In this guest blog by Children Heard and Seen, Cara Mohan-Carr, Policy and Campaigns Co-ordinator, explores the context for parental imprisonment and outlines a new pilot for Early Identification of Children Impacted by Parental Imprisonment in collaboration with Thames Valley Police and Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit.
An estimated 312,000 children experience parental imprisonment each year in England and Wales, as found in Crest Advisory’s 2019 report Children of prisoners: fixing a broken system. Despite this sizeable figure, there is currently no statutory mechanism for identifying children with a parent in prison and no government department holds responsibility for them. Although the Department for Education includes them under a more generic ‘troubled families’ heading, there is no specific remit for children impacted by parental imprisonment.
What’s the problem?
Parental imprisonment is recognised as an adverse childhood experience, but it meets no thresholds for children’s social care and neither does it automatically trigger any other support for the child.
Whilst the negative impacts of parental imprisonment have been well documented, we still fail to adequately support children, leaving them at risk of experiencing shame, stigma, and social isolation as a minimum. Children with a parent in prison are 25% more likely to face poor mental health, and less likely to flourish in academic settings. In 1983, in Forgotten Victims: How prison affects the family’, Matthews recognised the impact of parental imprisonment on children and in 1992 in Prisoners’ Children: What are the issues?’, Shaw recognised children of prisoners as ‘the orphans of justice’.
So, what has changed in nearly thirty years? In many respects, nothing, and in others, the situation has deteriorated. Online news and social media can allow details of the parents’ imprisonment, their name and address, to be shared in seconds, resulting in children having to leave their home, school and all that is familiar to them to avoid community backlash and vigilantes. This is what we hear from children and parents we support every day – you can read first-hand accounts here. Whilst research on intergenerational crime (refers to the observed phenomenon that crime can run in families) is out of date, which in itself presents problems, it would be remiss of us to ignore the potential impact of harms to children who experience parental imprisonment, and their long term affects. For the 600+ children who have been supported by Children Heard and Seen in the last seven years, the intergenerational crime rate is 0.4%.
We have made significant efforts to identify children via different routes, contacting GP surgeries, children’s centres, and schools. A regular response when contacting schools is an assumption that there aren’t any children with parents in prison present, saying “oh, we don’t have children like that in our school”. Identifying children impacted by parental imprisonment is difficult, compounded by the judgement that makes families fearful of disclosing. 40% percent of the families we support haven’t spoken to anyone outside their immediate family about their situation before they speak to us, and the parent may have been in prison for over 12 months, and some for as long as 12 years.
Allowing children to remain unsupported when we are aware of the negative impacts of parental imprisonment and what can be done to mitigate them, is questionable at best and negligent at worst.
What’s our solution?
Being able to identify children impacted by parental imprisonment as early as possible, so we can provide appropriate support, is key to our ground-breaking partnership with Thames Valley Police and Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit (TVVRU). For the first time, the Ministry of Justice is providing information to TVVRU regarding when someone enters custody from Oxford and, utilising a brand new Thames Valley dataset, they are able to identify whether children were residing in the household where the imprisoned person lived.
How does it work?
As part of this pilot project, a Police Community Support Officer will visit the family home to provide information about Children Heard and Seen, giving the family a chance to decide if they want to access support. When a family reaches out to Children Heard and Seen, we will undertake an initial assessment to identify the specific needs of each child so we can put tailored support in place. This can include specialist one to one support, group work and mentoring. Our interventions are not time limited; children and families are supported for as long as they need us. During the week of the pilot launch in November 2021, we received 17 self-referrals, significantly higher than our usual 3-5 referrals. The publicity generated by the launch meant more families referred themselves to our service, and although we had worked closely with the Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit and planned for the increase the pilot would generate, we did not anticipate the increase in referrals from around the country.
We are hopeful that following the pilot project, we will be able to extend the reach of this work. It has already extended into the rest of Oxfordshire and discussions are taking place to extend it to the whole of the Thames Valley region and beyond.
The Daily Express is currently running a ‘Breaking the Cycle’ campaign with our support to call for children impacted by parental imprisonment to be identified by statutory services and for a commissioner for children impacted by parental imprisonment to be appointed. You can find out more about the pilot and the campaign here https://childrenheardandseen.co.uk/our-news/
Share your views – what else is there to consider?
- What else can we do to ensure children impacted by parental imprisonment receive the support they deserve, bearing in mind a significant number do not have contact with the parent in prison so have no access to ‘family services’ that exist to promote and support contact with the prisoner?
- Should one government department be responsible for children with a parent in prison or should all departments be, at a minimum, parental imprisonment-curious? The impact of parental imprisonment is relevant across multiple departments.
- Who should be responsible for identifying children impacted by parental imprisonment? Is it the responsibility of schools who could ask every child at enrolment and at change of year if they have a parent in prison, in the same way children are asked if they have a parent in the military? If not schools, who?