Why Alice doesn't live here any more

Although she came from a caring, supportive family, she still ended up in prison. Angela Neustatter finds out what went wrong
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There is a fashionable view that children who go wrong are the product of abusive, bad or inadequate parents. Those who give their children security and affection, who care about their behaviour, who can provide a supportive environment, will keep them on the straight and narrow.

Alice, 16, from Islington, north London, had all these things. On Tuesday, she will face the judge in a Trinidad criminal court to hear whether she must serve a sentence in the tough women's jail where she is now on remand, charged with attempting to smuggle a kilo of cocaine out of the country at the beginning of February. Until then, she must mark time in the prison dormitory where she stays, struggling not to cry and appear weak in front of other prisoners who have begun to taunt and harass her. Alice's last words when she and her mother, Maureen, sat at a table in the visiting room, forbidden to touch, were: 'I'm so scared. I don't know how to cope.'

Alice could be anybody's daughter, faced with emotional troubles and pains that overwhelm them. Her story is the all too familiar one of a gullible young woman meeting a persuasive man in the heady, sophisticated atmosphere of a night-club, where the idea of collecting a packet of cocaine and bringing it back to Britain, in return for a holiday in the Caribbean and pounds 4,000, sounded altogether too tempting and too easy.

Such an opportunity could not have presented itself at a better time: Alice had left her middle-class home last summer after completing her GCSEs and was anxious to get away from the dead-end existence she was leading in a hostel for the homeless, but part of her rebellion was to refuse help in doing so. She was broke and, according to her mother, with whom she was still in contact, she appeared desperate to kick against the security of her background.

'She said she needed to prove that she could run her own life,' Maureen says. 'She seemed to be full of anger, aggression. Now she just seems a very young child. All the bolshiness has gone and she's just pathetic. I can't condone what she's done, but as her mother I love her and just want to hold her and comfort her. The hardest thing for me was seeing my daughter so thin and frail locked into a metal cage, and even when she was let out I was not allowed to touch her.'

A culmination of events appeared to throw the 'amenable, loving girl' into emotional turmoil, depression, and a frantic search for something to make sense of her world. A counsellor who saw Alice a year ago says: 'She was out of control with herself. She just wanted to escape from the bad feelings inside her and chose a very destructive way.'

That destructiveness came to a head nine months ago when Alice stormed out of the comfortable terraced house in a broad Islington street to which the family had recently moved, throwing her keys through the letterbox and declaring that she would not come home again. She went to Islington council claiming that she was homeless and was given a place at the Alone in London hostel, a community of young people aged 16-21. Many of them were there because of severe abuse, mental, drug and alcohol problems.

According to 21-year-old Jimmy Morgan, a close friend of Alice, she hated the hostel, where acceptance by the others required streetwise behaviour and a lot of bravado. None the less, it allowed her a great deal more freedom than most parents of 16-year-olds would permit: the right to go out when and where she liked, no night-time curfew, no requirement to say where she was going and a confidentiality policy that meant the workers at the hostel would refuse to tell her mother anything about her.

It was upsetting, but her mother and two sisters, Kerstyn and Chloe, shared the view that she would soon be back. Maureen recalled the words of her GP, who had declared the family 'one of the closest and most supportive families I have come across'.

For all that, Alice's behaviour over the past year had been, Maureen says, 'increasingly untenable. She was causing enormous upset to us all. I had been to talk to a child-guidance expert and sent her for counselling because I felt she needed help. But in the end I had felt it necessary to confront her with how much she was upsetting us all.' The confrontation came when Alice stayed out all night, lied about where she had been and then announced she was going out to another rave that evening.

'I just felt this behaviour could not go on and told her so,' says Maureen. 'Alice said that if I tried to stop her doing as she wished she would leave home. I felt that if I stepped down and said 'do as you like then', I would have lost completely. Perhaps I was wrong; I know a woman who locks her daughter into her room and perhaps she's right. Her daughter's not in jail in Trinidad. But you have to open the door eventually - you can't cage a child up for ever.'

Jimmy Morgan, who remembers her as 'a dinky little thing, so sweet, so naive - a real innocent kid' when he met her two years ago, says: 'She changed quite dramatically. She stopped being sweet and became angry and aggressive, always flying at everyone. It was as though she was always very upset. When I first met her she wore baggy clothes, hair in a ponytail and she looked very girlish. But she began to wear very tight things and put on a lot of make-up and she started talking in a very tough, black ragga accent. It sounded horrible and so wrong coming from her. She began loud-mouthing us all and seemed not to think we were worth anything.

'The only people she appeared to care about were her new friends, and they were into a streetwise, drug world and I thought they were bad for Alice. She lost most of her old friends, but I stayed a friend because I really love her. I know she's a good kid under all that.'

Alice's behaviour began to change soon after her father John died from cancer three years ago. Alice was the only member of the family who was not present at the time he died and, although she did not talk about this, Maureen is sure she felt a sense of failure and betrayal which, it was suggested to Maureen by her counsellor, may have turned into an inchoate rage against him for dying - a common reaction.

Although the family grieved together, Alice said little about her feelings. She became withdrawn a good deal of the time but increasingly exploded in anger at her sisters and mother, finding fault with everything they said or did.

Maureen was acutely aware, as Alice's behaviour became progressively worse, of being a single parent. She realised how the loss of her husband had affected the family when Kerstyn observed: 'When Dad was alive it was as though you were a block of authority. On your own you seem to have shrunk eight times and there is the feeling it's you and Alice against each other.'

One night Jimmy was with Alice and she burst into tears. He recalls: 'We started walking and ended up in Highgate Cemetery. She took me over to her dad's grave and said, 'That's what it's about'.'

Once Alice had moved into the hostel, she visited home regularly, often eating there, staying several days when she was unwell and making a point of being there when Matthew, her mentally handicapped 17-year-old brother, was at home. It upset Maureen to see Alice losing weight, to see the once-clear skin develop spots and her soft, fine hair lose its lustre. She seemed very depressed and lethargic. Several times Maureen asked Alice to return home, but she refused, saying she had to try to 'stand on her own feet'. But on one occasion, Maureen recalls, 'She said, 'Mum, you couldn't be more supportive and I do love you, it's not about that.' '

It upsets Maureen that the workers at the hostel made no attempt to try to persuade Alice to return home, to liaise with her, to check out whether her home was a dangerous place or would, in fact, be a better environment than the hostel for a vulnerable girl. Jeff Fielding, director of Alone in London, acknowledges that Alice seemed emotionally distressed and very closed in on herself.

Nor could Maureen persuade anyone to discuss the situation with her because, she was told, they have to promise the residents confidentiality in order to gain their trust and work with them. And, Maureen says: 'I thought current thinking was that children should be kept in families if at all possible. The policy at this hostel seems to go directly against that.'

Last Christmas Alice visited regularly and Maureen was struck by the desperate state she appeared to be in. 'She was very clingy, childlike, but she didn't say anything. Now I realise the trip to Trinidad had been set up by this time.' A gauge of the apprehension Alice clearly felt was revealed when her sister found a diary in which the date she was due to return to England was marked 'Home to England - hopefully'. When in January Alice had not been home for a couple of days, Maureen decided she must phone the hostel. She was told they could tell her nothing because of the confidentiality rule.

She heard nothing for a week, then Alice phoned home and left a brief message saying she was all right but not where she was. She rang again on Maureen's birthday to say she would be home the next day. She never appeared. It was not until the Foreign Office phoned two days later to inform her that Alice had been arrested in early February and charged with trying to carry cocaine on board the plane to Britain that Maureen knew where she was.

She says now, fury in her voice: 'The hostel supervisors should have told me where Alice was. Later they told me they knew she was going to the Caribbean and had grave misgivings, yet they did not see fit to make a call to me or to the uncle of the friend she was supposedly going with, to make sure all was well.

'They could even have informed social services if they didn't want to make contact with me. Surely, if they had these grave misgivings, which, I was told later, were also fuelled by the large cars frequently parked outside and rumours of drug dealers visiting, they should have done something. I think it is utterly negligent not to have done so.

'I knew she had no money and she told the hostel she was being paid for by her friend's uncle, a situation which should have been investigated by those supposedly caring for her, but it wasn't. If I'd known where she was I would certainly have gone out there to see what was going on. If I could have got to her she might not now be facing the possibility of years in a Trinidad jail.'

Jeff Fielding says that the hostel worker assigned to Alice, who signed out for two weeks without leaving an address, would have discussed her trip and, had they suspected she was being set up as a courier, they would have broken the confidentiality rule. But he defends this rule, even though it means that caring, concerned parents such as Maureen - parents who maintain relationships with their children - are told nothing. He says: 'I don't see the hostel as having been negligent or complicit in what happened. It seems in retrospect that the member of staff involved didn't have enough knowledge to make us feel we should have alerted the mother.' Nor does he think they should have made further checks.

The other side of all this is that parents must, by law, care for children up to 18 and, if children get into trouble, the parents are seen as responsible. Yet, as Maureen points out: 'I was not allowed to have the vital information that would have enabled me to try to prevent my child getting into trouble.'

Others responsible for child welfare also query the decision not to tell Maureen that her daughter was going to the Caribbean. Ron Allen, of the London Borough Grants Scheme, which approves the constitution for Alone in London, says: 'It sounds to me as though the case for confidentiality was thin. This is a situation that obviously went wrong and the consequences are very serious.'

John Ogden, principal adviser to the London Boroughs Children's Regional Planning Committee, says: 'If the hostel thought Alice was in danger they should have kept confidentiality by contacting social services, which would have a duty to investigate and take action. There is an issue here about not enough concern over a situation that could have put the child at risk or harm.'

Maureen believes that if Alice had not gone to Alone in London she would never have got into this predicament. She is not blaming the hostel for Alice's rebelliousness or difficulties with her, but says: 'I do not believe it would have gone so far if she had been in a place where people cared for her properly and cared what she did. If an organisation is set up and funded to offer a haven to the vulnerable young then it ought to have a structure which is about looking after them. And that quite clearly does not happen satisfactorily.'

That said, she is also asking herself, as almost any parent would, if she could have done things differently and protected Alice from her own chaotic and anguished emotions. The questions are unanswerable and, meanwhile, the days have been filled with calls to her lawyer, giving support to her other children, prayers, and the occasional phone call she is allowed to Alice to tell her that 'we are all waiting for her, we love her and want her home. I think Alice can at least hear that now'.

WHEN A CHILD LEAVES HOME

Hostels such as Alone in London, which take children in local authority care, are given guidelines on how they should operate. But these do not have to be followed, although the local authority has the right to veto staff appointments and make regular checks.

Like bed and breakfast houses, hostels that provide shelter for young people who are homeless but not in care do not have to be registered or approved. They simply have to meet health and safety regulations.

Many offer confidentiality to the young people in their care because, as Jeff Fielding, director of Alone in London, explains, many have left home because of abuse, violence and other problems, and a hostel such as his sees its responsibility as protecting the young who go to it.

'We try to see if a reconciliation with home is possible, but have no power to return them, so we try to build trust. To do that with many of the young people who come here, often with traumatic experiences, confidentiality is essential.'

This, however, can conflict with the law's requirement that parents be responsible for children up to the age of 18 years. If parents cannot get information about their child's behaviour it may be impossible for them to exercise responsibility and control.

Paddy Feenan, of the Department of Health, which funds some care provision including Alone in London, says it is vital that workers employ 'usual common sense' when exercising a confidentiality ruling, although he adds: 'Children do, under the Children Act, have a right to confidentiality.'

When hostels do not wish to go directly to parents, they can inform social services of a child's whereabouts and what he or she is doing. Social services, in turn, can reassure parents without necessarily revealing where the child is living. Mr Feenan adds that 'grave misgivings', such as those felt by Alone in London's staff about Alice's trip to Trinidad, would seem to warrant such action. He says that the department does question funding for organisations which it feels have unsatisfactory practices.

Hostels such as that run by Alone in London cannot be held responsible for negligence or malpractice in a case like that of Alice. But it does raise urgent questions about whether places taking in vulnerable young people should be free to operate with so few regulations and checks. Hostels may, as Ron Allen of the London Borough Grants Scheme suggests, be better than living on the street; but they would offer a great deal more support if they provided a structure that made it harder for children to get themselves into trouble and danger.

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