Children Heard and Seen

A Parent’s Story 12: Fred

Below is the twelfth 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.

Every interaction I had with the criminal justice system seemed to happen after midnight. It was in the middle of the night when they came to take my wife and it was just after 12:00AM when they came to attach a tag to my leg. My eldest is autistic, and for him to see strange men appearing in his house, late at night, attaching something immovable to my ankle, was something I was unable to explain, leaving him unable to process what had happened to him.

The days following my wife’s arrest, I was completely out of it. I pulled in to give way lanes whilst driving, I couldn’t really believe what had happened to me; I was living life on autopilot. For the first three days after she was arrested, I didn’t even know where she was, let alone how to contact her. I just tried to carry on as normal and told the children she was helping a friend. When she was sentenced three days later, I realised I had to tell the kids. My daughter, eight at the time, was very brave and mature; she took it well. I told them that ‘mummy was where she was because she had been lying’ and reiterated the importance of telling the truth.

I was initially shocked that there was no contact from social services. While the investigation was ongoing, and we were unsure of the likely sentences, we were told that we might have our children removed. However, as soon as it was clear that I would be at home to look after the children, there was no involvement. It felt odd at the time that there had been a risk of severe intervention, but now there was nothing, when the children’s mum had gone to prison. I was almost certain something would be put into place before she was taken, but it wasn’t the case.

It was hard when she first went away. My wife had done everything domestically and I’d worked full time. I had no idea even how much the children’s clothes cost. It was hard to deal with other people’s questions as well. People would ask where my wife was, and whilst we were in lockdown, I could just say she was isolating, but that excuse didn’t last forever. When her sentence came out in the media, a couple of friends were really supportive, but we got a lot of angry comments on Facebook and faced quite a few questions from others we knew. I had worked in the same job for over five years, but all of my colleagues stopped contacting me. I don’t speak to any of them now.

I wasn’t too worried financially, but the support you get isn’t forthcoming. You constantly have to ask for assistance such as rent support or child benefit, which involves explaining and re-explaining the situation you’re in. You’re also often met by brick walls. Both the bank and phone company told me that they’d never dealt with my situation before. Statistically, I find this difficult to believe. It goes to show that no one thinks of families of those in prison, there’s nothing put in place, in any sector, to support or inform.

My eldest son’s school put us in touch with Children Heard and Seen. It was really good support. My daughter had 1:1s with Danielle and they built a really good relationship. It was a huge weight off my shoulders to know that she had someone to talk to; as a father, you worry that your daughter might not feel comfortable talking about feelings with their dad.

The lack of contact with my wife was the most difficult thing. During COVID they just had an hour out of their cells to do everything they needed to, like shower and use the phones. This meant that there was such a small window to talk to her. She didn’t have a phone in the cell, so it was at most 15-20 minutes a day and always at a different time. Sometimes it was the mornings, sometimes it was the evenings and sometimes my wife understandably needed to talk to other family which meant we wouldn’t get a call at all.

They brought in ‘purple visits’, a video call service, as visits were banned. It was terrible. It would terminate the call constantly. It couldn’t handle too much movement and as my youngest was three, he was running in and out of shot because he wanted to show his mother things. If he reached up to touch something his shirt would ride up, and that would cause the call to end. It’s impossible to expect three children, particularly young ones, to sit perfectly still or even understand the restrictions of the purple visits. Everyone was trying to talk to her at once because they hadn’t seen her for so long and the platform just couldn’t handle it. It was frustrating because I knew it could be so much better, the technology is available, there’s just no will to improve it.

We all went to visit her a few times, after the restrictions eased. Luckily, we were only an hour or so away from the prison, so the distance wasn’t too far. The visits were quite unpleasant. The first time you go, you have no idea what you’re doing and there’s all this paperwork to hand in. The guards are so used to the procedure that they can be quite short with you if you don’t know what to do or where to go. No one offered help and I felt like a bit of an idiot. My eldest son found it particularly hard. There was a small play area with books and during the second visit, these were placed in a corner for covid reasons. He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to touch them and why he was being told off. Trying to manage both him, my other children and use the small window of opportunity I had to see my wife was so difficult.

From my perspective, organisations like Children Heard and Seen should be the first port of call and automatically referred. Nobody else has understood or helped in the way that we needed. There’s a lot that probation should do and don’t do and a lot of information you aren’t told. Nobody changed the way they acted in front of the children or kept it in mind that our eldest has additional needs. There are innocent children that are caught up in the mix and the trauma inflicted by a system that deals with offenders needs to acknowledge and compensate for that.