Special report on a charity dedicated to helping young people and families in Norfolk and Suffolk
Thousands of the region's young people and their families are supported every year by a charity called the Ormiston Children and Families Trust. David Powles visited a project in Norwich to find out more about their work.
'Making young lives better'
That's the simple tagline of the Ormiston Children and Families Trust - and perfectly sums up what they have been doing across East Anglia for more than 30 years.
And nowhere is this more true than at Norwich Prison, where a small but dedicated team of paid staff, volunteers - and even some of the prisoners - help to run The Visitors Centre.
Situated in a spacious building just outside the prison walls on Knox Road, the centre gives prisoners and their families the opportunity to maintain and even develop their relationships, despite the fact one member of that family is unable to leave the confines of the jail.
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When a member of a family is sent to the prison (and were pretty much talking either Dad or Grandad here), it will be the first port of call for their loved ones, as Debbie Campbell, service manager, explained: 'We try to explain to the family what to expect when they visit. We talk to them about their concerns and answer their queries. But our main priority is to give them all a chance to be a family together.
'For the children having Dad in prison can be so tough emotionally and very scary when they first arrive. They build up all sorts of images of what is happening and we provide them with the chance to see their Dad is still their Dad and that he still cares for them.'
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Melanie Ellis, a senior practitioner, added: 'It is not the child's fault that their Dad has committed a crime, so why should they be suffering for what their Dad did? That's why we want to help.'
As well as facilitating family visits, which take place in the prison itself, the centre also provides a creche so the children can be looked after if just the adults need some time together.
They put on baby bonding sessions for new dads, to ensure they build up a close bond, parenting skills courses are offered to inmates and they can arrange valuable play time between children and their fathers, including a soft play area, arts and crafts and even table tennis.
Daphne Griffith, senior practitioner, works on a storybook scheme, in which Dad's record themselves reading a children's book, which is added to a CD (along with sound effects) and sent to their son or daughter.
She said of her job: 'It's very fulfilling because you do feel like you are making a difference.'
That difference is not only felt by the family left to cope when one of them has been sent to jail. Mrs Campbell added: 'Dad gets to see that they still have an important role to play. If they then go back to being a functioning family once released they are less likely to reoffend.'
Volunteer Jean Edwards, from Drayton, whose roles include manning the desk, helping in the creche and being involved in the children's visits, said: 'I feel very rewarded helping here. The hardest bit is the first time the children see their Dad in prison. It is pretty intense and you have to try and lighten the mood.
'Some of it is difficult. For instance there was one young girl who asked me to get her Daddy home in time for Christmas. That did make make me tearful, but you have to get on with it.'
Since opening eight years ago, hundreds of people have benefitted from the service, including Jody Tonkes, 32, from Drayton, visiting with her 18-month-old son Francis-Jody Walker to see Francis Walker, currently on remand awaiting trial. She attends twice a week and said: 'They give you support and assistance and are just fantastic. It's brilliant to see Jody playing and drawing with his Dad. Parents and the children get so much out of the family visits.'
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WHAT ELSE THE CHARITY DOES
The centre at HMP Norwich is one of at least nine such schemes in prisons across the East - and one of more than 40 projects the trust runs in seven counties, including Norfolk and Suffolk.
This includes children's centres, parental support schemes, work with families and youngsters with multiple and complex problems, mental health services and projects with Gypsy and Traveller families.
According to Mark Heasman, chief executive of the trust, the demand for their service is, rather sadly, growing,
He said: 'There are a growing number of families living on the edges of society and with major issues and unless someone says 'I'm going to help those people', they simply drop off the radar.
'Some of these services previously would have been the work of social services, but cuts to funding have seen them drop off. We step in and fill the gap that has been created, and hopefully with the affection, compassion and care needed.'
One of the key areas in which the trust works is with children who might be at risk or or have dropped out of the education system.
Mr Heasman added: 'We try to help them re-engage with the education system. The evidence shows that if they drop out of the system their life chances are greatly reduced. This is where we do a lot of work not just with the children, but the parents too, as clearly they play an important part in whether the child will drop out of the education system.
'We have one family who we work with where four generations have never worked. That is not good enough and we are trying to engage with the family to change that.'
The charity will also try to hone in on specific problems in a community, one such project currently underway in Lowestoft on the problem of sex exploitation.
Mr Heasman said: 'We have put together a programme in the town to work in youth centres, community hubs or schools to work with children who have issues around sex exploitation. We are trying to raise awareness on how to prevent yourself from becoming a victim, what the dangers are and what people can or can't do.
'Our success stories are normally examples where children get back into the education system after dropping off, seeing families reconnect or educating young mums who just get pregnant time and time again to get benefits. We try to get them to understand they don't have to do that to solve their problems.'
Looking to the future it seems likely demand for the charity will only grow and the trust wants to put more of a focus on rural towns, Holt being one area where they have teamed up with the Holt Youth Project, and coastal areas.
'We want to become the first port of call in this region for people who need our services,' the chief executive added.