Would you know how to support children with family members in prison?

When he got arrested it caused loads of fights in the family. People were really upset with him again. Mum didn’t know at first until someone told her. I felt upset at first, and I missed him all the time. But I was ashamed and didn’t want to tell people. We never got any information from anyone – where he was or telling us what was happening.’ 15-year old, father in prison.

‘We miss him; we want him to know what we think of him. We have to let him know in case he does anything stupid – you know, suicide or that. Have to make sure he doesn’t do anything like that. If he knows we love him and miss him he won’t do anything like that.’ Siblings aged 13 and 14, father in prison.

‘The police raided our house to arrest my brother but no one was there. We got home to the house smashed up from the police raid. It was a mess. It was horrible. It’s not a pleasant thing to find out about at all. It was all in the papers and on the news as well. They even put our address in, which was really out of order. It was really hard. I wasn’t sleeping, didn’t know what was going on. It felt like it was a dream.’ 16-year old, brother in prison.

‘I only told my two best friends. The school still doesn’t know because I don’t feel they will be sympathetic. Now I am doing my GCSEs I really wish they knew.’ 16 year old, both parents in prison.

Source: Action for People’s families

I was recently commissioned to develop a course on supporting children with family members in prison. This is an important safeguarding concern which is cited in Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021, putting those children affected ‘at risk of poor outcomes including poverty, stigma, isolation and poor mental health.’ (KCSIE 2021 Annexe B)

But despite this, I discovered that during my research there isn’t an overwhelming amount of material out there to help professionals who are trying to address this concern. Hence the need for a course I suppose.

Here are some of the aspects of the course that I will plan to cover that have emerged from my research.

In 2017, as part of the government’s review of prison services, Lord Farmer was commissioned to research how actively supporting family relationships for prisoners could reduce rates of reoffending. It is understood that offenders who maintain family ties are nearly 40% less likely to reoffend compared to those who don’t, but prisons are extremely inconsistent in supporting those ties. His subsequent report was ground-breaking, and actually broadened the focus of criminal justice work to the families of prisoners who were directly deeply affected by their sentence. He concluded that:

‘partners, parents and children of prisoners need the support of society, not just because of the key role they can play in offender rehabilitation, but also because of the hidden sentence they are serving, typically without having committed any crime themselves…These children should be on the radar of public services with professionals checking in with families, ensuring needs are identified and met, targeting support to those most at risk, breaking the intergenerational cycle of abuse.’

Farmer Review Report (publishing.service.gov.uk

The one thing I fear most is my son moving into the kind of life I have led’.

Prisoner speaks in Farmer Review 2017

What are the effects on children of having family members in prison?

The effects of having family members in prison for children are profound. Research highlights that children of prisoners are at risk of significantly worse outcomes than other children. Immediate effects of parental incarceration include: 

  • emotional impact (e.g. anger, sadness at losing a parent, holding a ‘family secret’)
  • educational impact (e.g. having to miss school due to prison visits),
  • financial impact (e.g. loss of a parent’s income) and
  • practical impact (e.g. losing the family home, change in caregiver).

Over time, the children of prisoners are:

  • twice as likely compared to other children to experience conduct and mental health problems;
  • less likely to do well at school; and
  • 65% more likely to be arrested and imprisoned themselves in later years.

Parental imprisonment is acknowledged as an adverse childhood experience (ACE), with recent research showing that parental imprisonment is associated with a fivefold increase in exposure to other ACEs.

It might be argued that parental imprisonment could be a positive event in families where the relationship with the incarcerated parent was problematic, or the parent was not a consistent figure in the child’s life. However, looked at from the perspective of the child, the incarceration of a parent should be regarded as invariably a loss, with potentially traumatic consequences, regardless of the level of contact prior to sentencing.

The parent left behind, normally the mother, is also left to deal with the consequences — explaining what’s happened to the children (or asking them to keep it quiet), then to the school, managing to survive financially, and managing the impact on the children of losing a parent suddenly. She may fear seeking help due to worries about losing her children to the care system.

Research suggests that the imprisonment of a mother, though rarer, is even more damaging for a child’s later outcomes than the imprisonment of a father. This may be due to a number of reasons, including mothers in prison being more likely to be primary caregivers and/or be sole parents than fathers in prison, meaning maternal incarceration is likely to have a more disruptive effect on children compared to paternal incarceration.

This issue affects more children than is commonly thought. Although KCSIE quotes the figure of 200,000 children with family members in prison, this falls well short of other estimates.  Some researchers have concluded that actually around 312,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment each year, a number which is not static (Children of Prisoners, Kincaid, Roberts and Kane, 2019). The problem is that there is currently no process for recording the number of children affected by imprisonment.  

And that leads on to another significant safeguarding concern for children with family members in prison. Whist every local authority has a responsibility to protect and promote the welfare of children in need, children who have a parent in custody are still not regarded as a vulnerable group by definition by statutory safeguarding services. Shockingly, there is no system for identifying affected children at the point of sentence, and no arrangements in place for ensuring that at this traumatic point in a child’s life, services will step in and check on their welfare.

There are also no statutory services in place to tackle the very real long-term risks to their life chances. It seems that our society literally relies on whoever is left on the outside, usually the mother, to pick up the pieces in an ad hoc way which may leave children incredibly vulnerable. Many mothers may feel stigmatised if they share their circumstances openly and ask for help directly. The absence of a system to identify children with family members in prison, and lack of specific support services for them, presents a huge challenge to schools and other settings to effectively safeguarding those children. It puts the emphasis on schools to find out for themselves if the children in their care do have family members in prison, and to come up with their own solutions that might help them.

What can practitioners do?

First, schools and other settings should be alert to signs that children are being adversely affected by the reality of having family members in prison. Is the family under stress? Are children withdrawn and anxious? Good safeguarding means giving children and families the opportunity to disclose what is affecting them. As professionals, we should not be afraid to ask. You may also hear about these matters affecting families on the news, on social media, or from other parents. Be responsive.

Building on the positives is important. Though the risks are considerable, there may be moderating factors in the child’s life that can mitigate them. The strength of the parent-child relationship before imprisonment is key, as is the quality of the child’s relationships with other family and extended family members; and the child’s own individual characteristics such as resilience.

KCSIE also recommend the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders (NICCO) which provides information on a full range of services and resources for all professionals who come into contact with the children and families of offenders. NICCO helps to develop, support and enhance the relationship between offenders and their families by supplying information and guidance to the professionals who are working with them both.

Barnardo’s is one of the few organisations to helping children with a parent in prison. They run training services for professionals as well as services in the community and in prisons to help maintain contact and support family relationships. They say: ‘No child should be punished because their parent is in prison. We know that children who have a parent in prison can feel isolated and ashamed – and most feel unable to talk about it because they’re scared of being bullied. They’re also more likely than other children to have mental health problems and to get in trouble with the law themselves as they grow up. These children are often left in the shadows, their needs forgotten, and this can have devastating impacts. Despite their situation, they are locked out of the support they need to give them a better chance in life.’ Children with a parent in prison | Barnardo’s (barnardos.org.uk)

Parents in prison | Childline offers some excellent practical advice and direct support to children who have family members in prison on their website.

They say to children: ‘Having a parent or carer in prison can leave you feeling all sorts of things. It’s normal to feel torn between loving your parent and hating what they’ve done. This can make you feel confused, and like you need someone to talk to. Whatever the reason your parent is in prison, it’s not your fault.’  A range of issues are addressed on these pages in a child centred way, including what to do if your family won’t talk about what has happened, what to do if you are being bullied because you have a family member in prison, and how to cope with difficult feelings. Invaluable.

Other sources of help:

Prisoners’ Families Helpline (prisonersfamilies.org)

Parenting and Family Support – Family Lives (Parentline Plus)

YoungMinds | Mental Health Charity For Children And Young People | YoungMinds

Finally KCSIE (2021) says that children who have a family member in prison are regarding as possibly needing a targeted early help service:

‘19. Any child may benefit from early help, but all school and college staff should be particularly alert to the potential need for early help for a child who:

• has a family member in prison, or is affected by parental offending;’

Settings should therefore consider seeking external support through Early Help services if they consider that they cannot directly provide the level of support that the family needs.

If you would like to find out more about my safeguarding children training, please check out my website and latest brochure. And if you have a need for a safeguarding course that doesn’t appear in that brochure, please do consider commissioning me to write one for you. I’d be pleased to talk through your training needs with you. Some of my best courses were written at the request of my clients.