In April 2014, my family’s lives were turned upside down when the phone rang on the evening of my mum’s birthday. It was a brief conversation. “You don't know who I am," said a voice. "I’m a solicitor and I've been instructed to give you a call. Your dad has been given a two-year sentence and he’s in the back of a van on his way to prison in Liverpool.”
There's no way to describe a shock like that. My mum, my brothers Alex and Ryan (then 18) and I, had no idea what he’d done. You see people caught with drugs and they go to jail for six weeks. To get two years? All sorts of thoughts flashed through my head.
The day before, something had sounded fishy to me. He said he was off on a training course for a day or two. I thought, ‘That's odd, he’s never done that before’ but he said he’d ring to let us know when he'd be back. But he didn't call. My mum couldn’t reach him and now we knew why. Except we didn’t really know anything at all.
Jailed for fraud
He was given a 30-second phone call and rang us later that evening, but he didn't explain what happened. He barely said a word, he must have been in shock himself, that it had finally come to this.
He told us what prison he was in, gave us the computer password and explained where he kept the bills. That was it. It was surreal. We sat and cried. We were all traumatised but I don't know how my mum coped, and on her birthday as well.
The next day, we got tipped off by a school where my dad was chair of governors, that they’d been approached by the local press. Before we'd been given an opportunity to find out what'd happened for ourselves, a newspaper called and asked, ‘Can you tell us how you feel?’ I didn’t let on that I didn’t know, and the next day there it was, on the front page – ‘Gambler jailed for fraud’.
My Dad had stolen £53,000 from the company where he had earned £70,000 as finance director, to pay gambling debts. He signed off what got paid out, and had re-invoiced for his own wages until eventually it got spotted.
My biggest feeling was disappointment – it’s the total opposite of what you would expect an accountant to do. But, in other ways, I was relieved that at least it was none of the strange, dark things we’d been thinking it could have been.
The horrible thing is that we live in quite a small community and everybody found out when we did. It was all over Sheffield – I felt like walking out of the door with a bag on my head and my mum didn't want to go to the shops. She wouldn’t leave the house.
But the strangest thing was discovering there was this other side of my dad that he'd kept secret. My mum didn’t work, they didn’t have a joint account and everything had been so under his control that we didn’t know who the mortgage was with or who our energy providers were.
My mum quite rightly held a lot of anger towards him. She’d been married to him for 35 years and had a lot of questions that needed answering. Me, I needed to find a way for us to get in control and to understand legally where we stood in terms of his debts.
The first thing we did was go to the Citizens Advice Bureau. It’s fair to say we didn't uncover a very good picture. We discovered he had 21 credit cards and loans, including payday loans, and the household bills were in arrears by a year. He’d remortgaged the house and there was a repossession order in place because he hadn’t kept up repayments.
£500,000 of secret debts
We’d had a big shock and now, we were dealing with massive financial damage. It was like being hit several times at once. It took nine months before we got to the bottom of everything – and it came to £500,000 worth of debt.
Some loans were put on hold, but the rest of the debts were consolidated and had to be paid. I had a good job as manager of a charity, the only one working in the house, and almost all my salary went to paying his debts. It was a lot to take on, trying to pay for a house that you can't afford to live in.
When I look back, there were signs of him seeming depressed over the past year. He was out of work for a few months and didn't seem to be able to pay some of the bills. My mum questioned why he didn’t have any savings and why he’d been out of work. Once he went to prison, we realised he'd been fired because he'd stolen the money. Things started to make sense.
The reality of prison life
We’d visit him in prison, but most of our conversations were quite bland and transactional. It took him a long time to say anything much about what had happened. It didn't help that, because he had medical issues and needed a breathing machine at night, the only prison that could accommodate that equipment was a higher category, so he was in prison with murderers and rapists. We weren't particularly comfortable in the visiting room.
The first time we got close to the truth was when he wrote a long letter a few months into his sentence, admitting what he’d done, how he felt and explaining that he wasn’t in control of what he was doing, that he didn't mean to hurt anybody.
An out-of-control addiction
Now that the initial shock and anger had passed, I wanted to try to understand. I’ve never had any form of addiction and it's difficult for people on the outside to understand that when the gambling takes over, normal thinking just disappears. That's how my dad says it was for him.
He was released for good behaviour after eight months and wore a tag for the rest of his sentence. My mum didn't want to pick him up, so I went on my own, which wasn't without fanfare as well because pretty much the entire BBC followed me to pick him up. He was a shadow of himself when he came out. I took him to Wetherspoons for an English breakfast, and he just seemed lost.
Rebuilding family life
Mum still had a lot of anger. The trust was broken and that is hard to repair but she gave him an ultimatum. She said, ‘I want you to come back and fix things, on the condition you are transparent about everything. We need to monitor what you're doing.’
He worked as a delivery driver, doing four different jobs. There's very little you can do with a fraud conviction. Dad had only ever been an accountant and was obviously never going to be an accountant again, so it was a case of what on earth can he do that's meaningful?
Helping other compulsive gamblers
He wanted to give something back so we set up a charity called Safer Online Gambling Group to push for awareness of gambling as a mental health problem.
Gambling addiction is under the radar – 83% of people don’t seek help and It has a higher suicide rate than any other addiction.
It’s put in a category with alcohol or drug abuse and is equally devastating, but what can make it worse is that it’s very hidden. Especially since the internet, there’s no need to be down the betting shop or in a casino all night. You can pretend to be working or sending texts when, actually, you're placing bets every few minutes.
We also launched a therapy app called BetProtect and my Dad now works as an advisor to the company Crucial Compliance who made it.
We still don’t really know why he became so addicted. We’ve talked about his childhood and sometimes not feeling good enough about himself, and maybe being ambitious and wanting things that he couldn’t necessarily afford.
We worry about him relapsing but everything is monitored now and my parents have a joint account. Their relationship has improved and he's conscious of making the effort to be honest and open about everything.
It could have gone in many different directions, but the family has managed to stay together. Some of the debts have gone, some are still being paid, and he’s going to be paying them off for the rest of his life, if he ever does, but we're proud that he is using his experience as a force for good and leaving a positive legacy.
With thanks to Yahoo News for publishing this article. https://news.yahoo.com/dad-gambling-addiction-prison-114903943.html