An ex-offender from Leeds has revealed how he transformed his life after being “exploited into an underworld” of crime to now help young people going through tough times.
Andrew Brierley is a Child Looked After and Care Leaver Specialist at Leeds’s Youth Offending Service.
Unusually, and against all odds, he achieved this position via his own traumatic childhood in care, three spells behind bars and one major chance to prove himself.
The man who admits to being “one of the first kids to be tagged in Britain” is now a proudly married, settled father aged 36, trying to break the merry-go-round of more young people who need help from becoming criminals instead.
He believes that “having ex-offenders and care leavers working within services that serve the most vulnerable is essential to offer visual examples of change and aspiration”.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post, he said: “Families we are working with now are struggling, more than when I started with the Youth Offending Service.”
He added: “These kids have been through trauma and they’re being separated - that’s the most traumatic thing. It feels like you’re being kidnapped.”
Mr Brierley would know, having been taken into care at the age of six, along with his siblings.
Before this his mother, who had been in care herself and given birth to him aged 16, became involved with men who were prone to drugs and offending.
After accessing his own care file some years ago, Mr Brierley became aware of the extent of this.
Having only known small parts, “it completed the picture for me,” he said.
After settling and unsettling in various locations around the country, Mr Brierley and reunited his family moved to Stoke when he was 13.
For a short while, things went well, but when a good paternal influence left – he has never met his biological father – things “completely and utterly fell apart”.
He said: “Grown men in Stoke, when I was 15, exploited me into an underworld that was completely out of my knowledge. They brought me into a world of drugs and crime.”
One man, who was in his 20s, put him in a situation where he felt “trapped” in that lifestyle, he said, and was then taking drugs himself.
Mr Brierley was charged with a drug-related crime at 17, an age where the only trouble with the law he had been in was for “nicking a Men In Black CD from HMV”.
In May 1999, he was sentenced to 18 months, but served only seven, locked up at the HMP Brinsford young offenders’ institution.
Afterwards he returned to Leeds and lived with his mum, and found work, but spent a lot of time clubbing – and substituted drugs for alcohol.
Following a neighbour dispute, at 19 he was sentenced to 20 months in jail, serving 10.
He said that after coming out, ages 20 to 22 “was the darkest time, really; I was really depressed”.
Another crime was committed, this time car-related – “the point of it was masculinity, the point of it was bravado” – and he wound up back in prison for the final time.
Mr Brierley used the period to try and get off intoxicants – all his offending took place under the influence – and earned several qualifications.
He said: “I needed to use prison as a way to get me to where I wanted to be. When I hear people say prison doesn’t work, I can’t necessarily get on board with that. It was absolutely necessary for me.
“Nobody ever said to me, ‘Have you ever thought about the fact that you were raised by people who committed crime and sold drugs?’
“No one had done that with me. I’m not saying it will solve crime, but it’s worth having the conversation.”
Then came May 5, 2005. “It’s a day which I hold dear to me, because that was the last time I was released from custody,” said Mr Brierley, 13 years on.
He was later working in a warehouse when a colleague suggested he aim for another job in 2007.
“At the same time I heard on the radio that the Leeds YOS wanted volunteers,” he said. “I ran and took the number down.”
He enquired, and “they said they were interested to see where that would go,” said Mr Brierley.
“That is incredible from Leeds City Council and incredible from Leeds Youth Offending Service. ‘We are going to give you an opportunity to prove yourself’ – that was said at every level.”
Eventually he helped on a Leeds Rhinos summer programme.
He said: “The relationship I was building with these kids was effortless. I would speak with the same language, my behaviours were the same.”
In 2008, he was told he could quit his job and start working properly for the YOS.
He describes getting his ID badge as “the proudest moment of my life”.
“That feeling of success, at that time, it’s hard to put into words,” he said.
Backed by the council, he completed a Professional Certificate of Effective Practice in 2009, and a Youth Justice Degree in 2013, both at what is now Leeds Beckett University.
Mr Brierley also completed an NVQ Level 4 in Working With Parents With Complex Needs in 2013 with City and Guilds.
“Given I was uneducated when I started with YOS in 2007, it proves that learning on the job for people like me is a possibility and investing in us will have positive effects for society as a whole,” he said.
In 2011, he won a personal achievement award for a screen printing programme he hosted with disadvantaged young people and St Gemma’s Hospice.
Mr Brierley has also been writing a memoir for the last 11 years, and is looking for anyone interested in publishing his work.
Although, his biggest commitment right now is partner Tamara Gomez, 33, and daughter Isabelle Gomez-Brierley, two.
Some parts of his job frustrate him – particularly Disclosure and Barring Service checks, which he feels are a setback for young offenders trying to find work and move on.
He is also incensed by the number of employers who do not take on ex-offenders.
“I would advocate for people to employ people like me, who’ve shown we can come through all those hurdles,” he said.