As a teenager, charity founder Aliyah Ali was once arrested simply for using the kitchen in her own home. She and the other girls at the care home had only wanted a quick snack, but this required the permission of a member of staff in charge who held the keys.
"We got hungry and wanted to cook," she told MyLondon. "But the staff member said he wasn't going to give us the key to the food cupboard. So we walked into the office and took it. We didn't touch anybody or anything like that, we just went to the kitchen to start cooking tuna and sweetcorn. Before we knew it, the police were there and we were all arrested for theft."
Growing up in care, Aliyah claims it was normal for the police to be used to enforce the will of staff who rarely gave the children space to just be kids. "My peers would get grounded for things I got arrested for," she explained. "The constant argument with staff is like, 'this is our home, we're allowed to just be normal kids' or whatever. But we'd be bantering or playfighting they would tell us not to."
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Aliyah still has to explain this teenage conviction for theft in job interviews. It's one of the many legacies of spending her teenage years in care. Today, she is a highly-qualified mental health practitioner and founder of the charity Daddyless Daughters, which is currently hosting an exhibition in Peckham telling the stories of female prisoners. But, having felt the impact of a childhood where she was criminalised, Aliyah is passionate about changing things for young people now.
Having fled with her mother to a refuge from a home where there was domestic violence, substance misuse and neglect, the responsibility for where the 13-year-old Aliyah should live was placed in her hands.
"They all sat us down as kids and gave us options: Do we want to go with mum? Do you want to go by dad's? Or is there some other solution? At that age, I felt so unsafe with the situations my mum had put us in I was not willing to go with her. So I chose to go with my older sister."
Barely five years older, this was not an easy arrangement. "I guess this was when my needs became complex, before I knew it, I was in youth courts," she continued. "My sister repeatedly went back to social services to say she couldn't manage and needed support."
But one day Aliyah claims it became too much for her sibling. Aliyah had been caught fighting another girl her age and arrested. She claims her sister arrived at the hearing, but it was not to take her home.
"She just came to court and said, 'I can't deal with her, put her wherever you need to put her'. Without really explaining what it meant they said to me 'you’ve been bailed to the local authority'. That was when I went into the system and never came out."
Looking back, Aliyah can see the similarities between being put into care and a prison sentence. She was prevented from entering certain parts of the home, there was a curfew and any disagreements with the people in charge could end in handcuffs.
"They told me I was fosterable, so I had to spend all my time in residential children's homes. And that's where it spiralled out of control," she added.
It wasn't just that the care home environment was similar to a prison, Aliyah explained life there pushed people towards crime. The stakes for misbehaviour were always higher than other teenagers and punishments more extreme.
"The staff would call and say there's a smell of weed or there's weed in the house. Before you know it, everyone is being pulled and strip-searched. They are deemed as our corporate parents, nobody gets notified in your family or anything like that.
"As a child how it was proposed was 'do this or you're going to get forced' and I saw it get physical many times. I saw my friends getting twisted up, I've had the police come and twist me up so in the end I'd just conform to it," she added.
"You're not allowed to have sleepovers and stuff like you can in a normal home setting. Even if you are just at your friend's house minding your business, if you do not go home by a certain time they automatically have to call the police and report you missing. So the police are constantly hearing your name and they start to adopt their own mindset. They see you as a nuisance and as a child, it becomes an 'us versus them' mentality."
It was common for peers to disappear into secure accommodation or 'baby prisons' as they were also known. A child might threaten a member of staff or end up in an argument with a peer and the next morning just be gone. There are many people Aliyah says she knew who just disappeared to 'secure' and she never heard from again. Eventually, she grew to accept the idea she too would end up locked up.
"They always used to say to us 'you're going to end up in prison'. Social workers, key workers and people at the care home would all say it. There was never any higher aspiration for kids in care, it was always like; 'do you know how to do Universal Credit?' They prepare you to be on benefits or to end up in prison."
Being trapped in the care home unable to do the simple things herself, Aliyah was vulnerable. "By the age of 15, I was permanently excluded from school, but my friends were still going. I was in the community or at the children's home which was in the middle of an estate as well. So I started forming unhealthy relationships with people who were significantly older and had the foresight to see what they want to do with my vulnerability before I even understood I was vulnerable," she explained.
"Social services, the police and other professionals around weren't taking the time to figure out what happened to me, why I was so angry at the world and what I've been exposed to. Nobody wanted to counsel me or find the therapy services I needed at that time."
But the man grooming Aliyah was a willing listener who would try to help her. "I had an older guy relating to my pain, taking the time to listen to me," Aliyah continued. "I felt like he understood me more than my social worker. So he was always going to have more of an influence.
"It was very hard for me to fulfil my basic needs. To cook my dinner I had to ask for access to a cupboard. If was in a bad mood, feeling depressed, or had a bad week I didn't want to have to ask that. But I could call my friend who was willing to find me food and buy my trainers. So it was only natural I'd start to feel like I owed him something."
The adults taking an interest in Aliyah got her involved in things she knew were dangerous and wrong. But when she tried to sound the alarm, it didn't have an impact.
"It's not the case anymore, but when you turned 16 they used to give you your own standalone flat. Once I moved in I became the youngest to have their own little setup," said Aliyah. "There were two shootings outside that house. I went back to social services and told them; 'help me, I need support'. They just moved me to the other side of the area, and then it happened again."
By the age of 17, Aliyah was being shuffled from one B&B to another, still vulnerable to gangs roping her into activities that were dangerous and illegal. When she came of age there was action against her.
"I didn't have the right knowledge to understand the lifestyle I got myself involved in. But I was sentenced as an adult and a perpetrator, even though my case happened when I was 17 years old and there was loads of evidence of me being groomed from when I went into care," she added.
The way the authorities assumed Aliyah was complicit in her grooming was in contrast to what she claims was the response to how similar situations involving girls of other races were handled. "When the White girls were groomed and exploited it was taken a lot more seriously than when we were," she continued. "They would get support and be moved straight away.
"I would say there was a difference in that a lot of my peers that were like biracial or Black were groomed criminally whereas the White girls were normally groomed sexually - like older guys would pick them up from outside the house."
Behind bars, Aliyah first noticed the parallels between prison and care.
"The first night in care you hear a lot of noise and chaos. It's very similar to that first night that you spent in prison and that's where I started comparing the two. I realised how normalised living amongst all that chaos and screaming was for me," Aliyah said.
There were other similarities Aliyah picked up on over time in the stories of the women she was locked up with. "I started like talking to my peers when I was in prison. And I noticed many of us were groomed," she added. "Another thing we all had in common was we didn't have any positive male role models.
"Not a lot of men were going into social work and a not lot of men were going into the schools. I started really studying the patterns and themes that were not only in my story, but my peers too."
Starting with the Samaritans' Listener scheme which trains inmates to provide peer-support, Aliyah threw herself into counselling and mentoring the young women around her. She acquired a raft of qualifications and when she was released formed a non-profit organisation based in South East London called Daddyless Daughters.
The charity supports girls and young women across London between the age of 14 to 30 who may have complex needs. This way Aliyah is able to help give young women in the situation she found herself in the support she wasn't able to access.
Do you have a story about grooming or the care system? Contact [email protected]
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