Being the child of a fraudster, a murderer or even one of the Great Train robbery gang puts unique psychological pressures on people, hears Etan Smallman
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In this day and age, we like to think that we don’t punish children, in a biblical fashion, for the “sins of the father”. But if you’re the son or daughter of a notorious criminal, it doesn’t always feel like that.
The child of an offender has to face up to multiple hardships. First, there is the realisation that the parent you have put on a pedestal is capable of such wrongdoing. Then you may have to come to terms with a mum or dad’s absence as they serve prison time.
Take Aimee Challenor. Last August she was suspended by the Green Party after her father was jailed for raping a child. She had already withdrawn from the race to become deputy leader, so that the election would not be “dominated by what my father has done”, and insisted that she had not known about his crimes.
She had, however, appointed him as her election agent after he had been charged with raping and torturing the 10-year-old girl in the family home – which was Coventry Green Party’s registered address.
“This was one of a number of ways I was seeking to reconcile my relationship with my father after coming out of care,” she said, but accepted on reflection that “it was unacceptable”.
For crimes that have attracted the media glare, there is also a toxic fame that has to be grappled with – along with the prurience and judgement of friends and strangers.
Perhaps the hardest case to consider is that of Mae West, daughter of mass murderers Fred and Rose West, whose lives are explored in the documentary series Killer in the Family, starting on UKTV’s Really channel on Thursday.
“Sometimes I think when the criminals are sorted out, people overlook their families,” she wrote while promoting her memoir, Love as Always, Mum xxx, published last September. “I often see cases in the news and wonder: ‘What happened to the children?’”
Nick Reynolds’s life has, in many ways, been defined by his father’s criminality and what he calls the resulting “50-year media soap opera”. Bruce Reynolds masterminded the Great Train Robbery, which has gripped Britain’s imagination ever since the gang of 15 stole £2.6m in used bank notes in 1963.
The family was on the run for five years. But Reynolds had no idea his father had committed a crime. “If I did give it some thought, I probably thought my dad was a spy,” he tells i.
“I was seven when about 50 policemen arrested him. I’d been living the Life of Riley in exotic locations, just on a big extended family holiday. He was whisked off to prison and I was sent off to boarding school.
“It was quite hard for me to get my head around, because it meant that he was the bad guy. I think I found out bit by bit from old newspapers.”
Reynolds spent the rest of his childhood in a kind of limbo. “I would kid myself that he would escape and we’d go back to a life on the run. I spent most of my childhood waiting for him to magically reappear. But it never happened, unfortunately. He came out of prison when I was 17.”
When I enquire whether he felt anger towards with his father, Reynolds says: “You’re only the second person to ever ask me that. The answer is no.
“Maybe I got it from my dad, just accepting things as they are. I don’t know whether always being on the move had left me highly adaptable. It might be because he was such a good dad, in other ways. I’d spent more time with him during those five years on the run than most kids get to spend with their parents all their life.”
However, he says attempting to sidestep his father’s notoriety was “like trying to get away from your shadow”. He says: “It used to bother me a lot. It’s an albatross I can’t seem to get away from. I’m 56 years old and I’m still ‘the son of…’”
As a consultant forensic psychiatrist, Dr Estela Welldon has worked with criminal parents for more than 40 years.
“It is very different with people who commit sexual offences,” she says. “When it is revealed to the public, that produces a lot of problems in the family.
“Sometimes, if they get treatment, some of the children make some peace, but most completely reject their parents and some change their names.”
Most serious criminals “are children of criminal parents or parents who completely abandoned or neglected their children from the beginning of life,” she says. Before they are caught, “the parents are usually not concerned about their children committing the same offences. It’s only after it becomes public”.
Children of prisoners are more likely than their peers to be at risk of mental ill-health, according to a report by researchers at the University of Huddersfield, which concluded that “their needs are still under-recognised” by authorities.
David Morgan, a fellow of the British Psychoanalytic Society, believes the child of a known criminal faces two choices: “If you can’t beat them join them – or go straight. The latter is difficult as the criminal life acts like a Faustian pact; having made league with the bad side, it offers protection, like a mafia gang. Going straight can feel like a betrayal of the old regime.”
Reynolds resisted the temptation. “You spend your formative years visiting your dad in prison and it’s enough to put you off.”
Adam Bradford, from Sheffield, was 21 when his businessman father was jailed for two years in 2014 after defrauding a company of more than £50,000 to pay off secret gambling debts. David Bradford had kept a double life for more than 30 years and his son only found out the truth from the front page of the local paper once his dad was in a jail cell.
He and his family decided to use the spotlight for good, campaigning to raise awareness about gambling addiction. But the publicity has had a devastating impact on his life.
“I worked for a government organisation and I thought the whole thing could have pretty much killed my career. I now run my own business and people have actually said: ‘There’s too much risk involved in us working with you.’
“We’ve had a lot of online abuse. If it’s me and my mum going shopping together in the local store, sometimes people stop us. Somebody came up and said: ‘Oh, I would have left him by now if I were you.’ Everybody’s got a opinion about your life.”
Ryan Hart and his brother Luke have also taken to campaigning to try to bring about positive change, in the wake of their extreme trauma. In July 2016, their father, Lance, murdered their mother, Claire, and their sister, Charlotte, four days after the family had left him.
Ryan Hart, now 27, says he was shocked by the media coverage, which painted his father as a caring member of the community.
“It’s kind of hard to describe how it feels when you’ve lived with a man so evil for 25 years and then he murders your mum and your sister and then it feels like society is standing by the murderer and completely ignoring the two victims,” he says.
“It opened our eyes up to how grossly misunderstood domestic abuse is and how everyone likes to almost victim blame. I think it’s hard to comprehend the mind of a murderer and therefore probably easier to suggest that the man was pushed or forced to do what he did.”
Lance Hart left a letter in his car, but his sons say they will never read it or make it public. “To be honest, that’s what he would have wanted,” Hart says. “He wanted to control everyone after his death. He did that his entire life. I think that’s the key thing with domestic homicide – the victims are always silenced.”
Even for less serious offences, the impact on the children can be permanent. I ask Adam Bradford how long he thinks his father’s crimes will cast a cloud over his life. “I think it will be there forever,” he says.