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‘I was living off cornflakes’ - Meet the women saved by children’s centres in Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 16:54 04 November 2018 | UPDATED: 17:03 04 November 2018

Amber Rout and her daughter Saffron today. Picture: Amber Rout

Amber Rout and her daughter Saffron today. Picture: Amber Rout

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As Norfolk County Council consult on proposals to potentially close 46 of the county’s 53 children’s centres, Conor Matchett spoke with women whose lives were turned around by the work of the centres in one of Norfolk’s most deprived towns.

Amber Rout and her daughter Saffron. Picture: Amber RoutAmber Rout and her daughter Saffron. Picture: Amber Rout

For decades, Thetford has had two children’s centres.

Today, both are under threat of closure as part of a budget cut and reorganisation of children’s services by Norfolk County Council.

In February the council halved its budget for children’s centres from £10m to £5m, with the contracts for the 12 current services providers due to come to an end next year.

Children’s centres offer parenting advice and programmes, ante and post-natal support, and drop-in play sessions, many of which are run by Sure Start, a government initiative set up by Labour in 1998.

Rebecca Capell and her son Haiden. Picture: Rebecca CapelRebecca Capell and her son Haiden. Picture: Rebecca Capel

For the women who have used them, however, they are a lifeline, an escape, and a stepping stone to a better and healthier life.

Amber Rout, 41, was 15 when she unexpectedly had her daughter, Saffron. Two years later, she had left home and was struggling to survive on her own in Thetford with a young child.

“My daughter had a cooked meal but I was living off cornflakes. I went from pocket money to £50 or £70 a week on income support. I was left to fend for myself, there wasn’t much food or money.

“I knew nothing about how to budget, I got into debt and once you go into debt you cannot get out of it.

Jenny Littlewood and her eldest son Jake. Picture: Jenny LittlewoodJenny Littlewood and her eldest son Jake. Picture: Jenny Littlewood

“I definitely spiralled out of control until I could get a job and access childcare.”

The town’s children’s centres gave Mrs Rout the ability to get a job and become self-sustaining, and gave a young mum a break, all while treating her like any other mother, something that could be out of reach should they close.

Mrs Rout is now a nursing assistant living in Hawstead, near Bury St Edmunds, studying for a foundation degree in healthcare with support from her employers at West Suffolk Hospital and on the road to potentially become a nurse.

She said: “I think they are an amazing place to go when you have a small child.

The Kingsway Sure Start Children's Centre, one of two in Thetford. Both centres are due to close. Picture: Conor MatchettThe Kingsway Sure Start Children's Centre, one of two in Thetford. Both centres are due to close. Picture: Conor Matchett

“When you are that young and you have a baby you do feel judged whether you are or not. They are a place you can go and just be a mum.

“My daughter could get a snack, I could get a cup of tea and when you have nothing in the cupboard that was a blessing and any sort of help was great.

She added: “They gave me the knowledge to get to work which fundamentally meant I didn’t claim benefits. They also taught me life skills.

“Life can get pretty rubbish and any sort of brightness and somewhere to socialise and learn from other parents about parenting skills has got to be a positive.

The Kingsway Sure Start Children's Centre, one of two in Thetford. Both centres are due to close. Picture: Conor MatchettThe Kingsway Sure Start Children's Centre, one of two in Thetford. Both centres are due to close. Picture: Conor Matchett

“It would be such a shame if they closed. A lot of people in Thetford don’t drive, they need something on their doorstep.”

Rebecca Capell, 37, battled post-natal depression after the birth of her first child. Her son Haiden is now nine-years-old.

Ms Capell, who moved to Thetford from Watton at 21, struggled to cope as chest infections and colic made Haiden scream for six hours every day.

Her mental health got so bad that at one point she said she told friends she could understand why a parent could shake their baby to death, her health only improving once she started attending the Kingsway children’s centre.

She said: “To a certain extent my mental health and relationship with my son got really bad. I just sat here crying and rocking.

“I was talking with some friends about how they couldn’t understand how a parent could shake their baby to death, and I said ‘but I can understand how a woman can feel so bad that they could do something so drastic because I have been in that situation and felt like I don’t want to be this baby’s mum any more.’

“I never went to see a doctor which was stupid, but going the weigh and play and seeing a health visitor, you could talk about any issue you were having with your baby however stupid they were.”

She added: “I do credit Sure Start with everything. They were amazing with everyone. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you are from they were there to help support you and educate your child as well.

“I honestly would not like to thing about where I would be without Sure Start. I don’t know where I would be and I am sure as hell that my and my son would not have as strong a bond as we do now.”

Jenny Littlewood, 30, credits the children’s centres for her life’s turnaround.

Now studying social work at the University of Suffolk, she was provided with support to get into further education, cooking lessons, and home visits from the fire service all while providing child care for her two sons, Jake and Thomas, now seven and six.

She said: “In all honestly I would not be in university today or have learned how to cook without the help of those at the centres.

“I was in a bad relationship they always listened to me, offered advice when they could and they never judged me or criticised me, they just helped and supported me.”

She added: “Without their encouragement and support I probably wouldn’t have even applied to college. I think it’s disgusting they are closing because they were set up to help the deprived areas and community access resources such as midwives, the job centre and child care.”

Norfolk County Council’s plans

Norfolk County Council states its plans to close the centres would not mean the end of the service on the whole.

It says schools, village halls, libraries and other buildings would be used to provide the services people get at children’s centres.

In the consultation, the council say: “We want the proposed Early Childhood and Family Service to make a significant difference to the lives of young children and their families.

“To do this we need to identify and work with disadvantaged children and vulnerable families as early as possible, and give them support and services to meet their needs.

“Wherever possible, we want families’ needs to be met from services set up and run by the local community, and for help and support to be provided by others who have been through similar experiences in the past – this is called peer-led support.

“We want to make sure early childhood and family services are working together across the county so that they are accessible to children and families and respond to their needs.”

The consultation can be found at https://norfolk.citizenspace.com/consultation/childrenscentres-2/consultation/

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