‘I was labelled a bad kid when mum went to prison’

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Picture of Toni

Would you tell anyone if your dad was in prison? How about your mum? Schools and councils should be told if a young person's parent is in prison, according to the Children's Commissioner in England, because the stigma around it means they can't speak out and get help with things like mental health.

"Is mum going to be there?"

Toni was 11. It was the day before her year six production and she wanted to know if her mum would be coming to watch.

Her sister avoided the question at first, then answered.

"I'm afraid mum's not coming, mum's in prison."

In that moment, Toni went from seeing her mum every day at home, to visiting her in prison.

Toni's older sister, who was 23 and had just had a baby, had to look after Toni and her nine-year-old little sister.

"We just had to stick together and listen to everything my big sister said."

Because her little sister copied everything she did, Toni felt she couldn't be too upset in front of her.

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Toni says she used to feel scared when visiting her mum

"I don't think I properly processed my emotions at the time."

It wasn't the first time one of Toni's parents had gone to prison. Her dad, who she hasn't lived with since she was five, spent several years inside starting when Toni was seven.

But it was her mum going that most affected her.

For the first few weeks, she used to run down the stairs to check if her mum was there in the morning.

"And of course she never was."

Toni, who's now 21, says the last thing she was worried about back then was what crime her mum committed.

"I was more worried about when she was coming home.

"It is almost like a bereavement, because your parent is gone and even when they come back it's never the same dynamic."

'My nephew's nappy got searched'

Visiting her mum in prison was a traumatic experience.

"The journey is long as the prison is usually far away, as you enter the prison the buildings are tall, everywhere's barricaded, it's dark, the doors are loud.

"They search everyone, my nephew's nappy used to get searched. I was scared of dogs and you would just have to stand there while they sniff you.

"When you're leaving there are a lot of tears and a lot of people are crying.

"It's an uncomfortable environment because you're constantly being watched."

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Schools are currently not informed when a pupil's parent is in prison

Toni's life started to change at school too.

Her family didn't want her to speak about her mum being in prison, because of the shame and stigma it would bring.

"Parents aren't supposed to go to prison, especially mums."

She didn't know anyone else in her situation and had no-one to talk to.

"I was a very angry child. A lot of the hurt feelings I had towards my mum, I took out on everyone else.

"Because I couldn't explain the reason for my frustration, a lot of it was misinterpreted.

"I was just labelled the bad kid."

'We're invisible children'

It's estimated that 300,000 children in the UK have a parent in prison.

At the moment schools and authorities aren't told about it unless a child is taken into care.

The Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, believes more action needs to be taken to help children like Toni.

She wants there to be a register of children whose parents are in prison so they can get help with things like mental health and housing.

"I really want to see the courts, the Crown Prosecution Services and the police, take responsibility for identifying children when prisoners are sentenced," she says.

"It's an administrative task but it will make such a difference for those children to enable that support to be in place."

Toni agrees that there should be more support: "We're a group of invisible children."

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'Everybody makes mistakes'

Toni's mum spent two years in prison.

Although they still have a good relationship, it can still be difficult to speak about it.

"It made us closer and we are stronger as a family, but the years that my mum was away, it's like they don't exist. We don't talk about them."

Toni says she doesn't blame her mum: "Everybody makes mistakes. Of course I would have preferred that it didn't happen to us."

She's studying criminology at university and says her experience inspired her plans to work in the probation system.

She hopes things can change to help other children who went through what she did - and says more support could even stop them ending up in prison themselves.

"If you neglect children whose parents have been in prison, that can lead to them being in the same circumstances that their parents were in.

"We're not our parents, we didn't commit the crimes our parents committed, so why should we be punished for them?"

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