What's Gone Wrong? Just another family under fire: Kath Kelly says she knows what's right and wrong, but could not teach the difference to her out-of-control son. Linda Grant hears why

Linda Grant
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:31

WHEN THE Liverpool police described the boys they were looking for in connection with the murder of James Bulger, they mapped out a pattern of truancy, hanging around in shopping centres, petty thieving, vandalism. And Kath Kelly thought, 'That could be my own son. That's exactly what he's doing.'

She watched the mob outside the court where the two 10-year-olds were remanded. She thought of the abuse that was screamed at her in the street, the malicious gossip, the fights picked with her husband Robin. At 35, she too has been the subject of an official consensus about her dubious qualifications for motherhood.

The Kellys support two adults and three children on pounds 97 a week. The oldest son, the product of Kath's first, teenage marriage, is in a county council children's home. There have been accusations of child abuse, a 10-year scrutiny by social workers. The three younger children, six, four and one, have spent six months on the at-risk register. Robin has been unemployed for a year and he's depressed; Kath is overweight and dresses in shapeless tracksuits. The Kellys appear to be textbook models of the failure of parental values and discipline.

So what went wrong? The viciousness of town life and the breakdown of community? Poverty and deprivation? Contamination by liberal values? Inherent flaws of character? Kath sees herself as a good mother, a moral person. She thinks she has done everything she can to bring up her children properly. If she has failed, it is, she believes, because she has been thwarted by circumstance, interfered with by meddling social workers, judged by those whom she thinks have no idea about the problems of bringing up children in poverty. She does not blame herself.

The council estate where the Kellys live is on the eastern edge of Northampton. The road is called a Place but it could be Brookside Close with its smart, new little townhouses. This is where you are supposed to bring up families, where family values should thrive. But behind the Kellys' front door, the house is hardly furnished at all. Panes of glass from interior doors are smashed or missing. The wallpaper peels. They are left with only electrical goods - the television, a stereo - what you need if you can never, ever afford to go out. There are problems on the estate with drugs and vandalism.

Both Kath and Robin grew up in villages in Northamptonshire. Kath's mother 'was of the old school', who believed a girl should save herself for her wedding night. Kath began nursing training but married at 18 - too young, she now concedes - and a year later, in 1978, Peter (not his real name) was born. The marriage soon broke down. Her husband would arrive for access visits drunk and abusive. Peter has had no contact with his father since 1984.

Peter quickly developed problems: 'He couldn't mix with his own age group, he felt he was backward,' Kath says. 'He was stubborn. He refused to do anything for himself. I had to wash him, dress him, literally drag him to school. There were tantrums, he smashed windows, threatened to run away. I heard there were problems of drugs on the estate, vandalism, an elderly couple had the front door of their flat broken into. I called the police but they didn't want to come out.' Kath says she wanted the area policeman to give Peter a talking to, to teach him the difference between right and wrong, to be the voice of authority which she thought she could not provide.

The police did not step into the role: it seemed obvious that Peter needed a father. In 1986, Kathleen met Robin, 14 years her elder, with a then steady job as an HGV driver. Robin is a laconic man. 'I don't say much, you won't get much out of me, I'm afraid,' he told me, before I'd got my coat off. While Kath did the talking, he looked after their two youngest sons. It was a snapshot of loving family life. Yet if he is good with little ones, it must have been different with a troubled older boy who resented sharing his mother.

During the first week of the marriage, Kathleen found bruises on Peter, who was then eight. Suspecting playground bullying, she consulted the school, who informed the police. Robin was arrested: 'Robin tried in the way he knew how to be a father to Peter,' says Kath. 'Sometimes it was a bit clumsily because he didn't have the experience of children. He had chivvied Peter along a bit because he wouldn't do what he was told, and Peter said that Robin had used his belt on him. The police didn't want to consider anything or anyone else: it was anything to get the stepfather and shut the file.'

Some time later, Kath claims, Peter admitted that he had lied. No charges were ever brought but Robin withdrew from parenting. 'Peter had me over a barrel,' he says. Kath was effectively back to being solely responsible for Peter. Anyone who told Robin that all Peter needed was a good hiding, would have been setting him up for arrest.

But now social workers were involved, and a power struggle developed between Kath and the welfare experts, with Peter playing the two off against each other. 'I was never allowed to be on my own and use my own judgement,' Kath says. 'I had two social workers coming round and I had to tell them everything I was doing. Every decision was scrutinised. I was written off as a mother. I had no confidence.' She doesn't realise it, but she's taken on the language of the enemy, speaking the jargon of social work theory. She uses phrases like 'not settled to access', and 'making a monster out of my own preconceptions' - yet if you ask her what it means she can't explain.

By now Peter had developed an eating disorder (at 15, he weighs 17 stone). He wanted things the Kellys could not afford. Kath started a paper round with him to provide him with pocket money which the social workers insisted he must have. She says she wanted to show him he needed to work for the things he wanted. When he stole money from her handbag, she told him he could no longer go on a school trip because she couldn't afford to pay for it. The social workers intervened. The school trip was important, they said.

'Peter was able to hide behind the social workers over financial matters,' she argues. 'He wasn't able to learn that stealing was wrong. He wasn't going to listen to us when we told him he couldn't have expensive things that the other kids had. The social workers said he had to have incentives: he learned that he could get what he wanted from social workers, they would provide it.'

Peter had turned into a monstrous overweight cuckoo in the family nest, beyond anyone's control - he threatened Kath with a knife, Robin with a scythe. He had begun to start fires in his room, and Kath had to search it for matches every night. When social services decided to take him into care, Kath did not contest the order. 'Everything has centred on Peter and the other children haven't counted. In the end I let him go because I was in a no-win situation. No one was going to listen to me, least of all him. The only way I can cope is to not have him living with me. The best way now is for him to be a visiting member of the family.'

IN Kath's version of herself as a good mother, she tends to blame everyone but herself. She sees herself struggling against a hostile world. She agrees with some of the things she reads in the papers about 'the breakdown of the extended family', 'family values being eroded'. The cliches come as easily to her as they do to anyone else.

'When I was a kid there was vandalism and teenage crime but it wasn't so violent. People weren't stabbed. In my day you knew what to expect. I lived in a village with my grandparents and my aunt at the other end of the street. And there's the peer pressure. It's a constant battle to get them to understand that they can't have what they want. You're round town, they want this, they want that. The media is pushing all these computers and consumer goods at them.'

It's what we all say, but Kath has to live with the immediate consequences of social breakdown, which the pundits don't. She's fed up with being told what to do by the Government. 'The Tories want people to be responsible for themselves. I'd love to be. It's become a two-tier system. Those with money and position judge families, give opinions. The politicians are just out for themselves, they're interested in their own careers, not other people. The people in top jobs have no idea what it's like for ordinary people trying to manage. They say they have but they don't. Their policies are all to do with saving money and to hell with people. They don't know that everyday life is so wearing, it's a matter of survival and life should be more than that. You're isolated, you're depressed, you can't afford bus fares.

'When something goes wrong it's our fault. Everyone's quick to blame parents, we're in the firing line. I hold firm in my beliefs about right and wrong, but I don't know how you stop them joy-riding. I can't stop Peter skiving off and hanging around the bus station. I can't go down there and get him back because I have three younger ones to look after. And he's not going to listen to me. I can't drag him back over my shoulder. Low-income families get clobbered all round. My kids are growing up in a no-hope society - no way, no hope, no means to help yourselves. The schools teach them about this great world full of wonderful opportunities. They don't prepare them for daily life on the dole.'

Inevitably Peter's version of events would be different, but, in this context at least, he has no voice. Northamptonshire Social Services refused permission for him to be interviewed. Under the care of the county council, Peter is now hanging round the bus station where drugs are sold. As Kath watches the angry mob on television surround the court where the two 10-year-old boys appeared, like any parent she worries less about what her son is going to do, than what might happen to him.

(Photograph omitted)

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