Parents in prison: the effects on children

When a parent goes to jail, the whole family can suffer. Anabel Unity Sale looks at the effects of this separation on children and speaks to an agency that addresses their issues

When a parent is sent to prison the shattering impact on their family is often underestimated or ignored. While the offender is inside, on the outside the family faces their own form of punishment.

This is a reality that Sarah Baxter,* a 35-year-old part-time community care worker, recognises. In August 2005 Peter Carterson,* her partner of 19 years, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for drug-dealing. It was his first time in prison and his incarceration had a devastating effect on the couple and their children, Emily*, now 16, Daniel,* 12, and Reece,* six.

In the run-up to the trial the couple decided to tell their children that “daddy has been naughty and is going to be punished” as a means of preparing them. However, his jailing still left all three children angry and confused. Consequently, their behaviour deteriorated. “It’s like they took the root away from our family and we all crumbled,” says Baxter.

One of the most difficult things she had to face initially was the reporting of Carterson’s sentencing in their local newspaper, which came out before she could tell her family. Baxter says they all felt ashamed of his behaviour but have stood by him because he made a mistake. “In the beginning I could have taken myself off to bed and never woken up. But I didn’t have an option about whether I was going to cope. It was a case of having to.”

Daniel in particular was affected badly and at first refused to go to school. The head teacher was unaware of the situation because Baxter was too embarrassed and thought the family could “muddle through” without informing them. Daniel could not stop crying and did not want to leave the house. Eventually he went back to school but his behaviour – in school and at home – was erratic.

“Daniel was emotional or angry. There were bouts of tears, followed by lashing out,” says Baxter. When Daniel finally confided in a student mentor at school about his father he was given counselling and his behaviour slowly improved.

Of course Baxter and her children’s experience is by no means unique, some 150,000 children have to deal with having a parent in prison. But their plight is not at the top of the political agenda. In the battle for votes and resources, those convicted of crimes do not necessarily win any favours just because they have children. However, Lucy Gampell, director of Action for Prisoners’ Families, says the fact that children are involved should mean that more is done for these families.

The impact of a parent’s imprisonment on a child, she says, is similar to that of bereavement and the situation is made worse because many feel they cannot reveal where the parent is. “Sometimes young children blame themselves, as if they have done something wrong, which is why mummy or daddy has been taken away.”

This notion of guilt is reiterated by Cathy Stancer, director of the charity Women in Prison. She says this scenario is particularly pertinent for families where the mother is a single parent and the child may be taken into care when she is jailed. The charity regularly hears from female prisoners who are concerned their children’s mental health and their educational attainment is suffering. “Mothers say they are worried about their kids being emotionally withdrawn and not doing well at school.” She adds it is estimated that 35 per cent of prisoners’ children report mental health issues in comparison with just 10 per cent of all children.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, argues that the stigma of imprisonment is so high and understanding so poor that many children feel they have to keep it a secret. “They are ashamed of it and know it is not to be talked about.”

To counteract stigma many children lie or are told by their other parent not to tell anyone outside the family. Stancer and Gampell say they know of children who have pretended their mother or father is on a long holiday or working away. Such deceit means it can be difficult for these children and their families to access the support services they may need.

One agency working with children of prisoners is Time for Children and Young People (TCYP) in Essex, which is managed by the Ormiston Children and Families Trust. The trust published a report about how its services in eastern England work with prisoners’ children and their families.1 It said: “Without extra support, these particularly vulnerable groups of children are at high risk of poor outcomes and the intergenerational transmission of offending.”

Kathy Joyce, senior project worker at TCYP, knows how significant it is to ensure the needs of children of offenders are identified and met. She works with children aged five to 13 with a parent or close relative in prison and has a caseload of about 18 families each quarter, including Baxter and her children, who self-refer or are referred by other agencies, including social services.

Joyce says: “It is difficult for children to get their head around the fact that the person who teaches them right from wrong is being locked away behind high walls.” She adds the project works with children to help them understand it is the behaviour of the parent, and not the parent themselves, that has resulted in their imprisonment.

So what can social care professionals do to meet these vulnerable clients’ needs and prevent them following their parents’ lead? Joyce says there needs to be more awareness and acknowledgement among practitioners about the poorer outcomes expected for this client group. For a start, staff could learn about what a child goes through when they visit a parent in prison. “Not all practitioners realise it can be quite traumatic for the child,” Joyce says.

Stancer wants professionals to consult prisoners – especially women prisoners – about decisions involving their children. “Practitioners should never assume that a mother isn’t concerned about her child just because she is in prison. They should make the effort, even if it’s logistically problematic, to include her in decision-making and any care proceedings.”

Lyon says professionals should lobby for prison to be reserved for the most violent and serious offenders. “Social care professionals should argue the case for community penalties where they can be justified as a way to avoid separating these families.”

The work of social care professionals such as Joyce have had such a positive impact on Sarah Baxter and her family that she is considering becoming a volunteer for Ormiston when her partner is released. “I want to help other families who are going through what we’ve been through. The important thing is to be strong, stay together as a family – and hang on to the determination that in future you will never go down the wrong road again.”

* Not their real names

Separate lives

  • An estimated 150,000 children have a parent in prison.
  • 7 per cent of children will experience their father’s imprisonment during their time in school.
  • 66 per cent of women and 59 per cent of men in prison have dependent children younger than 18.
  • One Home Office study revealed that, for 85 per cent of mothers, prison was the first time they had been away from their children for a significant time.

    Additional reading
    (1) Time for Families: Positive Outcomes for Children and Families of Offenders Using Ormiston Services in Prisons and the Community, Ormiston Children and Families Trust, July 2006

    Further information
    Action for Prisoners’ Families
    Women in Prison
    Prison Reform Trust
    Time for Children and Young People

  • More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.