Professional support for prisoners’ families and children

The Social Care Institute for Excellence’s weekly analysis of research findings behind specific social work practices

Children of prisoners are often the unseen victims of crime. They have done nothing wrong, yet they are the ones who often carry the guilt and shame of what their parent has done. Unless they are already known to statutory children’s services or are assessed as children in need, they are unlikely to receive any specific support to help them cope.

Research into the effects of parental imprisonment has concluded that children affected are:

● Three times more likely to have mental health problems than their peers.

● Likely to suffer bullying and stigma.

● Will experience higher levels of social exclusion.

● Three times more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour than their peers.

● Likely to suffer from increased poverty.

The chances are that the life of a child with a parent in prison will be seriously disrupted, particularly when it is the child’s mother that has been imprisoned. Only 9% of these children are cared for by their fathers and only 5% of them remain in their own home once their mother has been sentenced.

According to a study by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 29% of these children are cared for by a grandmother 29% by other family members or friends and 12% are in care, fostered or adopted.

There is no one agency with responsibility for supporting children of prisoners and there is no central strategy from government, despite Every Child Matters: Change for Children and the National Offender Management Service’s (Noms) Reducing Reoffending children’s and families’ pathway.

The Noms strategy acknowledges the importance of family ties and seeks to maintain and strengthen relationships between offenders and their families to help prevent reoffending. Local safeguarding children boards are charged with developing a multi-agency strategy to promote the welfare of children, but children of prisoners are not a distinct priority group.

Exploring pathways

The pathway that children and their families follow from the arrest of a parent is explored in Scie’s new e-learning resource on children of prisoners. It also offers some insight into the roles and responsibilities of key professionals. The pathway is divided into four main stages, each of which can profoundly affect a child:

● Arrest: Police may arrest a parent in front of the child. This causes upset and trauma.

● Court: Is where sentence is decided. It may be the last time a child sees their parent before they go to prison.

● Prison: Mother or father may be taken to prison miles from home. They may be moved around a lot. The child may never gain the opportunity to visit.

● Release: The family might find it difficult to adjust when a parent comes home.

There is a range of different professionals involved in the pathway from arrest to release. Each has a role and responsibilities at each stage.

When a social worker is already working with a family they will be involved from arrest. If the family has not previously been known to social services, but there are concerns about the welfare of a child, the police should ask for an assessment by a social worker.

It is a social worker’s statutory responsibility to ensure that a child or young person is in regular contact with a parent in prison as long as this is in the child’s best interests. The social worker should make sure that those looking after the child consider how best to maintain family contact with the imprisoned parent.

Sometimes, the other parent does not want anything to do with their imprisoned partner and so won’t take the child on visits.

Where a child is known to social services, it is a social worker’s responsibility to arrange for the child to be accompanied to the prison if no one else is able to go.

Professionals’ duties

Part of a social worker’s statutory responsibility for looked-after children is to liaise with probation services, prisons and other agencies to ensure support for children and help them maintain family ties.

A social worker should also be involved after release to help the family adjust.

The initial role of a police officer is to let social services know whether, following the arrest of a parent, a child would be left alone or at risk. The police officer may not have any further involvement. Even if he or she goes to court to give evidence, there will be no need for contact unless the family were witnesses or victims of the crime.

Following release, if the parent is a prolific and priority offender (PPO) the police officer would be involved in a multi-agency response. If the parent has committed a sexual or violent offence and is therefore considered a dangerous offender, the police will work with the prison and probation service to manage their supervision.

They will agree a supervision plans that is aimed at minimising the risk to the public. This work comes under the umbrella of multi-agency public protection arrangements.

The probation officer’s role is to rehabilitate offenders who are given community sentences and those released from prison, to enforce the conditions of their court orders and release licences, and to take steps, within set limits, to protect the public. If an offender is imprisoned for more than 12 months, the probation officer will have on-going involvement, including supervision on release. The officer may not come into contact with the prisoner’s family until then, but will have obtained information about the family in the assessment of the offender. The probation officer will contact social services if there are child welfare concerns.

The involvement of other professionals will depend on the age of a child. A child who is under five may be supported by a Sure Start staff member. Children’s centres offer children and their families integrated support from multi-disciplinary teams of professionals. When a child has a parent in prison, centres work alongside the courts, probation service and social services to provide practical help and emotional support.

Older children may be supported by a behavioural support worker. These professionals work with children who are having problems at school, including children of prisoners. A school will not necessarily be informed that a child’s parent is in prison and often the first that is known about it is when a child starts behaving differently at school. A child does not have to have support from a social worker in order to be helped by a behavioural support worker.

Further information

● Children of Prisoners – e-learning resources and Scie Resource guide 11: Children of prisoners – maintaining family ties

Action for Prisoners’ Families

Ormiston Children and Families Trust

Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders

Barnardos Northern Ireland

Practitioners’ messages

● The common assessment framework is used to assess whether children are eligible for support. Anyone can initiate an assessment, although most children of prisoners will not fit the criteria.

● Hopefully, the child will be able to stay at home, but for many children parental imprisonment means they have to live elsewhere.

● While, for many children, school is where they spend most of their time, they may not tell anyone about what has happened to their parent. However, information may have been in the press and children may be at risk of bullying and stigmatisation from other children.

● Many prisons now have centres that are run by the voluntary sector to make visiting more child-friendly. The staff are able to offer advice and support to families.

● Each stage of the pathway, including release, can be very difficult for a child. Although not all children will need support at each stage, it must be available to them when they need it.

● Lack of communication between the professionals involved is not uncommon and may result in children lacking support.

Research abstracts: Prisoners and their families

Author: SMITH Rose et al
Title: Prisoners’ families: civic virtue and policies of impoverishment
Reference: Benefits, 16(1), February 2008, pp3-17

This article explores the poverty and disadvantage experienced by prisoners’ families living at or below the level officially recognised as poor. It presents findings from interviews conducted with prisoners’ families living at or below the poverty line. It then discusses policy issues relevant specifically to black British and foreign national families. In conjunction with criminal justice and immigration legislation, social policies have combined to impoverish, disadvantage and exclude prisoners’ families. Reforms of the welfare system may improve the adequacy of state welfare benefits, but unless fundamentally reshaped, social policy could continue to penalise the care offered by prisoners’ families and so further entrench inequalities.

Author:  NESMITH Ande RUHLAND Ebony
Title: Children of incarcerated parents: challenges and resiliency, in their own words
Reference: Children and Youth Services Review, 30(10), October 2008, pp1119-1130
ISSN paper: 0190-7409

This study explores the impact of parental incarceration on children, from the children’s own perspectives. The sample includes 34 children interviewed regarding how having a parent in prison affected their family and peer relationships, school experiences, their reactions to prison visits, and their perceptions of prison. The children revealed a variety of stress factors around social isolation and worrying about their caregivers, but also demonstrated resilience in locating venues for support and self-sufficiency.

Author:  STOCKDALE David
Title: Stabilising: the resettlement of young parents
Reference: Childright, No.243, February 2008, pp29-32

This article reports the findings of research by the charity Young Voice which investigated the resettlement pressures on young parents after release from prison and the lack of accessible parenting support. The study worked with more than 80 young parents (under 26 years of age) pre- and post-release to assess what help and support they accessed, how they evaluated it, and what they did with the information. The research also investigated what this group believed would help them, and the barriers they faced in relation to using services.

Author: Ormiston Children and Families Trust
Title: Time for families: positive outcomes for children and families of offenders using Ormiston services in prisons and the community
Publisher: Ipswich: Ormiston Children and Families Trust, 2006. 66p, bibliog

Time for Families is an eastern England initiative to promote greater awareness and more effective responses to the needs of children of prisoners. The programme is managed by Ormiston and funded through a unique collaboration between Scie, the LankellyChase Foundation, HM Prison Service and Ormiston Trust. Launched in 2002, Time for Families has expanded work to eight of the region’s 12 prisons and has established community support for children and young people in two counties. The Ormiston Trust provides an array of support and programmes for children and families with relatives in prison, and a telephone helpline as part of the national Prisoners’ Families Helpline. Time for Families is working to promote the importance of the role of families in sentence planning and resettlement and raise awareness of the needs of children affected by imprisonment.

This article is published in the 9 October issue of Community cvare magazine under the heading Professional support for prisoners’ families and children 

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.