Independent Appeal: 'We were the family from hell'

With help from Barnardo's, the Wilsons have turned their lives around in just 18 months. Paul Vallely reports

There is a discarded plastic milk carton in the garden and an old bike wheel by the front door of Tracey’s Wilson’s house on a tough-looking Tyneside council estate. But it looks no worse than many of her neighbours’, which are strewn with empty lager cans or have unwanted pieces of furniture standing on their small snow-covered patches of lawn.

There is little to mark it out as the home of a family, which Tracey now freely admits, was once branded the Neighbours from Hell.

Many council estates have such a family, or indeed more than one, whose children terrorise the neighbourhood. The Wilsons – with five sons between the aged of 21 and 10, and no father at home – had such a reputation. The eldest son and his mates hung around the house, drinking and causing problems in the street. The middle boy stole from supermarkets and from school, when he wasn’t truanting. The others had records of poor school attendance and aggressive behaviour. “We were the family from hell,” Tracey says.

But that was 18 months ago and there have been big changes – thanks largely to Barnardo’s, one of the three charities being supported by donations from readers in this year’s Independent Christmas Appeal.

“I had hit rock bottom,” Tracey says now. “My husband was violent with the children as a way of getting at me. I spent 10 years thinking I could change him, but then I ran away with the kids.”

Life is still tough. There is no carpet in her house and her two battered leather sofas have seen better days. But Tracey, 43, is a composed and capable woman. “Before I would sit and cry all day. I wasn’t a Mum, just this piece of quivering jelly in the corner.” She had quite severe depression and couldn’t cope. “I was at the end of a piece of string, dangling.”

The Wilsons were at the heart of so much anti-social behaviour they were evicted and moved to another estate. The Gateshead Youth Offending Team referred the family to Barnardo’s.

One of the charity’s most experienced social workers, Norma Keery, says: “Families like this are used to people from the authorities telling them what to do. We do the opposite. We ask them what help they need. Most of them are so relieved. They know their life is out of control. But they have so many problems they don’t know where to start.”

Workers like Norma ask the mother: what’s really bugging you. “Often they’ll start with something small like how do I get rid of the mattress in my front garden,” she says. “Or my daughter just won’t get up for school. So we come round at 7.30am to teach her how to get the child up.”

Norma adds: “Many parents were themselves in care. They never learned how to be a normal parent because they never had one. We have to go with mops and buckets and teach them how to clean.” Many have dysfunctional priorities, like putting money on the electricity so the tv and playstation work but not on the gas so they can’t cook. “They shout and nothing happens. They make threats they can’t or don’t carry out.”

Barnardo’s strategies include promoting family meetings to get parents and children to agree acceptable behaviours. “You get the kids to suggest the sanctions for not keeping their side of the bargain.” The adults do parenting courses to learn about boundaries, rewards and consequences – and effective and ineffective responses. The process also raises their often low self-esteem.

“It was a real eye-opener,” says Tracey. “I came to see the sessions, two hours once a week for 10 weeks, as ‘my time’. I began to feel I was getting some control back. We can now sit down and talk to each other and have conversations instead of slanging matches. It has brought us together as a family.”

Tracey got her eldest son, who had moved out, not to come to the house any more with his drinking companions. The family agreed that there could only be two outsiders in the house at the same time. The crises became less frequent.

Barnardo’s has a high success rate partly because its workers each have only a small caseload, around six families each. “It’s old-fashioned social work of the kind social workers don’t have the time to do anymore because they’re too busy filling in forms for the courts,” says Norma.

Things are not perfect for the Wilsons. The council, which housed them temporarily almost an hour’s journey away, has moved them back near their original home. “The middle boy, who was out of trouble, is back in with his old crowd,” Tracey says, “but he knows that if he gets in trouble with the police I won’t come and bail him out any more and he has to sit for longer in a police cell”.

But things are vastly improved. The two younger boys are doing well at school. The second eldest that day had secured a job in the local sorting office, a permanent one, not just for Christmas.

“Can I cut the Rice Krispie cake?” one youngster asked his Mum as she spoke. He sat obediently when she told him he had to wait.

“Barnardo’s have turned our lives round in 18 months,” Tracey says. “Without them I wouldn’t be here,” she says in an oblique reference to two failed suicide attempts.

“I’m settled now and have been doing some volunteering for Barnardo’s. It’s fantastic to be there for others who know I’ve been through what they’re going through. I’m nearly 44 and I can finally say that I know who I am – and that I’m proud.”

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.