Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties
Appendix 3: Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group (POPS)
Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group work across the prisons in the North West region providing a variety of services to support anyone who has a link with someone in prison, prisoners themselves and other agencies. The aim is to ”support families to cope with the stress of arrest, imprisonment and release”. POPS was established in 1998 and is a registered charity.
The work has a strategic basis as part of the Northwest Regional Offender Management children and families pathway.
POPS is supported by a range of funding from both statutory and charitable donations. Funding is for the national helpline (run with Ormiston and Action for Prisoners Families) and the core work of partners of prisoners’ families.
Policies and procedures
These are incorporated into partnership agreements with a range of organisations, and including the prison service.
POPS has established numerous partnerships, which are essential to the success of their work. These include:
- drug and alcohol strategy team (reducing family breakdown when drug issues affect the family)
- Department for Children, Schools and Families – family link work to help maintain relationships
- local children and families pathways
- Greater Manchester Association Against Crime – aiming to get more cohesive practice across the local authorities in relation to children of prisoners
- crime and disorder partnerships
- community safety network and crime disorder/crime reduction
- Respect agenda
- anti-social behaviour and other local networks.
One of the keys to the work of POPS is awareness-raising. There is a dedicated training and development worker and a good practice guide is being written, based upon 20 years of training packages. Schools, extended schools and children' centres remain key areas to promote awareness particularly amongst staff. Additionally, training has been delivered on the social work degree at University of Salford, and to trainee probation officers.
POPS employs family link workers who work with the family to help maintain family ties. At the time of arrest Partners of Prisoners are trying to get police to promote the national helpline through advertising in police stations. The helpline is also available to teachers, and the telephone number is on the back of visiting orders.
Additionally, POPS has mailed information to all local solicitors to publicise their service, and they are in the process of setting up a family link worker service in Manchester Magistrates Court to work with probation and NEPACS. At present the family link worker is not alerted until prison induction, so this is one way of trying to get a ‘foot in the door’ at court stage, to help and quicken the process of getting information to families.
Family link workers work with families of prisoners at all category prisons and both remand and sentenced prisoners. They have access to OASys reports, probation officers, school links and work with other agencies to support the families. Each prison is different and there are particular issues regarding 18- to 21-year-olds, as they can be seen as either children or adults.
Detained children (under 18) are covered by the Children Act. Many of them are looked after children and so have a named social worker. Generally, contact with the social worker in this instance is greater than usual, particularly as the Young Offender Institute has social work presence inside and so less contact with community teams is required. However, looked after children reviews happen all the time, bringing social workers in regularly.
Release is when POPS contact ceases. At present they are able to signpost people to the helpline and they are trying to link up with Sure Start children' centres to do the ‘through the gate’ work.
The allegiances of family link workers lie with the family, in the hope that the family can help with resettlement (although it is acknowledged that the family are not always a good influence).
Links with prisons
POPS currently has ten family link workers based within prison establishments across the North West. Family link workers have been referred to as a lifeline for families, as they can often be their only means of learning about the prison regime and the well-being of the offender.
The basic services provided by the family link worker are:
- sending out information packs to families within 48 hours of a new offender arriving at the prison (this pack includes a direct dial number which families can call)
- carrying out one-to-one interviews with offenders to establish next of kin, relationship with family and other important people in their lives
- Working to re-establish family ties with the offender and the families, in cases where these may have broken down. These include activities such as helping with letter-writing.
All of the family link worker teams work with the prison, other agencies and visitor centres in a multi-agency capacity to organise special ‘family day’ visits. These visits are designed to encourage the family and the offender to bond in a more relaxed and comfortable environment.
It was noted that social workers do bring the children in if they are looked after children, but this is rarer in men’s than women’s prisons. There were many examples of good social work practice, although it was also pointed out that it can sometimes be a battle to get social workers to visit.
The following is in place to determine the effectiveness of the service:
- Data is recorded at postcode level, child’s age and sex.
- Service users are asked to fill in evaluation forms.
- Focus groups and questionnaires have been held to gain feedback on the service.
- Visitor centres record the data, which is then sent to area office to inform reports. They also collate data from the helpline.
Challenges and obstacles
Discussion revealed a whole range of challenges and obstacles, which have been captured in the list below:
- Teacher awareness and understanding is very low, although this could be solved through appropriate training.
- Attitude of some prison staff. Unfortunately not all prison officers believe in family awareness, but again training can be a solution.
- Families are scared of the system and possible consequences. There is often little trust.
- Partners of Prisoners’ Families services are limited to families that sign up. Extra funding could see the development of a generic post so as to mainstream the service.
- Information-sharing and communication are significant barriers. Often issues of confidentiality are used to prevent helping. The solution is giving information and leaflets, getting facts right and chipping away at those who resist.
- Duplication is often because of the lack of sharing.
- Use statistics and project evaluation as evidence and to demonstrate effectiveness.
- Seek out ‘champions’ and put time into relationship-building.
- Ensure POPS and family link workers are seen as an asset and not a threat. Training can help particularly if it is part of the staff induction as well as prisoner induction.
- Raise profile.
- Regional barriers prevent holistic working; for example funding streams differ across borders.
Lessons for practice
- Research into and mapping of the issue is essential to establish the extent and pattern of need for this group, as is consultation with those who are affected. Improving knowledge and awareness in schools and other agencies with some responsibility is also essential. The prison governor should sit on the local safeguarding children’s board.
- One statutory authority needs to take responsibility for these children, and communication needs to be much improved. Solicitors should perhaps play more of a role and work with POPS to increase the chances of engaging with families at court and beyond.
- It is important to notice the differences between women and men. Women prisoners receive fewer visits and are often less supported by partners.
- People need to tell their children when a parent is in prison and there are numerous resources now available to help with this process.
- Follow things through and do not make promises you cannot keep either to families or staff.
- There is a need to mainstream the services across all prisons, to avoid a postcode lottery.
- An easier booking system in prisons would make life much easier as it would decrease bureaucracy and the using of confidentiality as an excuse not to share information.