Independent Appeal: It's not just dad who gets a sentence

The children of prisoners also suffer and can need help coping with an absent parent

Louise was a model child, polite, diligent, well-behaved – she even kept her bedroom tidy. But all that changed, when, aged 11, her father was sentenced to four years in prison for drug dealing.

"She went from being a little angel to being totally over the top," her mother, Angela, recalls. "She'd have temper tantrums and break things. She started smoking, swearing and truanting from school. She was so stressed and anxious and obsessive in her behaviour. If I went out to do some shopping or to see a friend, she'd phone me non-stop, asking who I was with and when I'd be back."

Relationships within the family deteriorated, with Louise taking out her distress on her mother and her older sister and brother, Rebecca and Tim. At the end of her tether, Angela turned to Parenting Matters in Neath, run by Barnardo's – one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – where she attended a course on handling teenage behaviour.

"I used to get angry and frustrated with her and shout a lot, but the course made me realise that her behaviour was normal – bearing in mind what she was going through with her father, Derek, in prison, and the stress of the visits there, with the nightmare journeys, the intimidating atmosphere in the prison, and the searches and sniffer dogs.

"I used to parent in the way that my own mother did, by shouting and getting angry, but the course taught me that there's another way. That if you want respect yourself, you need to treat your kids with respect first. We started sitting down and discussing things as a family, and working things through together. As a result, the four of us became very close."

As the end of Derek's sentence drew closer, the children wrote to him saying that they wanted him to come home, stipulating clearly, however, that his place within the family was dependent on his steering clear of drugs.

Angela believes that this plea from the children was a turning point in his life, prompting him to stay clean on his release, and eight years down the line, remaining drug-free and in employment.

However, returning to family life after a period in prison is by no means straightforward, as Rob Couchman, a project worker with Barnardo's Neath-Port Talbot project, points out: "A parent's re-entry into the family after a period in prison can be hugely problematic. During the parent's absence, the family dynamics will have changed, and, depending on the length of sentence, the children could be significantly older, so things will have moved on. The returning parent will often struggle to find a role in a family that has learnt to cope without him, and friction is inevitable."

In Angela's case, Derek's return turned everything upside down. "He just gave in to the kids on everything because he was trying to make things up to them. But it doesn't work like that," she said. "They then started playing us off against each other, which resulted in arguments."

Angela adds: "Fortunately, because he was trying so hard to make everything work, he agreed to do a parenting course with Barnardo's which really helped him see that what I was saying made sense."

By this stage, keen to help others going through traumatic periods in their lives, Angela had become a volunteer for Barnardo's. One of her key roles was to speak to men at Swansea and Parc prisons, who were on the cusp of release. She began the first session by reading the letter her children had written, describing, in devastating detail, the impact having a dad in prison had had on their lives. "I'll never forget their reaction," recalls Angela. "I had 12 macho blokes sitting with me, and they all had tears in their eyes, they melted, and the room was totally silent.

"My husband told me that you dare not think about the outside world while you are serving your sentence, or you'd never get through it. That's why it's really easy for the blokes to think everything's OK for the wife and kids, because they have their freedom.

"It was important for these guys to know how much we all struggled. Rebecca, the eldest, who was 15 at the time, had to become an adult overnight, and took on far too much responsibility for her age. For me, everything was an effort – keeping a roof over our heads, putting food on the table, staying strong for the kids."

Angela, who won the Marsh Trust volunteer of the year award in 2007, is now hoping that parenting skills for offenders will be high on the Government's agenda, and that finance will be found for more parenting programmes at prisons.

"Creating a stable family life really reduces the chance of that person re-offending," she asserts. "We would not have coped without Barnardo's help, and everyone deserves a chance to make things work out, as they have for us."

Some names have been changed

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand.

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes.


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