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‘We just got left’: How children of prisoners are abandoned by the state

The government has no statutory duty to identify or support children whose parents are in prison. Why not?

Cherry Casey
19 May 2023, 11.23am

As it stands, the state has no obligation to support children with parents in prison


Richard Bailey / Getty

  • Warning: contains references to suicide

Discovering a child is living by themselves while their parent is in prison is not an unusual occurrence for Sarah Burrows. Sometimes it'll happen once a month. But in January last year, the founder of charity Children Heard and Seen (CHAS) was alerted to five separate cases across England and Wales.

One was a 15-year-old boy, who had been alone for months – with no gas or electricity – after his mother had been jailed. Another time, a victim support officer visited the home of a teenage girl, only to find she had been alone since her father’s arrest. A third time, a criminologist visiting a house for research purposes found just children living there. And so on.

It’s why Burrows set up the charity in 2014. It’s the 21st century, she says, “how is it possible that there are children living alone?”.

The answer is because there is no statutory duty for any government body – whether it’s the care system, the criminal justice system or the Department for Education – to identify or support children impacted by parental imprisonment.

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In the examples described above, after their arrest the parent failed to disclose they had a child at home (in all likelihood because of fear of social services intervention, says Burrows) and so the children simply fell through the cracks.

This happened to Layla, who when she was eight – along with her six siblings – lived for several weeks without any parent or carer after her mother was arrested. “No one cared enough about who was going to look after us, we just got left,” Layla, now 21, says. Her ten-year old sister was the eldest and “took on the whole clan”. It was only when they took their malnourished six-month-old sister to the hospital that anyone realised their situation.

“I received little to no support during the process of my mum being arrested and going to jail,’ says Layla. “This impacted me hugely and I still struggle with attachment issues, poor mental health and poor physical health.”

Research by Children of Prisoners Europe in 2019 found 25% of children aged 11 or over who had a parent in prison had an increased risk of mental health problems.

Burrows says that when she set up CHAS, she was struck by the “shame, stigma, isolation and loneliness” that children were dealing with. Some were bullied at school, others faced violent attacks on their home. One story that particular resonated was that of a five-year-old boy who was the only one not invited to a classmate’s birthday.

Children of prisoners are routinely ‘othered’ by their friends, their community, even wider family members, she says, “because the offences [of their parent] are distasteful. It’s simpler to see them as associated with ‘something else’, rather than as just a child.”

Before he was arrested in 2015, Kat’s* father was a well-liked figure in the community. After his conviction, however, Kat says “it flipped completely and even though I was just a child, people didn’t want to know me.” Feeling judged and ostracised by people at her school and in the community added an extra layer of self-consciousness to her teenage years, she says.

However, Kat, now 21, did have individual support from her school mentor because her mother had informed the school of her father’s situation. “I’m so grateful my mum was that strong. Many children don’t have a parent who’s able to ring up and tell anyone what’s going on, and that’s where the downfall is.”

Child impact assessment toolkit

Layla agrees that for a child going through such a complex experience, “just having someone who can listen to their worries is key”. Today, she mentors children with a parent in prison, and has contributed to the creation of the “child impact assessment toolkit”, a project led by Sarah Beresford in collaboration with the Prison Reform Trust.

“The trauma that children go through when their parent goes to prison is huge,” says Beresford, “particularly if they witness the arrest.”

This could be avoided if the systems and agencies that such children came into contact with – police and probation staff, social workers, teachers at school – had specialised training and adequate support to help them. Currently, this is completely lacking.

The toolkit aims to combat this, providing a framework that practitioners from a range of fields can use to understand how a child impacted by parental imprisonment is feeling, and determine what kind of support is needed.

“We need long-term policy reform, but also actions that can be taken now within the current job descriptions that exist now,” says Beresford. “For example, there could be a police officer whose role is focused on the children, who at the point of arrest takes them into another room, tells them their mum or dad is going to be safe, and asks if there’s anyone they can call. It’s simple stuff but none of that is happening.”

She cites the example of a judge in Scotland “who postponed the sentence for six weeks for the family to make proper childcare arrangements”. That is the kind of system England and Wales should be aiming for, she says, “one that mitigates the impact on children as much as possible.”

The toolkit, which was published in December, is already used by some practitioners, including social workers, teachers and mentors in England and Wales, and is helping support pilot projects within criminal justice processes, such as in sentencing.

Abolish short sentences for mothers

Dr Shona Minson from the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University agrees that suspended and deferred sentencing are both options that should be used more, and that short sentences should be abolished entirely, particularly for mothers. Some 70% of prison sentences handed to women are for less than 12 months, but spending just a few months in prison is enough for a mother to lose her home and often her children, says Minson.

By identifying how many children of prisoners there are, then you'd have to do something about it. By not identifying it, it's not a problem

On release, Minson explains, the mother is in “this awful catch-22 situation where she is recorded as ‘intentionally homeless’, meaning she doesn't get housing priority, meaning she's placed in a single room in a hostel, and she's not eligible to have her children back.” The impact on children, who often bounce from one care arrangement to another, is severe, she adds.

She gave a particularly harrowing example of a 15-year-old boy who was taken into care when his mother was imprisoned. At 16, he moved into a flat by himself. Soon after, his mother was released and placed in a homeless shelter, and he frequently left his placement to spend time with her. But at the age of 18 he took his own life, says Minson, “and it really was because of this level of disruption that occurred when he was a child.”

Community sentences and prevention schemes could be implemented as alternatives to custodial sentences, says Minson, pointing to the women’s problem-solving court (PSC) in Greater Manchester, where community orders are combined with progress reviews.

“It’s a fantastic model,” says Minson, “because it actually treats people as people, allowing them to continue with their community ties, their children, their jobs, while helping them to address the issues that have led to their offending.” Three more PSC pilots – for women and men – are to be rolled out in Birmingham, Liverpool and Teeside.

Importance of data and funding

Current figures for children in England and Wales with a parent in prison range from 96,000 children today to 310,000 every year – but these are estimates, there is no official data about the children of prisoners.

This lack of robust research is a key barrier to offering such children the support they need, according to James Ottley, family and project operational manager at CHAS.

“There isn't the data, there isn't the funding and it seems like there isn't the interest,” says Ottley, adding that this feels like purposeful avoidance by the government. “By identifying how many children of prisoners there are, then you'd have to do something about it. By not identifying it, it's not a problem.”

The Ministry of Justice refutes this, saying it is trying to improve its understanding of the number of children impacted by parental imprisonment. A spokesperson said this includes a “new screening processes to better identify and record offenders entering prison who have caring responsibilities” and investing £20m into a data programme to improve support for people with complex needs “including those with parents in prison”.

Taking data matters into its own hands, CHAS has partnered with the Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit to create ‘Operation Paramount’ – a scheme that uses police data to identify the family of an adult who has been arrested, then offers them support and direction to services that could help.

Following a successful pilot, the scheme is to be rolled out across the Thames Valley region this year, while similar schemes are underway in south Wales and Birmingham.

These are groundbreaking initiatives, says Burrows, but should be seen as just a start, and they won’t identify every child affected. What is urgently needed, she says, is a data mechanism that identifies all children impacted by parental imprisonment, which should then be referred to the local authority multi-agency safeguarding hub to enable informed decisions around what support that child needs.

Ana*, whose father was in prison during her childhood, argues that schools should play a far greater role in offering support to children, “explicitly recognising [their needs] and offering a framework of protection at a structural level”.

Ana was fortunate in that her mother ensured she was minimally impacted by her father’s imprisonment, “but I know kids who became responsible for so much at a young age – looking after their younger siblings, helping their mum pay bills and manage the home. They fell through the cracks because they never sought support or even knew it was there to seek.”

Ottley agrees, saying that “what many children of prisoners are experiencing is similar to a bereavement”.

He believes that children of prisoners should be eligible for the government’s ‘pupil premium’ – a grant to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged children, including those in the military. With the extra funding the premium provies, schools would have the capacity to offer individualised, expert support, such as educational psychologists and therapists.

Until then, says Burrows, it remains on the shoulders of small organisations and charities such as CHAS to guide these children and their families through what is likely to be the most traumatic experience of their lives. She is rightly proud of what CHAS has achieved so far, but she says “we’re a tinpot charity based in Oxfordshire, trying to reach everywhere. The problem is massive and strategically needs real change.”

*Some names have been changed

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