For Nick

Have you time for a story? It’s about real people and real life.

Jane was charged with a criminal offence and a court date was set. She attended a pre-trial review two weeks before the court date, having dropped off her 8 year old daughter Ali at school that morning, expecting to collect her again later in the day. However the judge decided to remand her into custody before the court hearing. Her lawyer didn’t tell the judge about her two children, 8 year old Ali and 15 year old Nick, and the judge didn’t ask.

The children were collected from school later that afternoon by police and a social worker, and were taken to their grandparents. It wasn’t until 8pm that evening that Jane was allowed a phone call from prison and she found out where her children were.

Neither Jane nor her children ever went back to their home again. As soon as Jane was taken into custody that was the end of that part of their lives. The family home they’d lived in for 12 years with the chickens in the garden, the toys, the baby photos, the birth certificates was no longer theirs. All the contents were removed. Probably into a skip when the house was cleared for a new tenant. They didn’t get to say goodbye, they didn’t get to keep any of their belongings, and Jane wasn’t able to prepare them for the loss.

Two weeks later despite the fact that pre-sentence reports recommended a non custodial sentence, Jane was sentenced to imprisonment. Apparently the sentencer said that the completion by Jane, 19 years previously, of 240 hours of community service for an offence, indicated that it had not deterred her from re-offending and it was therefore necessary to give her a custodial sentence.

Jane’s children were at that point taken into the care of the local authority, and it’s the story of what happened to them that I really want you to pay attention to. Usually stories about children whose parents go to prison are about children living with grandmas or aunties or brothers or sisters. There aren’t so many about children living in local authority care and that’s because finding and talking-to those children is almost impossible. Ali and Nicks’ story is one we really need to hear.

It was decided that Ali and Nick couldn’t stay with their grandparents and that they should be separated. Nick was sent to a residential setting around 50 miles away from his home and his school. Ali was moved to foster carers in the next town. At the hearing to decide all of this Jane was handcuffed to G4S security staff and when 8 year old Ali tried to cuddle her it wasn’t allowed. Nick, a 15 year old lad, cried through the hearing and apparently said to the panel ‘you can do what you want with me but don’t take my little sister away from my Gran. When I’m 16 I’m going to take her back.’ His cries didn’t change anything and the siblings were separated and their mum returned to prison.

During Jane’s imprisonment social workers brought Ali to visit her for 45 minutes once each month. Nick came when he could.

After serving 10 months in prison Jane was released on Home Detention Curfew (HDC). She had no home to go to but couldn’t be released without an address so a friend allowed her to sleep at her address for the 3 1/2 months. She couldn’t start the process of registering with the council for housing until her HDC was completed because if she declared herself to be in need of housing she’d be sent back to prison.

Almost 14 months after being imprisoned Jane was able to apply to the Council for housing. She was placed in bed and breakfast accommodation in a room smaller than her cell. Her children couldn’t stay with her there, so she saw Ali for tea twice a week at her Gran’s and Nick came to visit when he could. By that time, Nick had turned 16 and was therefore moved out of the residential unit into ‘a supported accommodation flat’ in a new area, where he was expected to live on his own. The flat was still 8 miles away from his school and the area he’d previously lived in with his Mum and sister. He hated living on his own and spent nights with his mum at the B&B or with his Dad. Consequently he lost his flat because he didn’t have 100% night time occupancy and at that stage he too became homeless.

Jane kept trying to ask for better accommodation so that Ali and Nick could move back with her. She had to satisfy the local authority that she was a good mother, despite never having had any issues with her children prior to her imprisonment. Jane worked hard and didn’t give up. She did everything required of her by the local authority and 18 months after she was released from a 10 month sentence she moved into accommodation that was suitable for her to live in with Ali. By that time Nick was living with his Dad. Unsurprisingly, given at 15 he’d been moved 50 miles away from his friends and school, he’d struggled to complete his education. At 17 he had been in some trouble with the police, was on a a curfew and had spent his first night in police custody.

Jane thought that moving him away at 15 from everyone and everything he knew had harmed him in ways that couldn’t easily be fixed.

When Jane and Ali set up home again together apparently the school couldn’t believe the difference in Ali. During Jane’s imprisonment and the subsequent 19 months when Ali had remained in foster care, Ali had not been able to settle to work in class, had wandered around, and hadn’t engaged in any help offered. Once back in a home with her Mum, Ali was described as being settled, happy, and she was asking for help at school. She had a kitten, a lizard and a play park next to the house. Gone was the stigma of being in care and living too far away from school to play with friends in the afternoons. No longer was Ali frustrated by the fact that no one seemed to listen to what she wanted to happen in her life.

In August 2020, at the age of 18, Nick died from a drug overdose.

I don’t know who you are or what your previous experience or exposure to the workings of the criminal justice system has been and I’m sorry if this has been a shocking read. It is a shocking story. Systemic and structural failings are responsible for damaging and in some cases, destroying the lives of children whose parents are found guilty of criminal offences. I’m not sure when or if or how things will change, but for the sake of the Nicks and the Alis it’s important to keep telling their stories.

*all names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people whose story this is, but the story is told with Jane’s permission in memory, and as a tribute to her son.

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