Children Heard and Seen

A Parent’s Story 9: William

Below is the ninth 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.

I held my 2-day old baby son, looking into eyes that reflected my own, with his potential adoption and estrangement bearing on me in a way that neither he nor I could comprehend. It’s trite and over stated, but I couldn’t imagine a purer manifestation of innocence. Two days old, vulnerable and incapable of sin, his position and trajectory in life had already been defined by those of his mother. To have him wrest from my arms, my legal parental responsibility removed, but not erased, was something that I can’t explain.

When speaking about this moment, I often ask people how they might feel, they have no answer and neither do I. It’s unspeakable.

His mother was on bail, and I had just been declared innocent, having been arrested for grievously harming a child in her care as a childminder. My life had been in a nightmarish flux, I had been facing prison for a crime I knew I was innocent of. My marriage was accelerating towards its destruction and my two older, though still very young, children had been placed in care. Placed in this position, I was incredibly vulnerable to the manipulation of my partner.

My wife was charged with grievous bodily harm. This led the police to review a previous instance when a child was also injured in her care. I was implicated initially as I had arrived on scene just before the paramedics in the most recent case. I had arrived home after work, a little earlier than usual, and I heard my wife call my name, saying ‘Come quickly’. I went into the living room to find a baby on the floor. I immediately prompted my wife to call the ambulance, then picked the baby up and prayed that the child would be OK.

The children were also there when I and my heavily pregnant wife were arrested the next day. My youngest was born when we were released on bail and going through family court proceedings; our other children had been placed in care. When you know you’re innocent and you’re blamed for something, it’s hard to process the whole thing. The thought of being in prison for nothing and losing my kids, knowing that my marriage was going to end; my life was basically over.

I was eventually cleared of any involvement, able to prove with my mobile phone that I had only arrived at the house minutes before paramedics arrived, whereas they were able to date the baby’s injuries to 40 minutes before the ambulance came.

Social services had told us that the children couldn’t live in a house where their mother was. At this time, I still believed that something had gone horribly wrong but it wasn’t my wife’s fault. With the prospect of my youngest child’s adoption at the forefront of my mind, I tried to manage this as best I could. I tried to reason with my wife, told her to just stay with her mum for a little bit so we could have the children back. She wouldn’t take that. I had to ask her to leave otherwise the kids were never going to come back. She started hating me because I chose the kids over her. My decision to not be with her was because there was no way I was going to let down the kids or never see my youngest again.

She fooled all of us in so many ways. She told us stories that were never part of her statement, and said she had seen a bruise on the baby’s ear earlier that day. She didn’t want my family to know the truth about family court proceedings and told them nothing. She lied about the medical evidence and told us it couldn’t be shared. My auntie works at a hospital, and offered to give the medical report to another doctor to give his opinion. My ex-wife refused. I thought she hadn’t done anything. It’s not easy to think that your wife is being treated very terribly; we were behind her. Myself and my family were so sure there was such an injustice being perpetrated against her that we petitioned to change judge. The judge eventually had to give the lawyers a direction to inform the family about the reality of the situation because we were so blind to the lies she had told us.

It all came to light when I caught her bluntly lying to me. One evening she was crying and sobbing, threatening to commit suicide and said she was cutting herself. She came to my uncle’s house a following evening, told them nothing had happened and that I should prove that she’s been trying to harm herself. That’s when I knew she was capable of lying about big things. I thought to myself, ‘Wow. I trusted her and she’s making me feel like a fool.’ I still struggle to trust people.

During all of the proceedings, the investigation and the charges being brought, she never once stressed that I was innocent. I felt as though she was comfortable with my arrest. I believe it could have got to a point where she could have blamed me.

Before she was sentenced, despite there being a court order that she was not allowed to see the children outside of the supervision of her parents at allotted times, she would just appear. We would be in Tesco’s and see her at the bottom of the aisle. She used to drive past our house on many occasions. It was very confusing for the children, who had been told that they were only allowed to see mum at contact centres.

Once she was sentenced, I made the decision to allow contact. It’s not easy when you’ve been married to someone and you have kids with them. I allowed contact because I didn’t want the kids losing out. As the kids didn’t know why she was in prison, I felt I couldn’t take contact away without explaining why. They were told by social workers ‘mummy is helping the police’. They didn’t know what that meant, or why she was doing it.

Over time I began to see their behaviour starting to change. Freddy was showing a lot of anger, the slightest thing would set him off. I started to tell him that ‘You can cry if you want to cry, but you can’t get cross with other children’. My other child, Eliza, wouldn’t come out of her room. She became anxious and her confidence diminished.  She felt as though she didn’t have any friends. She was so withdrawn and quiet, I was so worried as I just didn’t know what she’s thinking. They would both start crying if they ever heard their mum’s name.

I knew then that I had to give them some answers. I felt as though they were lashing out because they were confused, or felt that no one was telling them the truth. During family court proceedings it was recommended that they should learn the truth at some point, and when COVID hit and they were no longer seeing her, they began to ask more and more questions. I knew how complicated the situation was and tried to explain it as best I could. I’ve given them age-appropriate details; I explained what a court was, how it worked, and what happens when the Judge decides that you are guilty. I told them that ‘Mummy was sentenced because the courts believed that she hurt children she was looking after’. To be honest, they had seen a lot themselves. They were there at the time of the offence, when the paramedics came and when we were arrested. Explaining things to them was slightly easier in this regard; they could remember certain things.

I know there is more to the story, and I’ve kept bundles of paperwork and court documents. I’ve told them that when they are old enough to read and understand the documents, they can read it for themselves.

Once they knew where she was and why she was there, it became clear that they had been playing up for attention and out of anger. They had felt the injustice of not being told the truth whilst people knew more about their mum than they did. The truth also came with resentment. The children will not visit or talk to her now. Their mother thinks I am stopping them from contacting her, but I’m reluctant to force them to do something they don’t want to do. I fear this will cause more harm.

There was a family support worker at the prison who was working with her. She recommended Children Heard and Seen. I was introduced to James who passed the case to Charlotte who was able to do 1:1 work with the kids. Their behaviour became far better than when covid hit. They’ve been able to come to terms with the situation a lot better than before.

I remember when they were given counselling at school, they didn’t like it. They were called out of their classroom and felt uncomfortable, as though they had done something wrong. The 1:1 work with Children Heard and Seen felt completely different for them, they didn’t feel judged. I’m surprised that Eliza is still doing it. She’s also keeping herself very busy with school stuff which is something she never used to do and I’m proud that she’s doing things. It’s positive for me, seeing her get out there and try to live her life.  

People don’t pay attention to children like this, they just don’t know. Prisoners get more help than children they’re leaving behind. There needs to be more help for the children who don’t know how to deal with their emotions or anger. They’re trying to juggle so many things.

It’s been good for me as a parent as well; as it’s online, I don’t have to travel. I don’t have much time as a single father and while they’re on Zoom I can do other things in that 30 minutes.

I’ve gotten a lot out of attending the parent’s groups as well. It’s crazy, before I joined the groups, I wasn’t talking about this situation that often, and I wasn’t able to say how I feel about it. I’m now able to talk about it without being judged. It helps me to listen to other parents and think, ‘wow their situation is complicated too. I’m not alone’. I can relate to so many other people, especially families where they’re not in contact with their partners in prison. I know the challenges of when someone in prison is making your life hell and I enjoy feeling like I can help other people. Nobody plans for this.

What makes it difficult is that my ex-partner shows no remorse. She will still tell you she didn’t do anything. I feel sad that she doesn’t want to face her responsibilities. How does she feel about the children she’s hurt and their family? Does she even care what they’re going through? I remember her saying something like ‘I haven’t hit my own children’, a statement I was acutely shocked by. When someone has entrusted you with their child, it’s like giving you their most precious possession, their whole world. Then they come back and you’ve ruined it. It’s wickedness.

It’s also made me acutely aware of how vulnerable my own children are. If anyone comes into their lives, I have to know everything about them. I’m always alert, thinking ‘is it safe to leave my children here?’ Your mind basically works double.

The court has entrusted me to protect my children and that is the job I know I need to do, even if I have to protect them from their own mother. I am also incredibly grateful for my family’s support, who offered to put their life on hold and take in my children when I was not in a position to do so. This was a uniquely kind and selfless gesture and I will always be indebted to their support.

No matter how hard it is, raising your children is a job you will never regret doing. Eventually a time will come where you’ll realise you’ve done the most important thing in the world.