Children Heard and Seen

Hidden Voices 6: Leah’s Story

Below is the sixth in a new series of blog posts created by adults who have lived experience of parental imprisonment. By sharing these hidden voices, we hope to show how the impacts of parental imprisonment can stay with people well into adulthood.

My dad committed suicide in prison when I was 4 years old. He had struggled with schizophrenia his whole life and during his time in prison, he declined. Every time we would visit him, I noticed him deteriorate further. A fastidiously tidy man when he was on the outside, he became more dishevelled with every visit. He became thinner, graver and more unkempt. He was clearly withdrawing into himself.

Losing my dad was a two-stage process. When he went to prison, that felt like a loss. He was my best friend and suddenly he was gone and no one could say why.

I can still remember the smell of the prison, it smelt like bleach. I’ve been back there since and it was so eerily familiar. When you’re a child and visiting your parent in prison, there’s a part of you that just assumes its normal. I don’t remember feeling odd that I was being patted down and searched; I just thought everyone did that to see their dad. The hardest part about the visits were coming home and not understanding why mum was so upset. Nobody really wanted to talk about it, so when you’re that young and things aren’t explained to you, it’s impossible to process things.

It was a lot harder after he died. Kids used to pick on us at school for only having a mum and the other mums looked down their nose at us. When you’re a child and you can sense that people are laughing at you or looking down at you it’s really damaging. It’s hard to feel different for something that wasn’t your fault, or to be embarrassed about someone you love and it left me thinking there was something wrong with me. It sticks with you, even as an adult. I remember feeling really angry at my dad, feeling pissed off that he’d made us ‘those people’, that he’d made us look different.

I didn’t properly know the whole story until I was 16. Even though when I found out all the details, there was a lot of anger and guilt, there had always been an undercurrent of shame and anger felt by me and my siblings. We just felt cross with our parents, our extended family, the police and ultimately the world.

When I was at college, I knew I had to deal with it otherwise I just wouldn’t progress in life. A teacher at my college really kindly supplied me with all the tapes from the coroner’s court. Finally realising how ill he was and understanding his journey helped me with mine. I really think that if I hadn’t had understood the situation in the depth that I do now, I would still be that grief stricken four-year-old.

I’m a place where I’m now proud of him, he’d gone through a lot in his life and we do have some wonderful memories of him being a good dad. I now work in wellbeing, helping people like my dad. If I hadn’t learnt the truth, I would still be bitter and hating the world.

I see my brothers and they still hold in their pain. They’ve just not dealt with their emotions; it’s a lot of things that turn into a big complicated ball. I see it in the offenders I work with; that they’re still so angry at their parents and they’re going into prison themselves and I want to break the cycle for my children.

You get two choices – you do what I did, or you carry on and hope that the pain goes away, only it doesn’t. If we had had the support that Children Heard and Seen offers, to be emotionally supported and listened to. I think things would have been different. My brothers might have coped better. I know my mum would have.

I’m still going, still finding things out about him. My dissertation was about males and females in the prison system and I find myself often campaigning for his legacy; he’s not just that guy that killed himself in prison. The same applies to me; it’s really interesting, when people meet me, they never expect me to have been through what I have, they have this image of what I’m supposed to be as a child of someone impacted by parental imprisonment.

It’s been a long journey and it’s not been easy; I still have PTSD from the trauma of that time. We need to change the narrative and the statistical assumption that children of offenders will go onto offend themselves. It’s not just about the person that goes away, it’s about who they leave behind. It’s about everybody’s feelings and it doesn’t just go away. My child will never meet her grandad properly, the only time she spends with him is cleaning his grave. Everybody’s trauma matters, it’s all valid. Just because you’re a child doesn’t mean you matter any less.