Children Heard and Seen

Hidden Voices 17: Diane’s Story

Below is the 17th in a 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.

I was first told what my dad had done by my granddad. I was told that my father had killed my mother. I wanted to go see my dad to find out what had happened and so I was taken to see him at the police station. My granddad didn’t come in with me, so I went in, just me and my brother. There were just three police officers there and my dad. That was a very weird experience. It was a very tiny room. My dad was sobbing like a baby. I’d never seen him cry like that before and I instinctively felt sorry for him. I thought he was going to kill himself. He seemed suicidal and all I was thinking was ‘I’m going to have to look after him.’

We didn’t have a debrief with anybody, no social worker, no support worker – nobody. We just got back in the car with my granddad and went back to his house.

I’d lost my mom, and I didn’t want to be an orphan. My dad had manipulated me to be abusive towards my mum but it was only when I was older that I realised he had been abusive towards me too.

I don’t think I should have been seeing my dad at that point and I had no support while I was going to the prison. It was almost emotional blackmail that I had to go there. While I was visiting, he seemed to be the best dad ever – because he was being watched. It was a very manipulative experience for me, going to see my dad in prison without anybody supervising those visits or explaining anything.

I was ten and I was taking over the role of looking after my dad. At the same time, I was living with my mum’s side of the family, and looking after them because they were traumatised with what my dad had done.

So I went to visit him in prison. It wasn’t anything I looked forward to, I hated going there but I needed to make sure that he wasn’t dead. My grandparents said they understood he was my dad and I loved him, but they didn’t see the state my dad was in. They didn’t care about him because he had killed their daughter.

Prison gave me nightmares at first. It filled me with feelings of shame and embarrassment. I felt dirty, I felt unworthy, I felt really poor – like I had nothing. The prison officers didn’t even smile. I was looking at them for some sort of assurance or connection and they just coldly stared back at me.

When we arrived at the prison as I walked through the yard, I could see excrement on the walls. Children shouldn’t see that sort of thing. I saw a prisoner hanging his arm out of his first-floor barred window. I couldn’t see his face but I just assumed it was my dad. I used to see that man with his arm hanging out and pulling me, telling me to go to the cell in my nightmares.

Then we would go into the room where the visitors were and we would just sit there, waiting. I always used to think ‘Why hasn’t my dad come? Where is he?’ He would come in afterwards through a different door. Nobody explained to me that he was separated from the other prisoners because he was a serious offender. I thought he was separated from the others because he wasn’t a criminal like they were. I was always relieved when he eventually came in, as I knew he was still alive. So initially I’d be happy that I saw my dad was still alive. He would be very loving and have his arms out and give us a kiss, which he never did when my mom was alive – so that made me feel special.

I think I was just in absolute confusion; I didn’t know what was best to do. There was a part of me thinking ‘if I don’t go and see my dad, is he going to come out and kill me because I’ve gone against him?’ Even now – and I’m 56 now – I still think my dad might kill me. It was just sheer confusion and not having anybody saying ‘how are you feeling about this?’ or ‘Are you coping okay?’ made me feel alone.

About a year later he moved prisons. My dad’s probation officer said to me ‘do you prefer it now that your dad is at Featherstone prison?’ I was quite shocked that he actually cared, and that he was actually talking to me. Nobody had taken the time to speak to me all this time. I said yes – it was a much better prison, it wasn’t as dirty or as old. That was the only person I spoke to who seemed to care, but I remember thinking ‘oh you’re not really that bothered about me – it’s all about my dad.’

When my dad got his weekend releases I initially thought ‘this is going to be fantastic.’ I thought he would be taking us to the park or the seaside on the weekends and make up for what he’d done. But he wasn’t – he was just going drinking or watching football on TV. I thought at the time that somebody should be checking on him to make sure that he was actually looking after us – but no one was. When he got released we went back to live with him. While we were living with him no one checked on us either – we had to look after ourselves basically. Nobody ever asked how I was, and yet I was living with a man who had killed my mum. It was like nobody cared. No one ever spoke about it, which I found really difficult. The shame was horrendous. Purely having someone to talk to would have made such a difference.

Sometimes I would have the morning off school to do the washing as I had PE in the afternoon. Because we had a coal fire, my white shirt used to get black marks on it. None of the other girls had black on theirs and that used to really make me think I was different, because I didn’t have a mum.

I would have the morning off school, and one time the truancy officer came round and asked why I hadn’t been to school. I said to him I had to do the washing as I had PE that afternoon. He said ‘are you going back to school now?’ and I told him yes – and that that was it. There was no more help and I just got told I had to improve my school attendance.

My dad was a member of Gingerbread – which helped single parents. There was always something to help him because he was a prisoner and people cared about him, but they didn’t seem to care about the children.

When I was 32, I was convinced that I was going to die and that my husband was going to kill me. I thought history was going to repeat itself. Being a mum was very difficult, I had a lot of flashbacks. When my son was born, I thought I had post-natal depression, but I had just started grieving for my mum for the very first time. I didn’t really grieve for my mum when my dad killed her. Everything was just in a blur trying to look after my mum’s side of the family and trying to look after my dad.

I just hope that the government changes the law on parental rights. I would like to see someone supervising the prison visits with the children. There’s a lot of manipulation going on and as a child you are stuck in the middle of it all. Children can be used to ferry messages that are quite abusive.  

Every child should have a social worker if they have a parent in prison who has killed their other parent. The only person who seemed to care about me was in prison and I feared he would kill me. Carrying those feelings of shame and guilt around really impacted on my life.

Diane has written about her experiences and the impact domestic homicide has on children in her book – ‘Daughter of a Murderer: A True Account’. It is available to purchase here.