Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties
Findings - practice
- It is a statutory requirement to review the case of each looked after child. This includes the need to consider arrangements for contact and applies regardless of the whereabouts of the parent. Not all children of prisoners fall under this remit.
- There are models of practice from across the UK, although these are largely poorly-resourced local voluntary organisations taking the lead in maintaining family ties. The work being carried out by these organisations is complex and vital in helping families keep in contact with prisoners and helping to maintain stability at the point of release.
- Communication and information-sharing are seen as major barriers to effective practice as this area of work is not underpinned by policy.
- There is a particular concern about service provision to those 16- to 18-year-olds in transition in the prison estate (moving from youth offender institution to adult prison) and those leaving care while a parent remains in custody.
- In some cases the police will liaise with the local children’s services assessment team in advance, if they know children are likely to be in a household where they will be arresting the carers/parents. This information is not always available. However, it is good practice to advise children’s service wherever possible.
- Once notification is received it is the responsibility of the local area assessment team to ensure the children are placed safely until the parents or carer can resume looking after their children.
- Social workers and police should be aware of the National Helpline for Children and Families (see Section 9, Useful contacts and practical resources). This is one way of ensuring access to some support if they are not involved with the family on a longer-term basis.
- There is a big area of unmet need in levels of support available to children and families at this stage of the criminal justice process. There is no formal practice across the UK, and provision from the voluntary sector is patchy. Age-appropriate information leaflets for children and families are needed to explain what happens after court and what happens when they make a prison visit.
- Solicitors should perhaps play more of a role and work with the voluntary sector to increase chances of engaging with families at court and beyond.
- However, there is some practice around the UK. PACT provides some support in courts in the southwest of England, and Ormiston in the East. Some other organisations such as POPS are looking to develop services and Thames Valley Partnership and NIACRO have produced leaflets for families in courts.
- In Northern Ireland, when a person is taken to prison the family’s details are passed from prison staff to Family Link workers, to enable contact to be made with the family within 48 hours.
- Most local safeguarding children's boards reported that social workers were responsible for arranging contact with parents in prison in accordance with the agreed care plan for the child in question. Similarly, they would also support foster carers to help children maintain family ties.
- There is no support available for children of families not currently known to children’s services.
- There are examples of models of practice from both the LSCBs and practice sites (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ormiston, Thames Valley Partnership, POPS). They offer a range of support to connect the inside to the outside world and help maintain family ties. However, each prison is different and there is no consistency of provision, which generally depends upon the priorities of the prison governor.
- Some prisons have embraced the need to develop more family-friendly facilities. They have visitor centres run by the voluntary sector, family days and visits, and prison officers trained in how to be more child-friendly. However, this is not the case across the prison estate, and it can remain a daunting and traumatic process for children to visit if there is not adequate support available. Having a designated contact person in prison (POPS) and having a designated officer in prison to facilitate contact (Scotland, Northern Ireland) can make navigation of the system far more manageable.
- Creative use of technology, for example videos and DVD, could be used to facilitate contact. Web cameras could be used to assist communication and reduce the need for prison visits.
- For voluntary sector agencies working in prisons, forging relationships with prison governors and staff is seen as key to the success of any initiative. Some hostility is reported, and as such, there is a constant need to demonstrate the importance of the service offered.
- For families there remains difficulty getting through to prisons to arrange contact and visits. This is exacerbated by the distance from home, financial implications and long journeys.
- Teachers are often unaware that a change in behaviour is associated with a child having an imprisoned parent. It was felt that there should be a mechanism to inform head teachers. Children spend most of their days in school and it is important for the school to be aware.
- There is a need to improve the sharing of information with schools and also to provide guidance to schools about liaison, for example how to send in children’s school reports to keep parents in the loop.
- It was felt that many teachers find it difficult to talk about prison, and that children have to ‘self-monitor’ to keep their secrets too often because of societal/school attitudes. This can be very dangerous for a child and can manifest negatively over time.
- In Northern Ireland a prison officer has been seconded to Family Links (NIACRO) to act as a conduit for information and to inform good practice in the prison service.
- Support on release is limited across the UK. Most local safeguarding children’s boards reported that they would help to prepare children for contact and investigate risk, especially in cases where domestic violence had been an issue, but again the level of support offered depended on the child being known to services. In the case of violent or sexual offences a MAPPA will be held on release. This involves prison, probation and police and other agencies as required.
- The national helpline can direct families to other avenues of support, but this is an area that needs to be developed. In Banbury the Family Matters group has developed a model of ongoing support to families once the parent has been released. In Scotland all prisoners with families will have a pre-release meeting with their family and family contact and development officer, to discuss any issues and to prepare both prisoner and family for release.
- Sure Start programmes and children’s centres have a significant role to play at the point of release and this has worked well in some areas for individual cases (Banbury).
- The Telford Families Do Matter programme is working in West Midlands prisons to raise awareness and make links between prison and the community. They have identified opportunities to involve the ‘outside’ before release in a productive way.
- In Northern Ireland, families are re-referred to Family Links for support pre- and post-release.