with no indication, massive changes took place. It felt so alien to them, it shook their world, as they had never viewed their dad in a negative way before. They were scared as to what else could be suddenly changed without warning. They didn’t know who they could trust any more. 

 

Questions swarmed my head.  I spent hundreds of hours holding my husband to account, trying to understand what had happened and why, how had our lives been detonated so badly, why were our children now suffering when children had already suffered enough in the world? How could he look at this material? What was wrong with him? Why were these images even available on the internet? These were not from the dark web, I was told in time, but from a regular webpage, a well-known provider. I was not even aware that he was watching legal pornography (he had drives full of it, the police informed me, explaining that it pointed toward some kind of addiction), let alone this deviant horror. I also discovered from my husband, after he had been told to disclose to me, that he had a previous conviction, for an online offence, before I had met him!  I had no idea. I was shocked. Why did I not know? My whole life felt like a lie, a ticking time bomb. I felt stupid, numb bewildered, and betrayed in a way that there is no frame of reference for.

 

People were sat around tables, having debates about my life, and what was in the best interests of my children. It felt as though the state had assumed a level of parental control, I had done nothing wrong. A bombshell had been dropped upon mine and the children’s lives and yet we were not recognised by the system as victims. Judgement came in buckets. Support was sparse.

 

We were living in a goldfish bowl, our private and emotional life thrown into the glare of many agencies, except I was not the goldfish.  I was the stone at the bottom of the tank, with someone else’s muck raining down from above.Our life was a show, the audience growing ever wider, as more and more people were being involved by social care. There was not a single concern, past or present about my children, from any agency. The Child in Need plan felt like an empty proposal, as the children’s needs as indirect victims were never identified or assessed. Only one harm was identified. The multiple adverse childhood experiences that occur as a fallout to the knock were not assessed. The massive financial losses we incurred were not assessed. I asked repeatedly for an assessment of me to be made to ensure I was doing everything possible to protect my children and understand what was happening. This was not forthcoming, with Covid being blamed. The children’s father was not assessed.

 

I was effectively screaming into a void.

 

The involvement of social care was almost as traumatic and upsetting as the original investigation. I am someone who has always tried to do the right thing, and always unquestionably put the needs of my children at the forefront, and yet here I was being made to feel scrutinised for something that I had no idea about. I found whilst the social worker as an individual was sympathetic, that the system offered no support; my children actively lost out on things due to the restrictions imposed, and lack of help available. On each Child in Need review call, I had to endure being ‘rated out of 10’ by professionals, some of whom hadn’t met me, or my children, and the remainder of whom hadn’t seen the children, or I for some time.  This was highly traumatising as I was doing my utmost to protect the children, and yet the ratings never really improved. I now look back in disbelief, as a Child in Need plan is meant to be about support.

 

Safeguarding without practical support is in nobody’s best interest.

 

I believe that this is a political issue and one that needs urgently addressing. 

 

I too lost out greatly, having to quit my master’s degree to look after the children adhering to the conditions, and having to take maternity leave early (and, ultimately to leave my career behind). 

 

I took the initiative (with no direction, as we had no actions to complete from one CiN meeting to the next) to educate myself around online offending. By the third month of the investigation, I had completed the Lucy Faithfull Inform course for friends and family. By the fourth month, I had completed two NSPCC courses. This was in addition to the numerous safeguarding courses I had completed in my professional and voluntary career over the previous decade. I did age appropriate Keep Safe work with my children. I would regularly phone the Lucy Faithfull helpline, and post on their forum, and began to engage with the StopSo forum, desperate to meet others in the same position as me. The children’s father undertook the Inform Plus course for offenders and began what would be an ongoing engagement with Safer Living Foundation. He began intensive work to unravel his own childhood trauma, and to try and piece together just how the malaise of the past had cast its shadow forward so insidiously.

 

I distanced myself from friends, and most of my family, and did not feel able to confide in people, desperately trying to spare the children from the gossip of a small town, where their father was well known. My children also became severely isolated, compounded by Covid. I did not dare to show how much I was struggling emotionally as I worried that showing emotions too much could escalate the case with social care. And my children and I were already at breaking point in response to the current level of social care presence. So, I battled on, in silent shame.

 

When the intrusive thoughts of suicide became overwhelming, I was able to make a self-referral to Talking Therapies. The focus of these talking therapies sessions being:

 

1) how to keep myself alive, 

2) how to navigate the visceral and at times murderous anger I felt toward my husband, and 

3) how to withstand the intrusive presence of social care when I had done nothing wrong.

 

I was also able to confide in my GP, and in the duty doctors, all of whom kept me afloat with a raft of kind and supportive words, and the occasional prescription for antihistamines (the only safe knock-out available to a pregnant woman). It was, however, only because I chose to confide in professionals, only because I actively sought out help, that I was able to find some. I also received amazing support from the school safeguarding leads who would phone regularly. They were the human voice of reason in all of this and listened with kindness and care. Equally, our social worker listened to me with care, kindness, compassion and empathy, but was powerless to help, and I imagine at times equally as frustrated as I was at the lack of support from the system in which they operated.

 

It is my opinion that the lack of provision for children, where a parent is under investigation for online offences is a modern-day scandal. With 850+ arrests for these offences each month, there are a LOT of children enduring adverse childhood experiences as a result. My children were not able to access any tailored support. A system that claims to ‘safeguard’ them, does nothing to meet their emotional and psychological needs. All that they had was me, a traumatised mother, desperately struggling to hold together the remnants of our shattered lives. 

 

The children were not in school for the majority of the first lockdown, due to one of my children having received a shielding letter, me being pregnant and my mum shielding due to recovering from cancer.  Also, I did not want any speculation occurring in our small community, about why my children had been given a school place. However, once shielding was coming to an end, my oldest son would have liked to have been able to go into school and complete Year 6, something that he couldn’t do, as his father wasn’t able to take him, I wasn’t able to confide in any friend who could potentially help out, I was in the midst of giving birth, and social care were unable to help us due to lack of funds/ provision. So, he couldn’t attend school to complete this milestone year. 

 

When one of my children was hospitalised for two nights, suicidal (after an A&E referral from our GP, as CAMHS couldn’t assist on that day- they would see her in hospital a day or so later) because of the sudden abrupt change to their life, and this new narrative about their father, I reached out to social care for support, asking for help to manage the situation at home. As our previous social worker had left their role, and we hadn’t been allocated a new one, I received a callback from a duty social worker, as the manager was too busy. I was informed that my daughter ‘needs to learn that life isn’t perfect’, and that it was ‘a CAMHS issue’.  

 

The pandemic was almost a background occurrence in our lives, even with the tragic loss of a relative. The first lockdown was initially a source of frustration as I had planned to pack up and flee our home with the children within three months of ‘the knock’, to escape from the pressures of social care and their intrusion, and to protect my children from the media fallout of the crime. I didn’t have anywhere to go but searched frantically for rental properties many miles away and consulted with Citizen’s Advice as to how I would achieve this move. I Googled food banks and calculated how I would keep the children and I financially afloat. However, it was not to be. I was forced to sit it out, in the family home, and it would be a few months before lockdown would ease, that door would open again, and we were free to leave.

I was concerned about media coverage, due to the nature of the crimes. Who would want for their children to live in fear? Especially if the case was picked up by vigilantes, who actively incite violence, regardless of who lives at an address. I first raised this issue with social care at the first Child in Need review meeting. My fears were ignored. I feel like my children had the double whammy of misfortune, given the nature of the crimes, as well as the looming threat of parental imprisonment.   

 

Nobody could give me a road map for how to guide them psychologically in the future: the thought that they would have to have to listen to gossip at the school gates, to be called names by other children, or to hear adults speaking about their father was almost too much to bear. It didn’t matter that the school had kindly reassured me that they would do their best to protect the children. I believed of course that that they would, but what about outside of school? What about online? What about the community response to my family? It seemed an awfully bleak path ahead; to be ostracised, excluded, shamed, and possibly even attacked for crimes that weren’t theirs.

 

I did not feel supported by social care in terms of dealing with media. I was told that it ‘probably won’t be reported.’ My concerns were minimised, and the risk of harm to my children was dismissed.

 

The primary school kept my children on roll in case we could return. My workplace kept my job open in case we could return. It hit the media. Those spaces were kindly held for us, but alas were never again to be filled. 

 

I made the incredibly traumatic and difficult decision to leave our hometown, ahead of the court appearances, and potential media/ vigilante fallout.  Luckily, a relative’s home lay vacant, over 100 miles away.  It needed thousands of pounds worth of work to make it habitable. We had already incurred heavy financial losses by this point. My sister assembled a local army of helpers who completed the job cheaply, and within a month, and the house was ready for us to move in to.

 

We fled our home on a bright September day.  I drove the length of the two-and-a-half-hour journey without stopping. I do not recall that journey. My hands gripped the wheel so tightly that every knuckle presented white. I discovered on arrival that one of my children had wet themself in their car seat, plagued by uncertainty about leaving his home, the only home he had ever known. 

 

The following weeks were a blur. 

We had shut the door on our old life. I changed my phone number. We had gone into hiding:

 

            ‘witness protection without the protection’ 

                  (Grant, Harriet, The Knock That Tears Families Apart, The Guardian, 31/07/2021)

 

Court was delayed due to Covid, meaning we had a longer wait than anticipated (we had moved a week prior to the first scheduled date, but this date was postponed). There were three court appearances in total. Three long days of waiting to see if it hit the media. 

 

I home-schooled the children, whilst desperately trying to process what had happened to us, and whilst awaiting sentencing and potential media fallout, not knowing whether we could ever return to our home. I guided them through their own trauma whilst trying to manage my own. This, on top of having a new-born baby, who would cry and vomit often, as well as trying to scrape together enough money to survive, was almost too much to bear.  

 

The children’s father received a custodial sentence. The day he was sentenced was a whirlwind of trying to process what had happened, working out what to tell the children, and how to navigate the way forward. I had been left with all financial affairs and a house sale to deal with remotely, as well as the potential media fallout.

 

By teatime that day, it had hit the media. The media report was suitably awful, and contained inaccuracies. Our street was the only one with that name in the UK. Only six other adults in the county shared our surname. There was no doubt that we were identified, by default. I would never return to live at our home again.

 

Then the report was picked up by vigilante groups who embellished it with further details, such as our house number and postcode which would have put my children at risk had we stayed. I know the risk to be very real as I have met other families along this path who have had attacks on their homes, cars, even on themselves. The police could do nothing about the vigilante groups, so the information has to remain there, forever public, forever a threat to my children and I, until such a time as laws are made against this kind of exposure. The children are now known under a different name, to protect them. Their surname was a huge part of their identity, which they have had to relinquish.  

 

From the day of sentencing, the children suddenly went from seeing their dad every week, face to face, supervised by me (even since he had pleaded guilty, 4 weeks previously) to not at all. They were not allowed to speak to him or write to him or receive mail from him for 7 weeks, due to prison and social care processes. He was completely removed from their lives.  Some people would say this was for the better, but please try and see this from the children’s perspective. Their dad had never hurt them, he has been a good father to them. It made no sense at all to them that they could not speak to him, yet this was a decision taken in their name. Even when phone calls and letters/ email were approved, there were no video calls allowed, ever, no visits. 

 

On the evening of the day of sentencing, I posted on an online forum, desperately asking for anyone who could help my children. I felt for them so much, seeing how their worlds had been turned upside down, firstly by their father’s crimes, secondly by a lack of supportive response, thirdly by having to leave their home, their whole lives, and now fourthly by the media. Another poster recommended Children Heard and Seen. I contacted them the following morning and a call back with James and Maria was arranged promptly.

 

In the following weeks, the support was much needed. My oldest had read the media reports and had permanently deleted all her own social media accounts, losing contact with all her friends. My second oldest kept contact with his gaming friends online, but became scared to leave the house, even though we had moved, in case people ‘knew’ what had happened and attacked him. My oldest preferred not to leave the house either and would make excuses to avoid going out. I did not know how to help them.

 

I experienced an emotional breakdown on Valentine’s Day. No doubt the significance of the date itself (I hadn’t previously stopped to think about the loss of my relationship), combined with the ongoing balancing act of managing the day-to-day needs of the children, along with the lockdown, sleepless nights with a baby, homeschooling, trying to arrange contact with their father, a house sale remotely, the breakdown of my marriage, the loss of my career, the loss of my friends, the fear of the ‘Google’ effect, fears for the future, financial worries…became too much. I was close to calling the emergency social care helpline, and asking them to take my children away, as I felt that I could no longer provide for them as a mother, so broken had I become.

 

My family rallied around us, with my sister having some of the children to stay at her house for a few days, whilst my mum arrived to help with the others. The next day, I received the biggest box of love and care from Children Heard and Seen. Hand-delivered, it contained chocolate, biscuits, a candle, toiletries, games for the children. So thoughtful, and so incredibly well-timed! I could not believe that someone cared so much about us, it felt amazing. This was a huge turning point, and my strength to carry on had been renewed.

 

My children were welcomed with open arms into the Children Heard and Seen family, as was I. I went from feeling like a societal reject, to a somebody again. Speaking to Sarah on the phone, I felt like a person who mattered, and who had a voice. My children had 1-2-1 support from a mentor called Samuel.  He was brilliant with each of them, tailoring the calls to suit their ages and individual needs. They were able to work through some of the feelings that had been pent up inside and had a safe space to talk about whatever they wanted to discuss each week. They also attended the online Zoom groups, where they could do arts and crafts, cookery, science, a whole range of activities. The difference in them was huge.

 

Two of my children by now had school places, and school was a great source of support for them and for me as well, I was able to talk openly to the school about what we had been through, and about the incredibly difficult things that the children were still having to endure. The school were helpful, compassionate, and understanding. The children began to attend Rainbows sessions, to help them to process their thoughts and feelings, after having suffered multiple losses in their little lives.

 

Somehow, I found the presence of mind to compile a lengthy letter of complaint to our previous local authority, with the intention that no other family should experience the lack of support we endured. I made several recommendations, which I can only hope have been taken on board. It was therapeutic to write, just as this blog post has been.

 

Social care returned to our lives following the children’s father’s release from prison to assess for long term contact arrangements. Now that we had moved, and were under a different local authority, I had terrible anxiety about the reappearance of social care, terrified that my mental health would plummet again. I spoke to my new GP (who had also been an amazing source of support) and explained to him that social care was the biggest threat to my mental health. 

In fact, I couldn’t have wished for a kinder and more gentle experience. The social worker respected our wishes, and from the very start it was made clear that the children and I had done nothing wrong.  I did not want the children on a Child in Need plan, as the previous experience had been so traumatic. The social worker agreed that it was not necessary, and was able to work with us, without using a plan as a holding bay. The humanity was incredible and what followed felt like true social work rather than box-ticking. The work that the children had done with Children Heard and Seen and Rainbows was commended.  The children’s voices and wishes were placed at the front and centre of every decision, which is all that I had ever wanted for them, for their voices to be heard. 

 

A multi-agency risk assessment (including a forensic psychology assessment, probation, and social care input) was conducted of their father and he was assessed as not being a risk of harm to his children. Social care assessed the older children to be allowed unsupervised contact with their father, and the younger children will be assessed again in time, when he has progressed a little further with his rehabilitation, and some trauma work to address his past.

Over time, the children began to talk more about what had happened, to ask questions. The older children no longer feared leaving the house. My oldest began a successful enterprise, selling our second-hand goods online, boosting her self-confidence. They took up hobbies such as learning guitar, painting. My youngest son has football lessons via a premier league club community initiative. The children have all spent much more time outdoors and found a new passion for growing vegetables and plants. I can see the trauma begin to melt away from them, as they feel the warmth of the sun on their faces once again.