‘Are we doing all we can to support the wellbeing of children with a parent in prison, bearing in mind the traumatic impact that the detention of a parent can have on a child? It is estimated that more than 200,000 children a year are separated from a parent by parental imprisonment. About 17,000 of those children experience their mother’s imprisonment. Because women are more likely than men to be the primary carer, often children are suddenly separated from the closest relationship they have known in their lives. In up to 95% of cases, the children are suddenly without a parent or a home. I understand that there is no systematic recording or monitoring to support those children, so in many ways they are a hidden population.
The arrangements for the care of such children are often very informal, with the children being suddenly left with a relation, for example, whose life circumstances mean that they are ill prepared for the additional responsibility, with all the consequences that ensue for them and, importantly, for the children. One of the worst examples I heard was of a woman who was arrested in the middle of the night, but who was still nursing a baby. On the way to the police station, the police asked her, “Where shall we drop the baby off?”. She had to tell them a house where the baby was to be dropped off. That mother did not have the care of that child again for well over a year. That is a startling situation.’
Fiona Bruce MP, Westminster Hall Debate, 12thJune 2018
Yesterday, on the day that the Minister with responsibility for women in the criminal justice system resigned, leaving the long promised Female Offenders’ Strategy once again languishing on a desk somewhere, it was cheering for those of us concerned with the impacts of women’s imprisonment upon their children, to hear that Fiona Bruce MP, had secured a short notice Westminster Hall Debate on the Care of Prisoners’ Children.
I know that Fiona has been trying to have this debate for several months now, and I congratulate her on her tenacity which gave this important topic its first public airing at Westminster. It was good to see Michael Tomlinson MP supporting the debate and providing helpful interventions highlighting the need for there to be a cross departmental response to this issue.
Fiona Bruce’s speech set out clearly the multiple disadvantages faced by children whose parent is removed from them due to imprisonment. She brought to the attention of Nadhim Zahawi, the Minister for Children and Families who was there to respond on behalf of the Government, the troubling discrepancy between the treatment given to children separated from their parents by the state in the family courts as a consequence of care proceedings, and those separated as a consequence of imprisonment in the criminal courts. Having spent the past six years researching this issue I am confident that there is no moral or legal ground for this differentiated treatment and children of imprisoned parents should be given multi-agency support at what is often an extraordinarily difficult and traumatic time in their lives.
There was good news in the Minister’s response.
It is clear from Nadhim Zahawi’s response that the Government is aware of the serious and multiple disadvantages faced by children whose parent is in prison.
- He acknowledged the difficulties faced by children whose parent is in prison
‘I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the support that children who are affected by having a parent in prison receive, both to maintain a relationship with that parent and to deal with the long-term challenges they might face in relation to their own outcomes. I share those concerns, and I reassure her that I will continue to do all I can, in my capacity as Minister for Children and Families, to ensure that all children get the help and support they need from across Government to live fulfilled and happy lives. A parent going to prison can be hugely traumatic for the child—it can make them vulnerable or even put them at risk of harm.’
- He gave assurances that work is being done to identify children whose parent is in prison
‘Effective multi-agency working is vital to ensuring that vulnerable children are identified and known to all relevant authorities from justice, which my hon. Friend mentioned, to social care and schools.’
- He recognised that such children need to be identified in order to offer them support.
‘We are also taking significant steps to improve information sharing on safeguarding children, which is vital to ensuring that an offender’s caring responsibilities are disclosed and services are alerted to changes in a family’s circumstances.
- He asserted the value of kin care placements and the need for those placements to be supported
‘My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton rightly said that in many cases care arrangements might be with wider family or friends, often recognised as kinship care. We recognise the vital importance of those placements, which are likely to provide more continuity than a placement with previously unknown carers and can help to preserve a child’s sense of belonging to a wider family network. For most children, there is huge benefit from being brought up by a family member whom they trust and already have an established relationship with, rather than by a stranger. The law requires local authorities to support the upbringing of looked-after children and those on the edge of care by their families whenever possible. That option should always be fully explored by the local authority before making an application for a care order, provided that it does not jeopardise the child’s safety or welfare.’
- He recognised that children with a parent in prison may need extra support at school
‘Having worked closely with the Ministry of Justice, we have reflected on the importance of school staff considering the additional needs of children with parents in prison, so the guidance now highlights the fact that such children are at risk of achieving poor outcomes—including poverty, stigma, isolation and poor mental health—and signposts staff to the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders website, which provides specialist advice and resources for professionals who work with offenders’ children and their families.’
- He recognised that courts should identify whether a defendant is a parent prior to sentencing
‘Where a parent is involved in the justice system, it is vital that families receive support from the outset and that courts are aware that a defendant has children before they are sentenced.’
- He supported the recommendations of the Farmer Review and re-stated the importance of children maintaining contact with a parent in prison
‘Lord Farmer’s report on the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties, which my hon. Friend referred to, was published last year. It made several recommendations to strengthen family or significant other ties to help offenders to turn their lives around and protect public safety. Across Government, and through the Ministry of Justice in particular, we have taken forward key recommendations, including giving prison governors the budget and the flexibility to spend their resources appropriately—such as on family-friendly visiting areas—to help prisoners to keep important family or significant other ties.’
I have three concerns about the Minister’s response today
- There is a mismatch between what he says is happening and what actually happens
As anyone who has worked with children of prisoners or has conducted research in this area knows, local authorities do not consistently offer support to family placements. Children are not identified, and most families are ‘under the radar’.
2. It is unclear what exactly the Government are doing to ensure progress on the points set out above.
Generalised statements speak of good intent but we need detailed proposals with time frames for implementation. I question the substance of some of the statements from my own experience, which is in working with criminal justice professionals to ensure that children are considered at sentencing, with regard to which the Minister said,
‘We are also working to encourage defendants to tell the court about children, overcoming reluctance or fear if there are concerns that their children will be immediately taken into care. That includes supporting the roll-out of training material developed by the academic expert, Dr Shona Minson, which raises awareness of the diverse implications of maternal imprisonment for children.’
I’m delighted to hear this, but I don’t know what exactly the Minister is referring to when he says ‘we are also working to encourage defendants to tell the court about children’. This may be a reference to my work in trying to ensure that women understand the need to tell sentencers about their children, which is happening via the dissemination by voluntary organisations, of the film I made (which can be accessed here). It may refer to the fact that the Governors of the women’s prisons have copies of the film and I have asked them to show it to women on remand, or it may refer to something else and perhaps other criminal justice practitioners can tell me about other work which is being done on this, but I am concerned that there is not actually a defined strategy, and this is more of a generalised hope.
- Unless and until services are provided specifically for children whose parent is in prison, by identifying children of prisoners as ‘children in need’ under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, with allocated budgets within health, education, local authorities, department of work and pensions, children will not benefit.
Children whose parents are in prison are so stigmatised that they don’t self identify. Extra money in mental health services is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be ring-fenced for this group of children to access as and when they need it, not as part of all children in our society, but as a particular group whom we choose to support.
I have spent today reading through all the interviews I conducted with children whose mothers were imprisoned, and with the carers who were looking after them during that time. They tell of being turned away by social services when they asked for help. Of missing months of education due to a lack of school places in the areas they moved to. Of serious mental health issues which they were unable to access treatment for. Of carers pushed into debt as a consequence of the cost of looking after children with no state support, because the local authority regarded it as a private arrangement. Of children feeling sad, angry and missing out on ‘normal life’.
These stories are the stories we hear over and over again.
I am delighted that the Minister is engaging with the issue, but I would suggest that he spend some time talking to children whose parents have been imprisoned, so that he understands the reality of the situation.
Minister, if you’re reading this, there are children and caregivers who would tell you their stories. Do get in touch and it can be arranged for you to hear them.
I give the final word to Fiona Bruce and thank her for the work she is doing to hold the Government to account on the discriminatory treatment of children of prisoners in England and Wales.
“It was good to be able to highlight concerns about the wellbeing of prisoners’ children in the House of Commons. However, I fear that the Minister’s response may have articulated what he hopes is the way these children are supported, rather than reflecting what all too often happens on the ground, and I propose to pursue this issue further in Westminster. I am grateful to Dr Shona Minson for so effectively highlighting this issue to me”.
The text of the debate can be accessed in Hansard
And if you’d like to watch it it’s available here https://goo.gl/426ynQ