Children Heard and Seen

Hidden Voices 9: Rachel’s Story

Below is the ninth 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.

As a youngster my dad was imprisoned when I was about six. Some details are vague, some are quite vivid – some bits stick in your mind obviously. Alongside my dad being in prison, when my dad was released my grandmother was imprisoned as well. I’ve spent quite a lot of time as a youngster visiting prisons, so it was a massive part of my life from the age of six right up until recently.

My dad was married to his wife, and he violently attacked her. He tried to kill her. My dad’s a paranoid schizophrenic – he came home and found her with another man, so he attacked them both. She lost her eye through that. Even though I was only six I’ve always been very mature, very forward, aware of what was happening around me. I remember when it happened being told, which as a six-year-old is very difficult to understand. I know some parents try and make stories up to cloud over things a little – this wasn’t the case. I knew exactly what had happened.

 I remember that first time going to see him and finding it all very, very surreal. Waiting to go in, getting searched, taking id. At first, I didn’t find it upsetting, it was all very interesting. Not being able to sit with my dad or cuddle him, that was always really hard. One memory that sticks with me is that I had three cousins, two of a similar age to me, who were like my brothers. Because of that incident, their dad stopped them having contact with me. That was the hardest thing probably, because I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to see them. I could understand a little bit, you don’t understand it fully. The hardest thing is that we were at the same school as well and I wasn’t even allowed to talk to them about it. After school we weren’t allowed to see each other, we were separated and I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to see them.

As the sentencing comes around, it hits you more to realize that that’s where dad’s going to be for the next four years. At the time I lived with my mum, and my grandmother got imprisoned a couple of times because she and my mum were selling drugs. However, she was always my support and ensured that I never followed that lifestyle. She taught me right from wrong and made me aware that I shouldn’t think her lifestyle was a good one.

I was in a family then where my mum and dad’s relationship wasn’t very good because my dad was violent towards her when I was younger, so my mum wasn’t particularly eager for me to see my dad. She was always around but she wasn’t always quite there in her mind. To take that all on as a child is a lot. A lot of things are going off in your head anyway, but to have that going off at home and that happening with dad, it was difficult. As I child I got everything I wanted in a material sense, but looking back all I really wanted was time and attention from my mum.

When my dad was sentenced, I knew he was going to be there for four years. Birthdays and Christmases start coming around, and it’s the realisation of ‘where’s dad?’ You can’t see him – you just have to take a phone call for a few minutes. I remember one Christmas he rang me and asked me what I had got, I just remember bursting out crying as all I wanted to do was show him. It was heart-breaking, it really was. Unless you’ve been in that situation, you can’t explain to anyone else how it feels.

I never had anyone that I could turn to in my family either. There was no solid foundation of the family as we didn’t have this big family unit. My mum and dad had separated, so obviously she had her own opinion and you overhear things your mum is saying about your dad, other family members, friends – you just have to deal with all of that and take it in. As a child, how can you process all that?

I remember a friend asking, when I was nine, if I wanted to go round for tea. Her mum had told her specifically no, that I couldn’t go round for tea because I was ‘from a bad family.’ My friend didn’t tell me that at the time and she still took me round. I remember her mum taking her to the side and hearing them shouting. I overheard her mum say ‘I told you she couldn’t come because she’s from not a very nice family.’ I burst out crying because I couldn’t understand why. I’d not done anything wrong at all, but was getting branded regardless with this ‘not very nice family’ because of something my dad had done. I just never understood it.

Whilst my dad was in prison, his ex-wife wrote an article to Take a Break magazine. At the time I didn’t what that was, but I remember going to school and someone saying ‘your dad’s in a magazine because he’s a murderer.’ That again was an upsetting time, when all this was going off there was no support, there was no one. I never received any support from school, or any social services contact. It was just something that I was left to deal with on my own, in my own head.

My grandma and grandad did take me to see my dad every other weekend, but I always felt like that was a chore. As I got older, I wanted to do other things on Saturdays and Sundays. I used to think ‘why have I got to go?’ I was probably seeing my dad more when he was in prison than when he wasn’t.

Just that going there, driving there – just over an hour – being in that room. My grandparents used to take me and they didn’t have the best relationship. My grandad was always very stressed, and he didn’t really want to go. It was always very tense, driving over. I felt sometimes my dad used to try and overcompensate things by treating me like a baby. I was six when he went into prison, so he would try to baby me a bit as I was getting a bit older. I was always mature for my age anyway, and I used to think ‘oh god get off me, leave me alone.’ It was always very strange, really strange situation.

I remember going to see my granny once when I was 13 or 14. I was on my period at the time, and I remember going in and getting searched. It was a closed visit, but because my granny was in prison for drug dealing there had to be a strip search on the way into the prison. I vividly my brother being laid out and his nappy being taken off – and that alone was horrible to see. A sniffer dog sat down on me, and this officer then said ‘we need to strip search her.’ I started crying. They asked what’s wrong and I said I was on my period. ‘We still need to strip search you.’ My grandad went absolutely crazy. ‘She’s 13 years old, and it’s a closed visit anyway. I want to see a governor or somebody in charge. You’re not strip searching her – it’s embarrassing.’

We lost about half an hour of the visit because my grandad wouldn’t let it happen. Luckily they backed down in the end – but I felt absolutely mortified. It was one of the most embarrassing and horrific things that’s ever happened to me because of the panic, the sheer panic of thinking ‘I’m going to have to go in there and take my pants off.’ There was no sort of leeway even though I was a child. This was all because a dog had sat down on me. There was barely ever any compassion shown, that was just how it was – and it was horrible.

 Whilst my dad was in prison, he got a pen friend who was a polish lady. When he came out of prison, he married her. That wasn’t a very nice position to be in. He didn’t tell her about me. He didn’t say he had a daughter, he said that I was actually his niece. When she came over and they got married, I remember we went to this wedding reception and I had to pretend to be his niece to all her family. He didn’t tell her the truth until about two years later. I don’t think at the time the implications sank in, but as I’ve got older and have my own children, those type of things really play on my mind. I just think ‘why would he do that?’ it’s not my fault he was in prison, but for some reason he didn’t tell her that he had a daughter.

Sometimes my dad talks and I just think ‘you’ve just got no idea what you’ve done to me as a child.’ I still have a good relationship with both my parents now, but I don’t think as a child you realise what you’re going through, or how things are impacting you. For me my dad’s my dad, and he’s always going to be my dad no matter what he’s done. However I don’t think people realise what effect it has on you as a child – just going to prison to visit or writing and receiving letters from your dad when he’s there. I can’t really put it into words how it made me feel. I think for me as I’ve got older it’s had more implications than when I was younger.

I had friends I wasn’t allowed to see, I had friends whose house I wasn’t allowed to go to – specifically my cousins, I wasn’t allowed to see them. Being used to seeing your own family all the time – and then you can’t. that was really, really hard. It’s unfair treatment for something that’s way out of your control, and it’s a bit dismissive of the child.

I work in a school now, and I look back and think – ‘how did I go throughout my childhood without any social service involvement?’ the things that were happening, not that I was ever in danger – but the things that were going on in my house, how was that allowed to happen? How can you not be offered some counselling or someone to talk to? Why are the mental health and wellbeing of children right at the bottom of the pile? They are innocent victims in that situation.

I’ve got my own two children now, and they know nothing about that part of my past or what I’ve been through. I don’t want to burden them at this age with anything like that, because they’re so delicate and innocent – they shouldn’t have to deal with that.

I remember being at home once and there was a sudden banging at the door. I was thinking ‘what the hell is going on?’ Then the police burst through the door. No one is taking charge of the child sitting there. You’re just left there where it’s all happening.  You have to go through all that. It’s just sort of something that’s happened. ‘See you later, get on with it.’

What I have found working in education is that unfortunately some staff members are unrealistic in their understanding of the issues affecting students with a parent or family member in prison. They’re not in touch with what our students are facing. I find myself thinking ‘just give the kid a break’ because you’ve got no idea what they’re going home to.

Things aren’t talked about – it’s not in teacher training, social work training – it’s not out there. Because it’s quite hidden, it doesn’t reach people. The importance of information sharing with the relevant people is massive. You’re blind to what’s going on if no ones told you.