09 March 2020

The parents of young victims who have lost their lives to knife crime will deliver powerful accounts about losing their loved ones in a new installation to be launched this week (March 12) at the University of East London (UEL).

The lasting effects of violent crime is a subject often ignored in the UK, with a lack of support for affected families, according to University of East London alumna Allison Vitalis, the curator of The Wake-Up Room.

It's a national problem. There's a void and parents are not receiving the support that they need.  Some of them are offered counselling instantly, when they've lost a child; but they can't even process it themselves, let alone sit down in front of someone else and talk about it,"

Alison Vitalis, UEL Clinical and Community Psychology graduate and knife crime worker, said.

Ms Vitalis works with members of Postcode Parents, a volunteer-led support group run by the Charlie Burns Foundation, which developed the idea for the installation.

From the beginning, the installation has intended to bring greater visibility of the parents grieving for their children and “for people to understand these children have come from somewhere."

Ms Vitalis said, “We rehabilitate prisoners in order for them to come back into society, but these parents also need rehabilitation because they have lost a child and they need to be able to exist in a world where they have a loss.”

The installation will focus on the stories of seven families from London and Leicester – only “five of whom have had justice.”

Ms Vitalis’s then 22-year-old nephew was stabbed twice in 2017. He survived both attacks, but “that’s when I realised how important Postcode Parents was to me. It had gone from me supporting them to now needing the support myself.”

The installation will be divided into three spaces, the first of which is a gallery of portrait photographs of the victims and their parents accompanied by extracts from stories and audio recordings of parents based on “post-memory inheritance and how they’ve pieced together the story of the last moments of their child being alive.

The second space is a ‘street memorial’ with flowers, candles and messages, which will offer visitors the opportunity to sign a book of condolences or leave a message for someone, and the third, the ‘living space’, will feature some of the victims’ clothing and other belongings, as well as a video projection with stories from the parents.

Ms Vitalis said one of the parents is talking about when the doctor told her that her son had died, while another recalls her surprise when her son called her ‘mum’, not realising it was the last time he would ever say that.

The installation will also hear from the parents on the potential solutions to combat knife crime.

Jessica Plummer, who lost her son Shaquan Sammy-Plummer to knife crime, said The Wake-Up Room is giving parents a platform to be heard. 

Ms Plummer said, “The perpetrators seem to have all the say and we are left to pick up the pieces on our own, we do not feel heard. In court it feels like we are criminals, while the perpetrators are treated like victims. It also feels as though they have more rights than us, the family of the victims.

“They have everything put in place for them and we left on our own. We need more support for the families, especially for the siblings of the victim.”

Professor Verity Brown, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Impact & Innovation, at the University of East London said, “Civic engagement is at the heart of almost everything that happens at UEL. As a student here, Allison Vitalis participated in real-world, off-campus projects, making a real difference in the community with Postcode Parents, and has continued to do so as a graduate, bringing this hugely important installation to campus.”

Ms Vitalis hopes to expand the installation nationally in a bid to break down misconceptions. 

“People hear ‘knife crime’ and think ‘thug, gangs, drugs’, yet a lot of the stories involve wrong place, wrong time. They don’t understand the impact it has on the families when they make these kinds of judgments.”

The Home Office announced last week that from next month new powers to tackle knife crime will be piloted by the Metropolitan Police.

The Wake-Up Room will run from March 13 to 18 (closed Sunday) at the University of East London’s Way Out East Gallery. This is located in the AVA Building on the Docklands Campus, University Way, E16 2RD.

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