Does every child have a right to family life?

This weekend in England we can meet up with whoever we like in our homes or in pubs or restaurants. It probably isn’t the first time we’ll have seen friends or family – I expect you’ve already enjoyed the opportunity to meet people in outdoor spaces for some weeks.

But you won’t be seeing the person you love the most if they are one of the 79,393 prisoners in England and Wales.

For the estimated hundred of thousands of children with a parent in prison it is 100 days since all visits to prisons were stopped. So it is at least 100 days since any child with a parent in prison has seen their mum or dad. And I don’t just mean face to face. Most will not have seen them in the way that the rest of us kept in touch with loved ones during lockdown, via WhatsApp or FaceTime, Skype or Zoom. Despite a government promise to roll out video visits many prisons are still without that facility so children have not seen their parents at all.

On 23rd March the prison estate across England and Wales instituted a limited regime to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and many prisoners are still locked up for 22 hours each day. There is a plan for recovery, but there are no fixed points or dates attached. Children have no idea when they will see their parents again. Although there have been rumours of social visits beginning this month, it is clear that many prisons aren’t ready for that or haven’t yet been given permission to do so.  Some have plans for visits but children will not be allowed to come, and in one prison parents have to make a choice between having one visit a month which can either be a closed visit (behind perspex screens) with an adult visitor, or a video visit with their children.

Today the Joint Committee on Human Rights  published a report, Human Rights and the Government’s Response to Covid-19: children whose mothers are in prison’.  I welcome the report, the attention the JCHR are giving to the issue and their analysis of how the current ban on visits interferes with the right to family life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The Act allows a person’s Article 8 right to family life, including the right to regular contact with your family when not living with them, to be interfered with ‘as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public health.’ Such interference must be necessary and proportionate. The Human Rights Committee make the following comment:

In the context of the pandemic the State has a positive obligation pursuant to Article 2 ECHR to take appropriate steps to protect the lives of both prisoners and staff working in prisons. Given this, a greater degree of interference with the Article 8 right to family life is likely to be proportionate at this time and may justify some restrictions on visiting to prevent the spread of the virus. However, this does not extend to the imposition of a blanket ban on all visits, as is currently in place.

p. 7 paragraph 7

I agree with their analysis. It may well have been a proportionate response to stop physical visits on the 23rd March in the light of the public health crisis, but the total removal of the right to family life through contact with their parent, of every child with a parent in prison, extending now for 100+ days, seems to be neither reasonable nor proportionate.

  • A reasonable response would have been to mitigate the loss of face to face visits with weekly digital video visits for all children with immediate effect. Prison Voicemail is a service which was providing video visits prior to the pandemic, and could have scaled up its operations into more prisons had there been willingness from the government to do so. This is how the Prison Service in Northern Ireland mitigated the loss.
  • A reasonable response would have been to provide consistent information not just via posts on the Ministry of Justice website, but in letters from Prison Governors to children addressing their worries about their parents and their fears that they might never see them again.
  • A reasonable response would have involved consultation with families, and with services like Children Heard and Seen, Out There, Time-Matters UK and Sussex Prisoners’ Families who have been working hard to provide support to children suffering not just the ‘ordinary’ impacts of Covid-19 – no school, no contact with friends, worry about the virus, but the additional impact of losing contact with their parent.
  • A reasonable response would have included investment from the government in the services named above, to enable them to do vital work to mitigate the harm being experienced by children, and to support those taking care of them.

The JCHR report focuses on mothers and makes the following recommendations with regard to the current situation.

Firstly, the government should consider temporary release of all mothers of dependent children.

Secondly children should be allowed to visit their mothers in prison on a socially distanced basis where it is safe for them to do so. 

I hope that the government will act on these recommendations, however I hope that they will also review the blanket ban on visits for children whose fathers are in prison.

I’ve begun preliminary analysis on survey responses completed online between April and June by parents and grandparents caring for children who have a parent in prison.  The surveys contain information about 71 children aged between 3 months and 18 years. For 58 of the children it’s their Dad who is in prison, and for 8 of the children their Mum. 5 of the children have both parents in prison. On initial analysis there appears to be no difference in the responses of the children to the loss of contact whether it is their mother or their father who is in prison.  Almost all the children have had increased anxiety about their parents – most commonly about their parents’ health and whether they will die in prison without their child seeing them again, although when there were issues with stockpiling foods, some children worried their dad wouldn’t get enough to eat.  The range of new behaviours since the cessation of contact include, but are not limited to: disrupted sleep; self-harm; co-sleeping; panic attacks; weight loss; development of an eating disorder ; withdrawal from the family; nightmares; anger; clinginess; physical aggression towards adults and children in their household. Almost all of the children have been reported as also experiencing sadness, anxiety and crying.

22 of the children whose experiences are reported are aged five and under, with four being less than 12 months old, and the issues for those children relate to losing interest in the parent, and no longer seeming to understand the connection they have with them.  The JCHR report provides a harrowing account of a baby crawling from room to room ‘calling’ for his mother. It’s well established that attachments in the first few years of life are critical to children’s long term wellbeing and the blanket ban on visits with no efforts to reduce the loss by providing virtual visits is likely to have long term consequences for these children.

From the surveys it is also clear that children with disabilities have been acutely and significantly affected, often having no understanding of why their parent has disappeared, and interpreting it as a withdrawal of love by the parent. The treatment of disabled children may constitute a further breach of rights under Article 14 of the Human Rights Act, which provides a right to protection from discrimination, where discrimination can occur if you are disadvantaged by being treated the same as another person when your circumstances are different, for example if you are disabled.

The burden on the parents and grandparents looking after these children is immense. They can’t give the children answers, or hope, and they have little themselves. After 101 days of this unbearable situation they need change.

There’s nothing. It’s like drowning. There’s nothing to grab on to.

I feel like they’re trying to break up families.

(Grandmother looking after 4 grandchildren whose Mum is in prison)

The government has frequently re-iterated its desire to strengthen family ties and to provide good contact between those in prison and their family members. The current ban on face to face visits with nothing in its place is having the opposite effect. I hope that the Human Rights Committee and its Chair Harriet Harman, will finally succeed in engaging the government’s attention and action on this matter, where others’ pleas have had no effect.


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