I have been challenged several times to share my testimony - something I have been avoiding for years! Yes, years! Why? Because although I know my brothers and sisters shouldn’t judge me, I also know that they are just human and I have been fearful that they will react badly and not see the dramatic change that God has made in my life - only my sins!
I fell pregnant when I was 18. It wasn’t at all planned and to be honest, I completely freaked out. But my boyfriend, now my husband, convinced me that we could cope and so we started planning for our future as a family of three.
At the time, we were living in a single room with a shared bathroom and a kitchen of sorts in a cupboard, but we were both working and felt that together we would manage. We soon realised though that we couldn’t live for very long in a single room with a baby and decided to apply to the council for somewhere to live. But, we decided that I should apply as a single person.
Now I can make loads of excuses for this - I clearly did at the time - we felt we couldn’t cope financially, we thought I would get a place quicker if I were a ‘single mother’, several other people we knew were doing it and encouraged us to do it too, etc.
The truth is although we believed that those things were true and felt real at the time, it’s also true that we would almost certainly have coped if we had been honest. But we weren’t!
I applied to the council for a place to live and explained that I was pregnant. I told them that I was living in a friend's house, sharing a room with her children and even went to the pretence of keeping some clothes and personal items there, so that when the council came to check my living arrangements they would see how dire my situation was and bump me up the list.
And yes, I could blame others around me for encouraging me and aiding me in my deceit, but I have to take responsibility for my actions. The one thing I will say in my defence is that I truly didn’t realise at the time that this was really wrong now and that was unbelievably naive of me but it is the truth.
So when I had my baby, I was offered a council flat and I moved in with my baby boy and my boyfriend. We lived there for a few months and then decided to push for a move. We were in a top floor flat with no lift on Limes Farm Estate and so I contacted the council for a transfer.
But instead of being content to sit on the list and wait my turn, I told more lies. I went to the doctor and played up my ‘asthma’ (I had a short spell of asthma as a teenager, but nothing too bad).
I claimed that as I was living alone with my baby that I couldn’t cope with getting a pram up the stairs and insisted that my health was deteriorating. None of this was true! But by the time my baby was 11 months old, we had been moved. We were still in a flat, but we were out of Limes Farm and there was only one flight of stairs to the front door.
I was still claiming that I was a single mother and by this time had given up work, as I found the stress of a young baby too much with travelling into London every day.
So there I was, living in a flat in Buckhurst Hill, lying about being a single mother to the council and claiming housing benefit, council tax benefit and income support. My boyfriend was working and we were by no means living a life of luxury but the benefits helped us keep our heads above water and meant that I could stay home with our son.
Now there was a point when we started considering coming off the benefits, telling the council that my boyfriend was moving in and were trying to work out if we could afford to do so, but felt that it wasn’t really an option. How would we cope?
Then one November evening, there was a knock at the door. I opened the door to two police officers and two council fraud people. They came in, arrested me and searched the entire flat.
I was in shock. I had no idea that this could happen because I said I was living alone. I was taken to the police station – there they took my finger prints and photo, my height was measured and details of any distinguishing features were noted.
Then I was locked in a cell.
I don’t know how long I was in there but I was later taken to a small room to be interviewed. I was joined by a solicitor and asked many questions. I didn’t know what to do, so I lied. I claimed that they had got it all wrong, that my boyfriend stayed over quite often but that he didn’t live there. I was eventually released but was ‘on bail’. I had to come back to the station at a later date.
Now, things get a little hazy for me around this time – I assume that it’s a survival mechanism – but I don’t remember an awful lot of what went on next. I remember I had to get a solicitor and was sent to the local court, but they said my crime was too big for them to deal with and passed it onto Crown Court.
I was petrified. I was told that Crown Court could send me to prison – how could I leave my little boy? I became very ill, I couldn’t eat, rarely got out of bed and dropped to about 6 stone in weight. I needed help getting in and out of the bath because I was so weak.
I’m not really sure how I survived. I remember a day when I managed to get to the pond by St John’s. I remember thinking that I would be better off dead. I began thinking about how many tablets it would take, what I should mix them with. I stood at the pond and cried my eyes out. Then my phone rang - it was my friend calling to see how I was doing. For some reason I didn’t go through with my plan. I’m not entirely sure why, because at that point I couldn’t see a future for myself. But I carried on. I went to the doctor and was prescribed anti-depressants.
About a year after my arrest, I was on trial in Chelmsford Crown Court. It was truly awful. And something that I have struggled with for years is that I stood in that court, put my hand on the bible and swore to tell the truth – then lied. I didn’t know what else to do. I also had other people go into court and lie for me. I deserved to be punished. I was inevitably found guilty – which of course was true.
I then had to wait for sentencing. I prayed so hard before sentencing – packing a bag ready to be sent to prison is not a good thing to be doing. I honestly thought I would be sent to prison and that my son wouldn’t know me by the time I came out. I could barely function and my only hope was God.
I had begun to attend church again – a place I hadn’t been for years. I would turn up and sit right at the back and just cry and cry. It was the only thing I could do in church – I knew I had no real defence before God and was too ashamed to tell anyone what I had done. The people at St Stephen’s were amazing – they welcomed me and didn’t pressure me to tell them what I was going through. I definitely felt God’s love through them.
I prayed when I was called in to be sentenced – I prayed that if God would not allow me to be sent to prison, that I would give myself to Jesus. And thankfully, the judge decided not to send me to prison. Praise The Lord!
I did get community service, probation and have to pay back the money – but I could go home and see my little boy.
I continued to go to church at St Stephen’s and gave my life to Jesus. I’m not the same person I was back then and I honestly believe that that is down to Jesus. I’m not a great Christian – I mess up all the time - but Jesus forgives me and loves me. I’m still struggling with forgiving and loving myself – but knowing that Jesus died for me helps.