Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties

Literature review - Provision for children affected by parental imprisonment

Given the low profile attached to this area of work, it is not surprising that much of the literature comments on the lack of provision and the need for a more systematic response to this issue (76, 76). In 1990, Save the Children produced a guide for prisoners’ families, in which they identified the lack of information available to families at various points throughout the criminal justice system:

“Different stages along the continuum of the Criminal Justice System from arrest to trial to imprisonment, to release, present the family with many changing and complex problems and needs. The family is in a constant state of turmoil as it attempts to respond appropriately to these problems” (78).

The need for a systematic and cohesive response

Reference is also made to the conflict between two systems: the criminal justice system with its focus upon punishment and children’s services with a focus on welfare. (79). It is suggested that there is a need for greater collaboration across the systems but pressures in criminal justice and children’s services mean neither are in a position to work effectively with the family unit as a whole. While this is particularly the case in England and the United States, where numbers of prisoners are consistently growing, the experience in Scotland and Northern Ireland has been very different. Here, services have recognised the needs of both the parent and child and have developed what appears to be a much more cohesive response (14). Nevertheless, in the majority of the literature reviewed, the absence of a systematic and cohesive multi-agency approach warranted comment and recommendations from a number of sources, as this is the experience of most children, whose needs are not currently being met (14, 80–84, 85, Hamilton, 2006 #1190, 86).

Ascione (80) views the children of ’incarcerated mothers‘ as an overlooked group of children who have special needs. The suggestion is that in America, the majority of women are imprisoned for non-violent offences and that more emphasis on punishment in the community would limit the impact on the children. The issues raised resonate with the UK, specifically the need for agencies responsible for the welfare of children to gather evidence about the numbers and location of the parent, as well as work more closely with the criminal justice system to provide a more constructive response to the needs of children and their imprisoned parents. Other research points out that child welfare and criminal justice agencies often encounter the same families. Given higher levels of cooperation, identification and tracking would be easier. This could lead to much better opportunities for positive interventions and support for children (87).

The ‘Tracking Project’ (88) piloted a study designed to track overlap in the use of services across health, social care and criminal justice databases. This was done with the intention of being able to improve service planning and delivery, with better targeting of those using a range of services. While records were anonymous, the study did show that of a sample of just under 100,000 people, 12 per cent were using more than one service. The authors argue that opportunities for filling gaps in provision using this data could be extremely useful for ensuring better and more coordinated services.

Evidence of multi-agency approaches

Leason (89) reported on suggestions that the government in Britain might think about targeting services for children of prisoners. It was felt that this would be a positive move if this was solely to support the child, but not if it would end up labelling them as offenders of the future.

However, there is already some evidence of examples of multi-agency approaches making a difference. In 1997, Tapper and others reported on an interagency collaboration strategy from the United States of America that involved schools, social services, and criminal justice agencies working within a specific neighbourhood to target high-risk adolescents. The ‘system partnership model’ crossed traditional boundaries and offered a much more cohesive and coordinated response to family distress. Similarly in Britain, in an evaluation of a project on supporting young people with a prisoner in the family, Action for Prisoners’ Families demonstrated the importance of multi-agency working to ensure effective support for young people (90). This perhaps reflects the range of interventions often required by vulnerable young people who may need support at school, in visiting a parent in prison, sustaining that relationship, and dealing with all of the emotions involved.

Boswell (14) interviewed a number of children who had imprisoned fathers, discussing issues ranging from their feelings about visiting their dad in prison to the effect it was having on school and family life. She suggests that there needs to be far greater understanding and awareness of the impact from schools and other formal support services who should be set up to work far more closely with parents both during and after sentence, and concludes by arguing for:

“…the integration of theoretical understanding about recidivism and the effects of disrupted child/parent relationships into a systematic social support framework which provides a dual focus on offender and family in the joint interests of child/family stability and reduced offending rates”.

In research undertaken with adolescents visiting parents and siblings in prison Brown and others (91) were very clear that this is a group of children whose needs are not being met. They suffered from isolation, a lack of support from services, and often had to take on increased responsibilities at home. Many did not tell friends for fear of repercussions and so were left to deal with their emotions alone. The authors made numerous recommendations as a result of this research, many of which focus on the promotion of better information for families and awareness-raising within organisations that can actively make a difference. Similarly, in ‘building partnerships for the families of offenders’, Jones (83) calls for better working relationships between the voluntary and community sectors and the National Offender Management Service. This would both reduce the risk of re-offending and meet the needs and rights of children ensuring the voice of the child is at the centre of service provision.

The call for an improved interface between different systems is not a new issue, and many models have been proposed. Difficulties are characterised by polarised priorities and agendas, limited budgets and budget cuts. However, there are pockets of practice and a range of suggestions for working models of practice. Some examples follow.

Examples of coordination

The concept of a multi-disciplinary ‘wrap-around’ approach (92) was based upon a series of open-ended interviews with men and women in prison in the U.S. who were receiving substance abuse treatment, and whose children were being looked after by relatives. Smith explored a variety of issues including parent-child bonding, and impact of drug use and prison on the family, and concluded that a ‘wrap-around’ approach would be the best way of designing services for all involved, both during and after sentence. This means a coordinated, multi-disciplinary plan that involves the parents and children and helps them to negotiate the complexities of the systems in which they find themselves.

It has also been researched in ‘Time for families’ (84). This was a study to assess outcomes for children and young people using two of the Ormiston Children and Families Trust projects. The five outcomes in Every Child Matters (1) are at the centre of the work of Ormiston, who have been providing support to children since 1981 (see practice survey). This piece of work concluded that the support offered to children through this project produced significant differences to their lives. There are various recommendations in the report which are aimed at services both inside and outside of the prison. They include the need for inter-agency cooperation from well-trained and aware social care staff, and that “the needs of this group are considered as a priority group in the Children and Young People’s plans of every authority” (The Children and Young People’s plans set out the improvements that the local authority intends to make to ensure the well-being of children and relevant young persons (93)).

In the United States, where prison numbers are even greater, the problems are exacerbated, yet the solutions require a similar collaborative approach (94). Collective efforts of criminal justice, social care, community and research organisations are key to improving outcomes for children and their families. The need for cooperation is echoed by others in the United States, notably Abram and others, who explore the lessons for inter-organisational collaboration through an evaluation of two programmes that were established to better serve the children of prisoners. They concluded that for this type of collaboration to be effective, there is a need to keep numbers of people involved to a minimum, to provide training about working together and to be very clear about each other’s roles (95).

In Australia, the prison population is also rising, and there is the same issue of knowing little about the children, and numbers of children affected. Cunningham (85) suggests that there is a particular need to support children who have witnessed  a parent being arrested, which can be particularly distressing. She reports that the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders has called for a de-briefing service for children to help them cope with the trauma.