This talk was part of a podcast on BBC Radio 4, first broadcast 30th June 2021. For the full podcast version, including an extended Q & A, click here
I met Kelechi for the first time on Valentine’s Day. He was a little bit shy but the way he smiled at me I thought maybe it could work out. His uncle was there but that was fine as we knew he’d not stay with us the whole time and as he was a friendly sort his presence didn’t feel like too much of an imposition.
The place we met wasn’t your typical Valentine’s Day rendezvous. We were in north London, at a venue with about 100 other people and there was a bit of a buzz in the air. It was 2pm and although a grey day, the strip lighting inside gave us all a brighter than mid-winter sheen. Although Holloway prison wasn’t a welcoming building, the visitor’s centre was light, warm and staffed by friendly people.
8-year-old Kelechi was there to see his Mum. Once a month the prison hosted an ‘extended children’s visits day’ which allowed children to spend four hours with their mums, instead of the usual visiting entitlement per prisoner of only two one hour visits each month. His Uncle was a good looking 23-year-old from south London. He was only 16 when Kelechi was born and now, he looked after him full time. We got chatting whilst he was waiting for Kelechi to come out.
Uncle D joined the queue of adults collecting children. Some of the children left straight away to go to their cars or get the bus; others came into the visitors’ centre to get their belongings from the lockers. The children were all clutching oversized Valentine’s cards that they’d made with their mums. Quite a few were smiling and chatting, but many were silent or crying. I saw sobbing children being lifted by grandparents; gently put into car seats for the long journey home. There was an enforced jollity to the adults’ enquiries about whether or not the visit had been good. They looked tired and like they hoped the aftermath wouldn’t be too awful for everyone.
Kelechi was smiling. He’d had a good time with his Mum and was starting to tell his Uncle about it whilst he was steered in my direction. Kelechi said he’d talk to me, if I came to his flat. Uncle D wrote down the address and his phone number, and we agreed that in the coming week we’d set up a time for my visit.
Some years before, I’d been a barrister, initially I did a mix of everything from dangerous dog cases to divorce, but as time went on, I developed a practise in care cases – cases where the local authority has applied to move children from the care of their parents. This can be because of abuse, harm or neglect. I represented children, parents, and local authorities. All of those cases took place within the framework of the Children Act. A piece of legislation from 1989, the same year as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets out how children should be thought of and treated when the family courts become involved in their lives.
At the heart of the Children Act is the principle that the child’s best interests are the paramount consideration of the court.
I believe in that principle.
I believe that every child has value and worth and should be protected.
So, I spent some years working in a system where the intention was to prioritise children’s wellbeing.
When I had my own children, I left my job as a barrister and spent a number of years being a Mum at home and doing a series of part time jobs. When my youngest was due to start school, I started a master’s degree in criminology. We had to write an essay about women’s imprisonment and coming from a family law background and living a life that was pretty preoccupied with childcare, I started trying to find out what happened to children when their mums were sent to prison.
I was sure there would be research papers, government reports, articles, but I could find almost nothing. Eventually I found one research paper about the experiences of 2 children who visited their Mum overnight in a prison.
It broke my heart. I sat in the university library and cried.
And that was the moment that everything changed for me.
I couldn’t understand how children could matter in one situation but not in another. Why did a child’s best interests sit at the top of the pile in the family courts, but if that child was separated from their parent in the criminal courts, they might not even get a mention.
It seemed to go against all logic and so flicked my ‘injustice’ switch.
Fast forward and I’ve spent the past ten years doing research to find out what happens to children when their parents are sent to prison and working with judges and other criminal justice professionals to try to even things up for them..
Kelechi was just one of the children I’ve met over that time. I’ve been to their houses, I’ve met them at youth clubs, in parks, in prison visitor centres. I’ve talked to the adults who take care of them, and most recently in the past year I’ve read their answers to online surveys and introduced myself over zoom calls.
And here’s what I know now. Every year around 300,000 children in England and Wales have a parent in prison, and for around 17,000 of those children it’s their Mum who is in prison. Every year about 12,000 women are sent to prison, and 75% of those, according to the Ministry of Justice’s own statistics are sentenced to less than 12 months in prison, whilst 50% of all women are sentenced to less than 3 months. If sentenced to 3 months only 6 weeks will be spent in prison, but 6 weeks is long enough for a single mother to lose her home, her children, her job, and it can take years to regain them, if ever.
Why is that?
Many mothers in prison are single parents and so when they are imprisoned their children move to a new carer, a new school, a new home. They may be separated from their brothers and sisters and might be moved around to live with different family members or friends over time depending on who can take them in. With no financial support for people who take on the care of these children, families are often pushed into poverty. In the most recent piece of research I did, with households where there was a child with a parent in prison, more than half the families were living on a total household income of less than £15,000 each year.
Unlike children who are fostered or adopted after they’ve been removed from their parents in the family courts, those whose mum is in prison don’t receive any help or support. It might surprise you to know that we don’t actually know how many children are affected as no one asks the question. The data isn’t collected when someone is arrested, or sentenced, or imprisoned. It’s not asked in schools or in health care settings.
Children whose mums are in prison are off the radar.
This has very practical implications. For example, If I foster a child, and they come to me on Monday evening, the school near me has to provide a school place for that child on Tuesday morning. But if a child’s mum is sent to prison on Monday and the child has to move to live with her Granny who lives in a different area, there is no obligation for a school to provide a place for that child on Tuesday or any other day. Many of the children I met had spent long periods out of school for that reason.
In many cases their carers were desperate for help and support, but because no one has a statutory duty towards these children, no one is prepared to help.
Children told me that they hadn’t told their friends or teachers because their mum’s imprisonment was something that was used ‘against them’.
They experience the grief of a bereavement or separation, without anyone extending to them the compassion we offer to children who experience parental loss whether due to separation, death or overseas deployment.
The lack of concern and support for children communicates how little society values them.
The impacts of a parent’s imprisonment continue even after release throughout the child’s live, even into adulthood. Parental imprisonment has been recognised as an Adverse Childhood Experience, and children who have experienced it are more likely to suffer from physical and mental illness, are less likely to be in education, employment or training in later life, and it even affects mortality, with a research study finding that adults who had a parent in prison in childhood are more likely than their peers to die before the age of 65.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the UK, places a duty on the state to ensure that no child suffers discrimination or punishment because of the actions of their parents, but in the UK we are doing exactly that every day. For whatever reason, children whose parents are convicted of criminal offences are treated differently to other children.
I’ve done a lot of research into why this happens, and I’ve found that there is no legal or moral reason for the differentiated treatment.
So where does that leave us? It seems that a child whose parent is convicted of criminal offences is somehow being held responsible or are regarded as criminal – being guilty by association.
That’s not ok. We do not hold children responsible for their parents’ actions in any other space in society so why these children?
We need change. Change in the way we think. And I say ‘we’ very deliberately. Yes, there needs to be change in the sentencing of parents and change in the ways that local authorities and schools and health services provide support, but there also needs to be change in all of us. Children have told me about not being invited to birthday parties, grandmothers told me they were shunned in the playground, a 16-year-old boy told me that in the two years his Mum had been in prison no one had ever asked him if he was ok.
When a child’s parent is imprisoned that should not cause shame, stigma or exclusion for that child. If anything follows it should be support, care, nurture and acceptance.
The experiences of children whose parents go to prison has been a societal blind spot and we’ve let them be forgotten in the darkness.
It’s time for us to open our eyes.