Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties
Appendix 3: Telford and West Midlands
Telford is in the advantageous position of having the Families Do Matter programme in the area. This project is sponsored by the National Offender Management Service and aims to provide evidence of the longer-term benefit of supporting offenders to maintain and strengthen their relationships with their children and families. The focus group brought a range of people together for the first time and was an opportunity to discuss issues in detail.
There is little in the way of strategy in the area at present. Generally, this is an area of work that is an add-on and happens when a child comes to the attention of professionals for other reasons (usually a change of behaviour). However, it was felt that this is something that should be given attention by the local safeguarding children’s board and several people in the focus group who are members of the board will take responsibility for raising it.
Families Do Matter is funded both by the Home Office and by HM Treasury under its Invest to Save Budget. The total project funding available is £2 million over three years for the whole region. However, for individual agencies, there are issues about budgets and how this might impact upon already stretched resources. One suggestion was that a pooling of resources for the children and families affected by imprisonment may result in a more coordinated and better-funded response.
Policies and procedures
It was noted that there are 780 offenders locally at any one time, of which 226 are in custody. There are no exclusive policies and procedures in place for the children of prisoners. Identification is by chance, and is usually aligned with negativity. The group felt that this needed to change, and it was important to develop a response for children that did not rely on referral for other reasons such as behavioural difficulties. Consideration needs to be given to how this information can be communicated and by whom, so responses are pro-active rather than reactive.
There are several other agendas with which this work can be aligned, namely the crime reduction, respect and safer communities agendas. There is also the common assessment framework which could be very useful in helping to establish and identify children of prisoners as a vulnerable group of children in need of support.
Nevertheless, how to highlight the fact that children are in this position does remain an issue. One suggestion was that this could be a role for the probation service who often knows about families even if they are not working with them. A further suggestion was to focus on people at court, and maybe utilise the presence of substance misuse workers who interview everyone going to prison on either remand or sentence. Additionally they track people through the system and work in the police station, community and prison. They also work with the families of offenders.
There remains the issue of confidentiality and recognising that not all families will want, or need, intervention from social services or children’s services and there will, of course, be the fear of the removal of children, telling children and denial that a parent has gone to prison.
The importance of making links across and between services was considered a vital part of being able to support families of prisoners. There are already a range of informal links but these often depend on individuals and so are not long-term solutions.
There is no formal training, although there is clearly a lot of awareness of the issues and the importance of maintaining family ties. Useful opportunities to broaden knowledge lie with common assessment framework training, and parenting programmes. Additionally, Families Do Matter is developing an information pack for families. The same is needed for professionals, so they can be directed to information and resources.
At present, children are identified by chance. There is no one agency with responsibility for flagging up when a child might be affected, although it would seem that probation and drug services are in the best position. Drug services, in particular, are available at every point.
Most of the reasons for identification are as a result of a change of behaviour in the child, often at school, but also in children' centres, and noted by health visitors. There is a universal service for the under-fives at the children' centres and this is seen as key in ensuring everyone receives a service, even if the presenting issue is not a result of parental imprisonment.
Links with prisons
One of the big issues is that no two prisons are the same. This makes consistency of approach and provision impossible. Much depends upon the governor and staff willingness to engage with community services, although there is a lack of organisations to refer to at present. Additionally, the large number of prisoner movements can preclude maintaining family ties which does contradict the principles of offender management.
Families Do Matter is working in West Midlands prisons to raise awareness and make links between prison and community, and there are opportunities to involve the ‘outside’ before release in a productive way. For example, there has been some good work in involving Sure Start children’s centres prior to the release of some mothers, as well as assisting children to maintain contact with fathers during a sentence.
It is still too early in the life of Families Do Matter to report on outcomes.
Challenges and obstacles
A series of challenges have been identified:
- making support for children of prisoners an integral part of practice rather than an add-on as a result of something else triggering referrals
- improving links between prison and community
- developing a direct and flexible service for families who do not necessarily have a child in need at that point
- finding a way to trigger interventions and identify affected children
- tracking people through the system
- balancing the needs of everyone from offender to family without the need to label and stigmatise children
- raise the profile of this group of children
- prevention rather than crisis management
- prepare the families for the journey as early as possible with more awareness.
There are also obstacles to be overcome:
- overcrowding in prisons and prisoner movements around the estate
- inconsistency within prison establishments
- stretched resources and other agendas
- lack of strategy from central government
- no one agency is responsible.
Lessons for practice
While it is early days locally for Families do Matter, there are clearly signs that there are opportunities for this work to grow and there are already solid foundations to build on.
identified several avenues that are ripe for development
and where support is already offered to children
through other avenues:
- children’s centres
- Wrekin Housing Trust
- health visitors
- safer communities
- corporate parenting
- substance misuse services
- common assessment framework
- integrated children’s services.
- All have examples and experience of this work that can be put to great use in developing local resources and raising awareness. Additionally, it has been identified that there is a need for this to be an integral part of assessments of need and child protection, part of universal services to be offered directly, and supported by strategy, policy and procedures. The importance of links and relationships is crucial, as is a central person with the knowledge and know-how who is able to signpost and provide information for both staff and families throughout the process.
- Tracking of people and early identification of children is seen as essential, perhaps with a single point of contact in each local government office that can help others to navigate the system, hold all the different strands together and coordinate a response.
- The service needs to be universalised with less stigmatising, more accessible, based on prevention, and with plans for contacts at various points before release.