Margaret Murray wears a pink T-shirt with the legend “Pretty Kitty” emblazoned across it in glitter. Not perhaps the innocuous description many would have used for a woman whose six children were running riot across housing estates in Dundee five years ago.
“They were starting fires, destroying people’s cars, breaking windows, slashing tyres, annoying neighbours, and throwing stones at their windows,” she recalls.
Evicted from the family home, the children – four boys and two girls aged between five and 15 – and their mother began a journey from one private letting to another. In two years they had to move six times, leaving behind them a trail of misery and devastation.
Her children’s behaviour was so bad that as soon as they arrived in a new home their neighbours would resort to vigilante tactics to drive them out.
Hooded youths destroyed her car in one incident. In another, a driver mounted the pavement to trap and threaten one of her sons on his way to school. The abuse culminated in an anonymous phone call to the police threatening to burn the Murrays out of a house that they had moved into in the district of Kirkton. “We had to leave that house under police escort,” Murray recalls. “I was terrified.”
Now in her late 40s, Murray is talking publicly for the first time about her life as a “neighbour from hell”. At the time, she says, she didn’t really appreciate just how dysfunctional her family was. “I suppose I didn’t really see it that way.”
The problems began, she says, when her husband Ally was served with an exclusion order to protect the children from what she calls his “bullying”. She felt a sense of relief about the situation but had little idea of what was to come. With the children’s father gone, she had to give up her job. Then the house was repossessed and she was forced to move into a private let.
Without a disciplinarian presence, she says her sons went wild. “It was a total disaster. The children were playing up something terrible, always getting into trouble.” And what of her duty as a parent to control them? “At that point, they just weren’t listening to me,” she says.
The constant house moves disrupted the children’s schooling, and the one possible point of order in the children’s lives became for most of the boys a rarity. Murray was on first-name terms with the local police who frequently turned up at her door with a truanting child in tow. “They would go out the door as if they were going to school, and the next thing I’d know there would be a letter or phone call asking where they were. On one occasion, John got brought back by the police after being caught shoplifting,” she says.
With little support from family or friends, Murray became increasingly isolated and her mental health deteriorated. Her state of mind prevented her from fighting the descent of her family into chaos, she says. “Every time I tried to do something it was just hopeless. Being depressed as I was, when things aren’t working you just give up.”
She initially refused an attempt by Dundee council’s housing department to get the family into a ground breaking project helping antisocial tenants. She says she saw the staff as another bunch of social workers. It was not until the police escort from Kirkton that she agreed to be referred. The family ended up staying for three years.
The Dundee Families Project, run by children’s charity NCH Scotland, has a residential unit of three flats where specially trained staff are on call round the clock to supervise families and help them change their behaviour. The model project, the Guardian revealed last week, is set to be expanded by the the government in its fight to tackle the emotive issue of nuisance neighbours.
Since the unit opened in 1997, the residential unit has helped around 25 families. Outreach work has supported a further 160. Murray is the first ex-resident to speak to the press about her experiences.
When the family first moved in, things were tense, she recalls. She felt the staff “were watching my every move”. But as time went on she built up trust with her keyworker, Elaine Onyiuke, and found it helpful to have someone on her side.
For Onyiuke, the main difficulty was trying to get the children to understand rules and the whole notion of discipline. “They were relentless,” she recalls. “There were clear boundaries being put in place that they were trying to push and fight against all the time. It took ages for them to get round to realising that we weren’t giving in.” That partly explains why the family’s stay was so long – three years – in contrast to a typical stay of up to 12 months.
Although the support didn’t come cheap – £1,353 a week to rehabilitate the family; £180,000 over three years – the project points out that taking the children into care would have cost £6,000 a week.
The family left the unit 18 months ago and have been living back in the community without any problems. NCH is about to sign over to Murray the tenancy of the council house it has been renting for the family.
Murray describes their reintegration as “scary to start with”. She says: “I was very apprehensive of who I spoke to but that’s improving and we speak to quite a lot of the neighbours now.” Onyiuke says the children are behaving well, with only the odd “blip”. Murray says they feel like a normal family at last.
So has she changed as a mother? “I always like to think I was a good mother,” she replies. “It’s just that things have happened in my life that have made me lose confidence and get depressed, and that has a say in how you are with your kids.”
She remains loyal to her children. “I didn’t like some of the things they’ve done but it didn’t stop me loving them,” she says. “It wasn’t until the Families Project got involved that I started looking at things differently.”
When asked if she now feels any sympathy for her past neighbours, she replies: “I can’t say that I do because I felt that sometimes my children got picked on as well.”
A sign of how far the family has come is their ability to laugh about the Neighbours From Hell television series. “When we watched Neighbours from Hell recently, all the kids said ‘that’s us’,” says Murray collapsing into laughter, before correcting herself. “Was us, is what they meant.” A sign of the family’s journey from the margins of society to a more hopeful future.