Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties

Literature review - examples of interventions and models that have been used in working with children and families of prisoners

There are many examples of practice from around the world. Some have been stand-alone projects, whilst others have been longitudinal. Funding is an issue for many programmes, the majority of which rely upon the voluntary sector. This section will explore some of the work that has been done. For the purposes of this report we seek to highlight some of the innovative responses that have been made to support children who have a parent in prison, both in prisons themselves and out in the community.

Programmes in prison

Many prisons are now running ‘parenting programmes’ (for mothers and fathers). Whilst there may not be consistency across programmes, and there is some concern that they do not all involve partners on the outside or a chance to practice learning on family visits or days, there is some evidence emerging that these programmes are having a positive effect. Certainly, there is wide acknowledgement of the importance of maintaining family ties, and the impact that can have on reducing re-offending (105).

In a study commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families into family learning programmes in prison (110), Halsey concluded that this type of programme will have an impact on re-offending rates. The programme is over and above a normal visit or parenting programme. Instead it gives families the opportunity to spend time together and undertake a range of activities, such as playing, eating and learning about a child’s development. The sessions are aimed at children under five and the research suggests that there is far more chance of a family succeeding together upon release.

Watson concurred with this view (111). In HMP Wolds supporting the child is at the centre of their Family Learning programme. This is an opportunity for both parents and children under five to spend time as a family and to gain accreditation through the Social and Life Skills programme. This applies to the imprisoned father and non-imprisoned mother. They also provide other courses for fathers with children of other ages, and have produced a guide entitled ‘Daddy’s working away: a guide to being a dad in prison’. This guide has been given to every prison in the country as well as other countries in Europe, and Hong Kong.

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is an American programme that began in the early 1990s. Block and Potthast (112) carried out a two-year study to determine effectiveness in improving imprisoned mothers’ relationships with their children. The aim is to provide enhanced visits between the two to:

“Preserve or enhance the mother-daughter relationship, to reduce the stress of separation, to enhance the daughter’s sense of self, to reduce reunification problems, and ultimately, to help decrease the likelihood of the mother’s failure in the community.”

The programme was a success. It increased the number of visits, improved the mother-daughter bond, found the children were not as sad and that their self-esteem was far greater than those who were not part of the programme. The success has seen Girl Scouts Beyond Bars spread to over 40 prisons across the USA.

In Britain, there have been numerous developments and initiatives across the prison estate to support the maintenance of family ties. These range from better resources and support in visitors centres and enhanced family visits to parenting programmes. They are too many to mention individually here, but there have been evaluations on many of the programmes as well as reviews of the changes in visitors centres (96, 110, 113). You can find more details about the work of the Ormiston Children and Families Trust in Appendix 3. They have done an enormous amount in this area. There is also training available to prison officers with the aim of making the environment more welcoming and family friendly. Some examples are listed below:

North Eastern Prison After Care Society (NEPACS)

Last year a unique two-year pilot project, based in Durham and financed by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, on the needs of teenagers with a family member in prison, came to an end. One of the results has been the establishment of a Youth Activity Room at the Durham Visitors’ Centre, well-equipped with a variety of games (including electronic ones), magazines, and television.

Link: North Eastern Prison After Care Society (NEPACS)

Kids VIP

Kids VIP is a charity aiming to support children and their parents to sustain and develop relationships during the period of imprisonment. They have produced a guide called ‘Children visiting prisons’ (114) that identifies the benefits of maintaining ties for both children and families, as well as examples of what some prisons done, how to replicate good practice, and develop more child and family friendly ways of working. The training role they have in prisons has enabled prison staff to re-frame how they view children visiting the prison and offer a much more child-friendly approach.

“Kids VIP have found that where prison staff understand the issues for children visiting prisons, and consider what they would want for children known to them should they have to visit a prison, they find it much easier and are far more likely to create a child-friendly environment”. (114)

Story time

Vision in the prison service is key if new ideas and innovations are to succeed. This is dependent upon the prison governor, and for those who have been able to embrace new ideas, there has been success. Time for Kids (115) began in 1999 in HMP Holme House and, with the help of a grant, enabled 50 prisoners to record a story of their choice and send it home to their children in time for Christmas. This enabled father and child to build and maintain their relationship in a unique and personal way.

Storybook Dads started in 2002 and took this idea to another level. They are winners of numerous awards, including the Overall Award for Excellence in Charity Management at the Charity Awards 2007, and now work in over 30 prisons, including several women’s prisons, using digital technology to produce CDs with both music and sound effects. Over 1,700 prisoners and their children have already benefitted from this project. Storybook Dads evaluate their work as much as possible, and feedback “reiterates the positive impact the scheme has on family relationships” (116). More information about the project can be found on their website.

Link: Story time

In the community

There is little in the way of community initiatives, other than the practice driven by the community and voluntary sector in the UK that is described in detail below. What is clear, however, is that children of different ages require different approaches. For those under school age, many prisons have developed appropriate parenting programmes, and there are extensive leaflets and books available through Action for Prisoners’ Families, Ormiston Children and Families Trust, Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and Barnados Northern Ireland about how and what to tell younger children. For older children, and particularly adolescents, this can be far more complex, not least because of the range of external factors that come into play. However, there are more resources becoming available, and so there needs to be a methodical way of making them widely available for families. In ‘Imprisoned Fathers and their children’, families are asked about their links with agencies who might be able to provide support. 64 per cent said they had no links at all (14). This is not unusual and reflects the general picture that this is not seen as a priority group of children who have particular needs.

Once again, in the United States the situation is similar, with pockets of practice in existence. One example was specifically for Hispanic children, offering solution-focused group therapy. The programme was also based upon mutual aid, and the study of ten children showed it was an effective intervention with positive results (108).

Salmon (117) notes that when a child is in the care of the local authority, despite the duty to ensure contact with an imprisoned parent, long distances and staff shortages can mean visits do not happen. Additionally, other children rely upon grandparents and extended family to facilitate the process, which again is not always possible. She goes on to highlight the particular problems for the partners of young offenders, who are unable to visit unescorted if they are under 18 years old, let alone bring their children along. This is encapsulated by Nurse in her research into young fathers imprisoned in the USA:

“The prison environment is structured with little concern for inmates who are fathers. Instead the structure is determined by public opinion about the purpose of prison and the nature of young people.” (118)

The importance of schools and the role they play in this process cannot be underestimated. On a more positive note, Gloucestershire Local Education Authority, England has taken on board the issues that specifically affect children of prisoners in their schools. They have undertaken to support children, raise awareness among staff and identify named staff in their schools who can act as liaison. They have an agreement with HMP Gloucester to also provide a named person, and this forms part of their policy for the ‘Education of children with a parent or close relative in prison’ (119).

Ormiston have recently produced guidance for schools (and children’s services) for working with children and families of prisoners (120). It provides practical advice and tools for raising awareness and working with children, as well as a list of useful resources and information. The majority of the provision and support available in the community is dependent upon geography. The only exception is the existence of the Action for Prisoners’ Families national helpline, run in partnership with the Ormiston Children and Families Trust and Partners of Prisoners, but this still relies upon someone being able to let families know that it is there.

Link: Action for Prisoners’ Families Link: Ormiston Children and Families Trust Link: Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offender Link: Barnados Northern Ireland Link: Gloucestershire County Council, Parent in Prison Policy

European initiatives

“Each year, an estimated 700,000 children within the newly-expanded European Union are separated from an incarcerated parent; sometimes both parents are in prison. Yet few people are fully aware of the impact that the imprisonment of a mother or father can have on the early development of a child. The European Committee for Children of Imprisoned Parents (EUROCHIPS), funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, is a European-wide initiative on behalf of children with an imprisoned parent. With its network of partners active within prison-related, child's rights and child-welfare fields in France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and other countries, EUROCHIPS is seeking to boost awareness and achieve new ways of thinking, acting and interacting on issues concerning prisoners' children. EUROCHIPS' message is clear: the child and his or her best interests are at the heart of its action. Children are entitled to the truth about their parent's imprisonment. Above all, children must be able to maintain a link with both parents if separated from one or both, a right stipulated in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union” (121).


EUROCHIPS recently produced a book that brings together European perspectives on good practice from across the union. It covers issues of children visiting prison, living in prison, as well as training and campaigning. The book gives numerous examples and ideas for improving outcomes for children and their families, maintaining a child-centred focus throughout. For example, in Norway Foreningen for Fangers Parorende (FFP) is an organisation set up to support young people between 13 and 20. It provides a safe place for children and families to meet, discuss issues and participate in activities. In Sweden, the Sunflower Association offers age-specific support and group therapy, as well as activities to help children cope with the ramifications of losing a parent to prison.