‘The Asbo stopped me from drinking. Now my mum says she’s proud of me’

Two years ago Catherine Emery was out of control. An Asbo did her a favour, as she tells Sheena Hastings.

LOOKING back, Catherine Emery can see that this time two years ago she was a complete pain. More than that – she was frequently drunk and violent. At only 14 and with a few cans of lager inside her, she could make life pretty hellish for those around her, and even policemen found her difficult to handle. She says she didn’t think she had a problem because, no matter how out of control she had been the night before, she would make it to school the next day and never had a hangover.

Frustrated by frequent rows with her single-parent mother and older brother, she had graduated from chirpy primary school child who loved sport and PE to problem teen who, by her own admission, would “flip” at the slightest taunt from others. She changed from co-operative in class to flippant, challenging and rude. Some kind of pent-up anger would start to pour out and cause destruction. At the same time in year 9 that her bad behaviour began to escalate, Catherine was starting to drink more and more. She’d save her dinner money and instead of walking straight home from Wetherby High School, would give the cash to an 18-year-old friend to buy drink. She and others in her gang would then hang around back lanes or a park in the town, drinking their way through 12-packs.

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“I’d feel guilty later, when I’d calmed down,” says Catherine. “When I walked in the house my mum would say ‘not again’ and she’d ground me. But I climbed out of a window to go and see friends. I got into fights at school, and eventually they excluded me after I was in a fight with another girl and a teacher saw it.”

Catherine and her friends, some of them from a different school, had become all too well known to West Yorkshire Police in Wetherby, and when other measures seemed to be having no effect on the girl’s intimidating, harassing and violent behaviour, in the summer of 2009 she was issued with a two-year Anti-Social Behaviour Order (Asbo), which prevented her from possessing or drinking alcohol in public or asking others to buy it on her behalf, being with certain friends, and going into or near various places in the town, including a pub, the park and a certain block of flats. She was also forbidden from behaving in a manner that caused nuisance, harassment or distress.

A string of incidents and warnings had done nothing to curb her wildness and fighting, but Catherine says the Asbo did get through to her and shake her up. “Previous warnings would make me feel scared and bad because of what I was putting my mum through. I’d be good, then something would wind me up and I’d be off out again. Getting the Asbo made me very frightened and suddenly I was worried that if I carried on I’d end up in prison and never do anything with my life.” As part of the Asbo support order the Youth Offending Service became involved and their help included regular anger management sessions. “I could talk about how I was feeling,” she says. “I was also given counselling. There were these people willing to listen to me and I could say anything. Before that I’d thought I was a waste of time and wasn’t bothered about myself. But they also told me where I could end up if I didn’t change my ways. I realised it was up to me, but these people would support me if I decided be good.”

Wetherby High School had put up with a lot from Catherine and might have had every excuse to decide she should become someone else’s headache, especially when housing problems meant the family moved to Leeds. Certainly Catherine was regularly discussed by the school’s senior management team, who also had to bear in mind the effect her misdemeanors had on those around her. But there was something about this girl that made them want to bend over backwards to help.

To give everyone a breather, she was sent to a pupil enhancement programme (PEP), with one-on-one teaching. “The staff there were easy to talk to and I started being good, I realised the person I’d been while I was drinking and fighting wasn’t really me. I did breach the Asbo once by going out to see my friends and I did have a few drinks. But after that I didn’t go out and didn’t drink. I began to think that I needed to get back to school, get my exams, find the right friends and just lead a normal life.”

Catherine was introduced to art therapy as a way of exploring her feelings, and quickly discovered she has both talent and drive. “I’d always doodled, but never thought about it,” she says. “Regular sessions with Pam made me realise I have something, and doing it made me feel happier and more confident. It helped me to concentrate as well. I wanted to get back to school and try for art GCSE.”

After a gradual reintegration into school, and with the help of a support worker, Catherine, who has since exhibited her artwork at Meanwood Valley Farm, has gone from strength to strength, say her teachers. She’s now in the middle of her GCSE and BTec exams, which include English, Science, Religious Education, Art and Product Design. The girl who drowned her feelings of worthlessness in drunken antics two years ago has also been accepted by Leeds College of Art for a one-year diploma in art and design next year.

“I love David Hockney’s work. I’d like to be a community artist, and work with kids in schools. Since I’ve been good it’s been great. It takes the stress off you, not having the police knocking on the door every five minutes.

“I still flip sometimes after a row at home. Before I’d have thrown plates around, but now I just concentrate on drawing patterns to calm me down. In a way the Asbo did me a favour because it stopped me from drinking. My mum’s started saying she’s proud of me.”

There’s been a concerted team effort to help Catherine to change her life, and in recognition of her efforts her Asbo was lifted seven months early by the court. Everyone was delighted, and – who’d have thought it two years ago? – Wetherby High School will be sad to see her leave.

“(Two years ago) Catherine was angry, frustrated, and there was instability in her life,” says Peter Muddiman, head of key stage 4. “We felt we knew her and there was some hidden talent in her. When she was happy and calm, she was lovely .

“We felt there were external influences at play but the school gave her stability. We arranged for her to be schooled off-site for a while with staff who work one-on-one with great skill and patience. She eventually came back and she has blossomed. I don’t want to underestimate how trying she had been and we clung on by our fingernails sometimes. We also have to balance her needs against those of the rest of the school, but it is both wonderful and rewarding to see how she has repaid everyone’s faith in her.”

Councillor Judith Blake, executive board member children’s services at Leeds City Council, said: “Catherine’s achievements in what were very difficult personal circumstances are an inspiration to us all. But they may not have been possible without the dedication and support of Wetherby School, its teachers and the joint working between the council’s youth services team and anti-social behaviour team.”

Catherine still isn’t sure why her anger was so extreme. “I think I was doing it as a cry for help...but I could have ended up in prison. Being good again wasn’t easy at times, but I was told other people would give me lots of help as long as I put my effort in. It’s been worth it.”