Each year about 150,000 children face the stigma of having a
parent in prison. As well as the stress of criminal proceedings and
the distress of losing a parent, some are also subject to hate
campaigns by neighbours. People may shout at them in the street.
Shops may refuse to serve them and parents may ban them from
playing with their children. Some have even had to endure excrement
shoved through their letterboxes.
Then there are the practical consequences. Not only will the
children be physically separated from their parent, but if the
offender was the main breadwinner then the family will suffer
financially and may lose their home. Children might also experience
mental health problems and often become disruptive at school.
Despite their vulnerability – and obvious need for support – no
service has a statutory responsibility towards prisoners’
children, and universal services may not pick up on their needs if
the imprisonment is kept secret.
Too scared to tell
“Generally families are frightened to disclose because
they are frightened of the reaction they will get, and children are
often secretive because they have been told not to tell anyone,”
says Sarah Salmon, assistant director of Action for
Prisoners’ Families. She adds that not all children will know
where their parent has gone.
“Younger children may be told that that their daddy is on
holiday, or on an oil rig or working for the Queen. Some children
in families are told but not others and that can be a burden for
those that know.”
Not telling children the truth could add to their distress. Some
children will have seen their dad in the morning, and if he has
been remanded into custody while they are at school, they could be
left to fill in the blanks themselves. In these cases, children
sometimes imagine the worst, says Adrienne Katz, chief executive of
young people’s organisation Young Voice.
“They might imagine their dad is being tortured in a dungeon or
think he is in hospital and very sick. If they are not told the
truth they can’t understand why their parent has abandoned
them,” she says.
Of course it is not only fathers who are sent to prison; about
8,000 children a year have their lives turned upside down because
of their mothers’ imprisonment. Some – around 11 per cent –
end up in care, but most move in with relatives. This is seldom
ideal and is sometimes unsafe.
“Some mums have told me that they were abused as children and
that they are worried that their child may now be living with the
abuser,” says Katz.
Most children want to stay in contact with their parent during
the prison sentence. Visits are important but can be difficult to
organise. In 2001, prisoners were held an average of 53 miles away
from home, and one in four families had to undertake a five-hour
round trip to see them.1 With prisoners entitled to at
least one visit per fortnight, the costs soon mount up.
But it’s not just the amount of time and money
involved. Most visits take place on weekdays, meaning a day off
school for the children. Given families’ reluctance to tell
people this can result in the days off being marked down as
unauthorised absences. Teachers do not receive specific guidance on
the issue and children often say that teachers treat them
differently once they know about the imprisonment.
Lisa Moore, senior project worker for Ormiston Children and
Families Trust, works with children who have a parent or other
relative in prison. She visits them in schools, youth groups, or at
home so that they can talk on a one-to-one basis.
Moore also trains school staff. She asks them to think about the
negative comments they have read or heard about prisoners and their
families. “They report comments like ‘they are all the
same’ or ‘they get an easy ride in prison’. I
point out that these are the barriers families face before they
walk out of their front door. I explain how this is what the
families expect you think.”
Schools are encouraged to show their awareness by displaying
posters and leaflets so that parents feel comfortable and know that
confidentiality is assured.
Prisoners’ children need support to steer them away from
criminal behaviour. Having a parent inside is an undisputed risk
factor for offending – studies have shown that women who know
criminal relatives or friends are six times more likely to offend
themselves.2 But a recent suggestion by Home Office
minister Hazel Blears that government might target special services
on prisoners’ children have raised concerns over
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, has
reservations. She welcomes government efforts to support children
with parents in prison, but would not support targeting them as the
prisoners of the future. She says: “If they are seen as children in
need then that is one thing. If they are seen as a risk then that
could antagonise them and drive them into the very offending
behaviour that we are trying to avoid.”
Many feel that any initiative aimed at helping the children of
prisoners needs to take account of all aspects of their life, not
just their enhanced risk of offending. After all it is not the
child’s fault that their mum or dad has been sent to prison.
Rather than being seen as guilty by association, prisoners’
children should be seen as the victims of circumstance that they
by Ex-Prisoners, Social Exclusion Unit, 2002
Youth Crime: Findings
from the 1998-9 Youth Lifestyles Survey, Home
Comments from teenagers with a parent in
“We don’t really talk about it ’cos mum gets upset
and it’s no good ‘cos it isn’t going to get him
home any quicker. You just have to put up with it really until he
“She mustn’t think we don’t love her – if we
don’t keep in touch she will think we don’t love her
and she will harm herself again”
“I felt I had no one to talk to. 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. I have hardly any free
“Mum tells the school that I am ill or I am going to the doctor
so there is no need for them to know anything”
Source: No One’s Ever Asked Me, Action for
Prisoners’ Families, 2001
Gloucestershire Council has had a policy for the education of
children with a parent or close relative in prison since April
2002. It states that:
- Gloucestershire local education authority will provide schools
with appropriate information and guidance so that schools are aware
of their responsibilities towards this group.
- The LEA will establish a named person in each school
responsible for this group of children.
- The LEA will provide appropriate training to named teachers in