Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties
In this section
These are the key messages from the literature review. They are grouped according to the sections identified in the practice survey.
- The lack of a national strategy was identified and the need for the inclusion of children of prisoners as a specific sub-group into local authority Children and Young People’s Plans, specifically relating to the aims of Every Child Matters.
- Young People’s Plans should link directly into the Reducing Re-offending children and families pathway, and should ensure that this is an issue tackled from two different ends of the spectrum: children’s services and National Offender Management Service.
- This work has a low profile and the voluntary sector is attempting to fill the gaps but provision falls very short of national coverage.
- There are some examples of a more strategic approach, and research in Scotland suggests the model adopted by the prison service is effective.
- Longitudinal studies have shown that while there is a strong association between parental imprisonment and adverse outcomes for children, it does not imply a causal effect. However, this is a vulnerable group likely to need extensive support.
- There is some concern that to provide children of prisoners with targeted services may begin to label them as offenders of the future.
- There needs to be a steer from relevant government departments to ensure a national strategy that can be translated into agreed policy and procedures across and between the sectors.
Policies and procedures
- Longitudinal studies are few and results have not been consistent. While the Cambridge study shows that parental imprisonment is a predictor of antisocial behaviour in children, this is not the case in Project Metropolitan, Sweden. However, Murray suggests this may be because children in Sweden are better protected from adverse effects through more child-friendly policies and procedures, which enable children to receive the support they need.
- The literature highlighted the lack of policies and procedures. However, there are exceptions, and models such as in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where a more cohesive response to the needs of children and offenders is encapsulated in their work to maintain family ties.
- There are pockets of practice where there appear to have been positive outcomes, such as Ormiston covering the Eastern region of England, and some small-scale studies in the United States.
- The Gloucester Local Education Authority has a policy in place to ensure there is some communication between prison and schools, and Ormiston has produced guidance for schools to raise awareness and enable staff to better support children who are experiencing the loss of a parent to prison.
- The absence of a multi-agency approach leaves a huge gap in provision. One suggestion, echoed by several authors, is that there is a conflict between the ethos of the criminal justice and child welfare systems, and in spite of the need for greater collaboration, their priorities are too dissimilar to work effectively.
- One of the reasons for the lack of cohesion may be due to the paucity of accurate research about the numbers of children involved, and uncertainty about where responsibility would lie if systems are put into place to identify and track children who are affected.
- The overall message is a call for greater collaboration and cooperation to provide some sort of safety net for children who often remain the unseen victims of crime.
- There is no mainstream provision for this work. It does not sit neatly in the remit of a particular government department or service, and consequently there is no obvious source of funding.
- At present, the voluntary sector drives the agenda for children of prisoners, and funding is traditionally short-term and often insecure. Clearly this has implications for provision and service development, and is the same across many parts of the world.
- In addition to the funding of services is the issue of economic strain on the family when a parent is imprisoned.
- Murray suggests finding ways to assist families would be a positive step and could facilitate the maintenance of family ties.
- In Project Metropolitan, Sweden, the longitudinal study shows that children are less adversely affected by parental imprisonment than in the Cambridge study. This may be because Sweden has more family-friendly prison policies, a welfare-oriented juvenile justice system, extended social welfare system and a more sympathetic public. Perhaps this is an indication of the importance of partnerships and the strengths of working together across sectors to ensure needs of children are being met.
- Experiences in Northern Ireland and Scotland, where there are partnerships between the voluntary sector and the prison service, have acknowledged this is an issue and actively ensured there is a far greater level of support for children by working together.
- There are other examples from Europe and the United States of successful partnerships leading to better outcomes for children and their families, but as in England and Wales, this is extremely patchy. Several authors call for greater collaboration and understanding across the systems and between services.
- Training and awareness-raising is an issue that emerged in the review of the literature, from across Europe and the UK to the United States. It is clear that in order for the response to children of prisoners to be effective from a range of services, there needs to be far more understanding of the impact on children, particularly in schools and statutory services.
- In addition to understanding the impact on children, the need to understand the roles and responsibilities of other agencies and systems was felt to be equally important if organisations are to facilitate working together.
- Kids VIP has developed programmes for training prison staff, to help them think more about what it means for a child to visit a prison, to demonstrate examples of good practice and encourage a more child-friendly approach.
- EUROCHIPS is working across Europe to raise awareness and encourage new ways of thinking about and tackling these issues. They also promote training and provide relevant materials and ideas for service delivery.
- Many other materials have been developed over the years. They have been designed for parents and families as well as staff in various professions. They provide a wealth of help, support and ideas, ranging from the first steps of how to tell a child a parent is in prison, to thinking about the visits and planning for release.
- There are examples of good practice, ranging from small one-off pieces of work, to more established long-term examples. Many are from the United States, but equally many models are from within the UK.
- Work in prisons to develop more family-oriented practices is increasing and there are several programmes in existence that demonstrate the effectiveness of support. While these programmes depend upon the voluntary sector, they are supported by the prison service and several effective partnerships have evolved.
- Support in the community also exists in pockets, and again is heavily dependent upon the voluntary sector. EUROCHIPS identifies a range of projects across the European Union, and closer to home Action for Prisoners' Families, Ormiston and POPS run the national prisoners’ families telephone helpline.
- The Family Links Service ensures that all families are offered independent advice and support within 48 hours of a person entering prison.
Challenges, outcomes and lessons for practice
- There is a need for more research into the effects of parental imprisonment.
- The evidence to date suggests that there is a strong association between parental imprisonment and adverse outcomes for children. Compared to their peers children of prisoners have about three times the risk of antisocial or delinquent behaviour, mental health problems, and other adverse outcomes.
- Findings from three studies (the Cambridge Study, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the Stanton study, the latter two both US-based) are consistent with the idea that parental imprisonment has a causal effect on children, but two studies (Project Metropolitan in Sweden and the Mater University study in Australia) found no effect. Given these mixed findings, further evidence is required to determine whether or not parental imprisonment causes adverse outcomes for children.
- Evidence to date is consistent with the idea that separation because of parental imprisonment is harmful for children. However, it is difficult to separate out the effects of separation from the effects of other adversities that often follow parental imprisonment (such as loss of family income and stigma). These effects have not been successfully disentangled to date. Therefore, it is not possible to state conclusively whether traumatic separation is an important cause of children’s problems following parental imprisonment.
- Although studies report that economic strain is common among families of prisoners, they have not demonstrated that this mediates the effects of parental imprisonment on children.
- Although there are only a few large-scale studies of parental imprisonment, it is clear that children of prisoners are a highly vulnerable group, and are likely to need extensive support.