In a bare, seventh-floor flat in Barton Hill, Bristol, Sandra, 27, has just finished painting her two-year-old son Jason’s bedroom. It is ten weeks since she walked into the social services office and handed Jason over for fostering because she “couldn’t cope any more”.
The painting is part of Sandra’s effort to convince the authorities it is safe for Jason to come home. “I got his Thomas the Tank Engine duvet cover and everything else in the bedroom from charity shops,” she says, embarrassed at her poor circumstances but proud of her work. “I’m seeing Jason every day now and I can get him home for good on 21 July if I have everything he needs.
“I’m on £45 a week benefit, and £600 in debt to the water authority, gas and electricity, so I’ve had to scrimp to get things, but I’m getting there. My worry now is a £20 safety gate to keep Jason out of the kitchen. I don’t know where I’ll get that kind of money.”
Barton Hill, Sandra says, is a “dumping ground” for those who have fallen on hard times and those who have never known anything else. Sandra is in the latter category. “I don’t have a mum and dad.” In a way, it’s true. Her parents certainly never behaved as parents should. They beat her so badly that she tried to take her own life in her early teens. She was living on her own, on benefits, by the age of 16.
Sandra was 19, and socially isolated, when she started living with Jason’s father. He wasn’t her happy ending. “He was into drugs, he was violent and he spent all our money,” says Sandra, who ended up flitting between temporary accommodation and women’s refuges. Jason’s father was eventually jailed after an attack on the little boy, but as one vicious man departed, Sandra let another one in. “My boyfriend was 45,” she says. “Old, I know. I think I’m still looking for a dad. I find it so hard to be on my own, but I’m trying to learn so I can avoid men who take advantage of me.”
Lone mothers like Sandra are preyed upon in poverty-ridden places such as Barton Hill. The benefits system isn’t generous, but many payments are attached to children – when Jason is at home Sandra receives £120 more a week – so some regard single mums as a meal ticket. Sandra’s middle-aged boyfriend used her benefits to fund his drug habit.
On the day she handed Jason over, Sandra had no food in the house and no money for the wet bandages that have to be applied to the little boy’s eczema-covered skin three times a day. “I took Jason to the social workers for his own safety,” she says. “I just didn’t know how to handle him any more. He was so hyper that he smashed up the television and ruined the sofa.”
Sandra, now separated from her boyfriend, used to blame all Jason’s behaviour on the ADHD that doctors have diagnosed and are apparently treating, despite his age, with drugs. But now she believes environment has played a huge part. “I think I’ve not really given Jason enough attention,” she says. “His father beat me up right after he was born and I didn’t really bond with him.”
Sandra has been on an eight-week parenting course run by the Single Parent Action Network (Span). It seems to have opened her eyes. “My mum treated me the way her mum treated her,” she says. “I am trying to make myself a better person. I am trying not to be so angry. I did shout at Jason and when he slapped me, I used to slap him back. But now I’m reading to him and when we go places I’m taking time to explain to him what is going on. He’s actually very clever – ahead for his age. I don’t know where he gets that from.”
What does she want for Jason? “I want him to go to college,” she says. “I want him to have the life I never had. I was putting £10 away every week for him in the Chancellor’s baby bond, but money is so tight without him that I have had to stop. When he’s back, I’ll start it again.”
Through Span, Sandra has forged an unlikely friendship with Nicola, 34, a former university researcher, also raising her unplanned baby, Danny, on benefits. Nicola, who receives no support from Danny’s father, has experienced an income drop from £1,800 to £700 a month, but she argues that benefits are her only option for the next few years because childcare would devour most of what she could earn if she worked. She also knows that eventually her education will be her escape route from state support. That must be a comfort now she knows the reality of living on benefits.
“It’s very tight,” she says. “Everything Danny wears is second-hand and I walk miles so I can save the bus fare and afford the £4 to take my son swimming. There is no give in a benefits budget and yet benefits often aren’t paid on time. My housing benefit is four months in arrears. You can see how people end up being evicted.”