Abandoned by his mother, Ben Ashcroft became hooked on drugs and crime. But he turned his life around – and is now determined to help others. Emily Heward speaks to him about his book.
AS a troubled teen notching up a lengthy criminal record while battling heroin abuse, Ben Ashcroft’s future was bleak.
That was the view of social workers who had been involved with him since he was 12, when his mother abandoned him and the care system took over.
The rest of his childhood was spent lurching a staggering 51 times between 37 different children’s homes, foster families and eventually young offender institutions and secure units as his crimes escalated and his mental health deteriorated.
But now, at 29, Ben has turned his life around and his future is brighter than ever.
Having quit drugs and stayed out of trouble for 10 years, he has published a book about his painful upbringing and is giving the proceeds to a charity he works with to help prevent other young people taking the wrong path.
“I want to make a difference and I want to show young people you can have a bad start in life and still be successful and still have a positive future,” he says.
“From being totally written off, I’m on the road to proving everybody wrong.”
His story begins when his mother walked out on him and his brother and sister just before Christmas. Before that, they had enjoyed a happy childhood in Sowerby Bridge.
It was when she moved them to nearby Mixenden that Ben recalls she began going out more – and one day never returned.
“We didn’t click on straight away that she’d left,” he says.
“She’d stopped out before so we thought she’d stayed at a friend’s. As time passed we got more and more worried.”
The children fended for themselves for at least two days before they decided to call police.
“We didn’t know if she was dead or alive – she’d not made any contact,” Ben remembers.
A social worker was sent straight away and the brothers were taken to a children’s home while their sister went to a friend’s.
“The first night I was there it was a massive shock,” he says.
“My mum wasn’t back still and I still had the worry of ‘where is she? Is she all right?’
“It was a big, big thing and it literally turned my life from that day. If I’d still been in Sowerby Bridge I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the same path.”
When his mother later came home he was struck by anger and “the feeling of being rejected, not wanted and not loved”.
Wrenched from the familiar, he found life at the home tough and remembers receiving little support to help him cope.
“Some of the staff would ask if you were all right, but that was as far as it went and you’d say you were because you didn’t want to look weak,” he says.
“There were a lot of young people crying out for help and attention. It was the norm to be joining in and kicking off. If you didn’t you’d be victimised.”
After just a week there he had already been arrested for a public order offence and spent a night in police custody, having never been in trouble before.
Despite this “shock to the system”, he continued to get into trouble once he was released.
By the time he was 13, he and his friends had begun sniffing glue, smoking cannabis and abusing prescription drugs.
A year or two later they had moved on to heroin and begun committing street robberies together to fund their habit.
“I’m not proud of it. It makes me feel quite sick,” he says.
“When I talk about it now it feels like I’m talking about a different person. My life is completely different to how it was then.
“That’s why I’m giving the proceeds to help reduce reoffending. I haven’t done it to make money. I’m just trying to give something back.”
Writing the book was cathartic but also forced him to revisit painful memories, such as being abused by a foster parent and a number of suicide attempts.
“I took 100 paracetamol one time, 50 another time,” he says.
“I cut my wrists another time to see if it would hurt and ended up having seven stitches, because I just felt numb. Sometimes everyone would do it together which is shocking, looking back.”
At his lowest ebb, he was taken to Barton Moss secure care centre in Manchester where he stayed alongside the likes of child murderer Robert Thompson.
He served a number of sentences in young offender institutions – and it was after being sent down one time too many that he vowed to turn his life around.
“Too many friends were dying – either hanging themselves or dying from drugs,” he says.
“The day I got sentenced I said, ‘I can’t deal with this. I’m going to try my best when I get out.’
“I got my head down and started doing art courses and evening classes, doing as much as I could to occupy my mind. When I got out it was like I knew I didn’t want to go back.”
It hasn’t been an easy road. He has since battled depression and spent time in a psychiatric unit dealing with his suppressed grief.
For a while he moved back in with his mother, but they “clashed”, he says. She has not spoken to him since hearing of his book.
Now he is back in Sowerby Bridge, living alone in the first place he has been able to call home for more than a year.
He no longer sees his old friends and spends his time volunteering, or with his son Jack, nine, to whom he has dedicated 51 Moves.
The book has received nothing but five-star reviews on Amazon since it was published for e-readers on September 4, and has also entered a number of the website’s top 20 bestseller lists.
“I’m really proud of it. I’ve had little education and limited resources,” he says.
“It’s just onwards and upwards now. It helped a lot, getting everything out. There were a lot of things I didn’t want to think about, let alone write about, but doing it made me feel a lot better.
“I don’t feel angry or bitter towards anyone now. Maybe I was let down but I know I also had a part to play.”
Ben is giving the book’s proceeds to Spark Inside, an organisation which works with young offenders leaving custody.
He is on its advisory board and has also previously worked with the charity User Voice, which is led by ex-offenders.
After speaking recently at a Derby children’s home, he is now applying for grants to set up his own organisation so he can reach out to more young people in care.
“Young people don’t really respect social workers and police because they are authority. With me being an ex-offender and ex-care home it breaks down those barriers,” he says.
“I’ve got a lot of experience and I want to make a difference.”
Amazon acclaim for 51 moves
Praise has poured in for 51 Moves, which seems to have struck a chord with readers working with young people.
The book reached number eight at one point in Amazon’s teaching and learning bestseller list and entered the top 20 in the professionals and academics section. It has also entered the top 40 in the website’s self-help chart.
A review submitted to the site by Rebecca Maxfield, of Beacon Hill Training, which works in child protection and abuse prevention, calls it “wonderfully life-affirming”.
“His strength of character and forceful personality pervade every word,” she writes.
“Ben is a champion for young people in care and ex-offenders.”