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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 October 2006, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Help for hidden victims of crime
By Stephen Stewart
BBC Scotland news website

She is the daughter of a convicted armed robber who suffered years of physical and emotional torment because of her father's criminal past.

Samantha Willis
Samantha launched the new support service in Glasgow

Samantha Willis was bullied at school and had to move from place to place to avoid the vicious comments and playground attacks.

However, she has now used her experience to launch one of Scotland's first free support services for the children of prisoners.

The 26-year-old has given up the comforts of her life in Andover, Hampshire, to move some 400 miles to help people stay in touch with imprisoned loved ones.

Based in the Kinning Park area of Glasgow next to the roar of the M8 motorway, Samantha has created a small haven for people suffering the ignominy of having a family member in jail.

Her organisation, called Project HAPPY, gives advice, counselling and free bus rides to families from all over Scotland who are visiting prisoners at HMP Kilmarnock and Shotts.

My dad had been in and out of prison for 21 years and it was really difficult because we never really got to know him
Samantha Willis
Project HAPPY

The project, which is manned by Samantha and several volunteers, could not be clearer in its intentions: the name stands for Helping And Protecting Prisoners' Youngsters.

Samantha said: "My dad had been in and out of prison for 21 years and it was really difficult because we never really got to know him.

"He is from Glasgow and would sometimes be moved to Scottish prisons so we were all over the place trying to see him. It was very chaotic.

"I believe that if it had been easier to see him and there had been more of a bond made between us, then he would not have kept reoffending.

"I know he is proud of me for being involved with this project and when he hears of me trying to help others, it begins to bring home the effects his offending had on me and my childhood."

Project HAPPY has a number of aims which strive to reduce the stigma and negativity experienced by prisoners' children.

Problems experienced by children
Withdrawal and behaviour difficulties
Emotional problems
More likely to suffer mental problems
More likely to be imprisoned themselves
Low self-esteem

Samantha and her team seek to improve children's visiting conditions in prisons and support the rights of children to maintain contact with an imprisoned parent.

Research from around the world has shown that the children of prisoners can experience a wide range of psychological and social problems.

Having to visit a parent/guardian in prison can disrupt living conditions, triggering emotional difficulties.

A prisoner's child is also 30% more likely to suffer from mental health problems than that of the public at large.

About 65% of children with an imprisoned parent are likely to face imprisonment themselves if their problems are not dealt with at an early stage.

At present, procedures are sketchy for passing information about the circumstances of a prisoner's child to the education authorities.

Consequently, schools are often unaware that a child's parent is even in prison. Children also report often feeling that they are treated differently by their teachers once they have learned of their family member's imprisonment.

HMP Kilmarnock
Many families have a long journey to visit relatives at HMP Kilmarnock

That is certainly an experience shared by Samantha but she said he has taken a positive approach to the years of moving around the country and being tormented on an almost daily basis.

Despite her self-confidence honed by a career in sales, the scars of having a father in jail are never far from the surface.

She remains deeply affected by her experiences and the unsettling feeling of not knowing where (or how) her father may end up.

She said: "I am just so grateful that my mum was so strong or I could have very easily gone off the rails.

"It was very much a case of guilt by association: at school I was treated like dirt because of what my father had done.

"Working on this project is like therapy for me. I am not a social worker but I have been in the same boat as these families who want to keep in touch with a loved one in jail.

Normal relationship

"It can sometimes be tough. There is one woman whose partner was just getting out of jail and she hoped that their child could keep him from reoffending.

"Sadly, it wasn't enough and she was gutted. Often people never think of the effect of imprisonment on offenders' families.

"This scheme is about breaking the cycle and making sure that their children don't go on to break the law or end up being tarred by their dad's mistakes."

Despite the years of strain suffered by Samantha in a bid to maintain some sort of normal relationship with her father, she believes the future is bright.

She wants to expand Project HAPPY in the near future with more bus services to different, more far-flung prisons.

Leading me to the front door, she summed up her fundamental goal when she smiled and said: "I just hope we can really make a difference."

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