Children of Prisoners

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 12th November 2008.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy PPS (Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State), Department for International Development 11:00 am, 12th November 2008

I think that this is the first time, Mrs. Dean, that I have spoken in a debate with you in the Chair, and I welcome the opportunity to do so. I also very much appreciate the fact that the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who has been very busy in the last couple of days with the tragic case that has been in the media, has taken the time today to respond to the debate.

I am very aware that this is a cross-departmental issue, involving the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice. The Cabinet Office has also been involved, with its families at risk review. The joint review that was published about a year ago by the DCSF and the MOJ was a very important step in highlighting some of the issues that need to be addressed—issues that have been neglected for a long time.

When the children of prisoners have come up on the political radar, which is not very often, much of the focus has been on the MOJ side of the equation. The issue arose, for example, during consideration of the Offender Management Bill. The focus has very much been on the importance to prisoners of maintaining family relationships while they are inside prison, which has been proven to reduce significantly the risk of reoffending.

Organisations, such as Action for Prisoners Families, have led campaigns on facilitating prison visits, reducing the cost of phone calls from prisons and reducing the distance from their home towns that prisoners are placed—an issue that was flagged up in the Corston report, particularly in relation to female prisoners. Other organisations, such as Save the Children, have done a lot of good work in creating children's visiting centres to make it easier for children to visit their parents in custody. That type of work is good, but I do not intend to dwell on those issues today, because they are very much the responsibility of the MOJ. Today, I want to look at this matter from the other side of the equation; from the child's point of view, rather than the prisoner's.

The statistics on the number of children who are affected by parental imprisonment shocked me when I looked into them. About 7 per cent. of British children will experience the imprisonment of a parent during their school years. It is estimated that about 160,000 children a year have a parent who is sent into custody. The Corston report says that 18,000 children a year are affected by a mother's imprisonment and a third of mothers who go to prison have a child under the age of five.

To put those statistics into some kind of context, each year, more children are separated from a parent by imprisonment than by divorce. The number of children who have a parent in prison at any time is two and a half times the number of children in care and more than six times the number of children on the child protection register. Obviously, with rising prison populations, those figures are expected to rise.

I will not go into much detail on the issue today, but the impact of a sibling being imprisoned has been shown to be just as significant on a child in some cases as the imprisonment of a parent. That is something that we should also bear in mind when examining such statistics.

As for the impact on children of a parent's imprisonment, it has been shown that a child whose parent is serving a custodial sentence has three times the risk of developing mental health problems. There is obviously a stigma attached to a parent being sent to jail and the child may feel ashamed of it. Alternatively, they may sometimes blame the parent for indulging in the criminal activity that led to them being sentenced, or they may feel rejected by the parent and feel that the parent has chosen to engage in that criminal activity, rather than putting their child's interests first.

As a knock-on effect, the children of prisoners may be subjected to bullying or teasing—particularly at school, but also in the local neighbourhood—especially if the crime that the parent committed has affected people who live in close proximity to the family. That situation is obviously worse if there has been significant media coverage of the crime, which is an issue that I have wrestled with for some time. Obviously, there is a public interest in reporting the names and other details of offenders. However, if we read in the newspaper, for example, about a father of several children who has been convicted of downloading indecent images of children from the internet, we have to imagine the impact that that story has on a child. Although it is part of the punishment that the person who committed the crime has their deeds reported in the press, one wonders about that person's children having to go to school the next day, when everyone has read what their father has been up to.

There are other impacts on the children of prisoners. Children whose parents have been in prison are much more likely to display antisocial or delinquent behaviour, and they are also much more likely to end up serving a custodial sentence themselves. In 2006, a study showed that 48 per cent. of boys whose fathers were in prison ended up being convicted themselves as adults, compared with 25 per cent. of boys who were separated from their father between birth and the age of 10 for other reasons.

Obviously, there will also be an impact on the family. I hope that people will forgive me for generalising and tending to talk about a context in which the mother stays at home and the father goes to prison. In such circumstances, the mother will obviously be distressed and may suffer emotional problems that have a knock-on effect on the children. The family is also likely to experience financial problems. If the father was the main wage earner in the house, the family may find that they have to claim benefits, move home or school and perhaps go on to free school meals.

If a single parent is imprisoned or if both parents are imprisoned, there is a real issue about who takes responsibility for the child. In a debate in the House of Lords last year, Lord Judd said that, when he visited Holloway prison with the Joint Committee on Human Rights, some prison officers said that prisoners had told them that they had left their children unattended.

Such children are sometimes taken into care or the other parent sometimes takes over responsibility. Quite often, however, informal arrangements are put in place: grandparents, friends or other relatives of the prisoner might look after the children. I am told that, when a warrant is executed for someone's arrest, the police have to notify social services that children will be in the home and social services must bear that in mind and ensure that suitable arrangements are made. However, that does not apply when someone is arrested in the course of committing a crime or in various other circumstances.

I have some concerns about such informal arrangements. In my constituency, a significant number of women are addicted to hard drugs and have children of primary school age. Quite a few of those women are involved in on-street prostitution. If a woman in that situation is given even a short sentence of imprisonment, her child might well end up living with an unsuitable boyfriend, or perhaps even her pimp; it is quite likely to be someone else who is a drug addict and who does not have the child's best interests at heart. Furthermore, if the child is, for example, a 13 or 14-year-old girl, I do not need to say what kind of concerns that would raise.

There is no systematic way of checking that the arrangements that are put in place when a parent is imprisoned are suitable for the child, which raises a number of issues. For example, who has parental responsibility for the child? If the child has an ongoing medical condition, is the person looking after them able to meet their health needs? Are they aware of the treatment that the child needs? Could they give authorisation if the child needed urgent medical treatment?

There are also financial issues, such as who gets the child benefit. If the child benefit is not passed on to the person who is caring for the child, will that person have the financial resources to meet the child's needs?

With regard to visits between the imprisoned parent and their child, will the carer be able to maintain that contact? For example, if the carer is a grandparent, they might feel that contact with the parent is not a good idea, particularly if the parent is seen as a bad influence on the child. Alternatively, grandparents may not have the financial resources or the transport to ensure that such visits happen.

There is also an issue about what children are told when a parent goes into prison. It is estimated that about a third of such children are not told anything at all about where their parent has gone. Another third are lied to—for example, they are told that their father is working away from home. Quite often in those circumstances, however, the children will find out what has happened through school, media reports or word of mouth in the local community. Obviously, if children have not been told that their parents are in prison, they will not be taken to visit them, and they will lose contact with them.

As the joint review by the MOJ and DCSF identified, we simply do not know who the children of prisoners are, where they live or who is looking after them. The children's schools do not know, the prisons do not know and the local authorities do not know. There is no reliable information out there and no statutory support.

The Government have done some good work, however. This issue was flagged up in a couple of questions in the Every Child Matters consultation, but it did not make it into the White Paper. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. The families at risk review also flagged up this issue as an indicator to look out for.

The Sure Start children's centre practice guide gives the best guidance that I have seen on the need to personalise services for the partners, children and families of prisoners, and there is also some ad hoc good practice out there. Holloway prison has a first night in custody programme, through which it ensures that the well-being of children is checked and that mothers are reassured. That programme is flagged up when women are taken into prison.

There are no systematic mechanisms for informing schools that a child's parent has gone into custody. In one survey that I looked at only two schools had been informed by agencies and those cases involved children who had been taken into local authority care. However, some 70 per cent. of schools were informed by parents or indirectly. In-school support for children in such circumstances varies dramatically. If children have already been excluded from school, they could drop out of the system altogether, because nobody knows where they are or what their circumstances are.

What action should be taken? The starting point is the Ministry of Justice, which should consider the impact on children whenever an adult is arrested and put into police cells, is remanded in custody or is facing a prison sentence. I am told that there is guidance telling Crown court judges that they should consider the impact on a child of issuing a custodial sentence, but that there is no similar guidance for magistrates. Given that 55 per cent. of immediate custodial sentences are imposed by magistrates courts, that guidance needs to be addressed. There is an issue about whether reports are always commissioned from the probation service about the home circumstances of prisoners or potential prisoners and the impact on their children.

We do not give deferred-start custodial sentences in this country, but perhaps we should consider doing so. They are quite common in the United States. If someone needs to make complicated family arrangements or to find a carer for their children, their sentence could have a delayed start, so that they could put those arrangements in place.

Prisons need to do more to protect children's interests. What they do in that regard depends completely on prison governors and the prison regime. For example, it is not compulsory for them to facilitate visits. As I have mentioned, the cost of phone calls from prisoners to their children is very high. There are some good initiatives, such as Storybook Dads, in which fathers read stories on video tape or cassette for their children, but there is no consistent programme across the board to ensure that children are taken into account.

It is important to identify which children are affected and who is looking after them. Local safeguarding children boards have a role to play in that and in mapping what services are available locally. One good thing that we have done in recent years is to flag up the needs of young carers in the system within schools and other agencies. We could learn lessons from that approach in relation to identifying the needs of prisoners' children. For example, some young carers feel a sense of stigma about their situation if they are caring for a parent who is mentally ill, a drug addict or an alcoholic. There are lessons to learn about not waving a red flag and pointing it out to everyone that such children are young carers or have difficult family circumstances.

I agree with the joint review's conclusion:

"The focus should not be on creating a new strategy but rather personalising and developing the existing offer to children and families and embedding this in existing cross-government work".

As I have said, the Sure Start children's centre practice guide is a good example of that. It talks about working with children on addressing issues of self-esteem and reducing anxiety. It also discusses the provision of child care when the mother is visiting the father in prison and helping parents with their changed financial circumstances.

We need better co-ordination of voluntary sector help, to which funding is relevant. The sector plays a big role in running visitor centres, and the Action for Prisoners Families helpline receives about 1,200 phone calls a month. The voluntary sector also has a role to play in advising parents and carers on what to tell children about the imprisonment situation and on how to deal with the upheaval.

Schools have an important role to play, but there is a question about how much a child's situation should be flagged up. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was at the Home Office, she wanted to work with offenders' children to address the likelihood that they might become offenders, but we do not want to give them the impression that they have been tarred with the same brush as their parent or that they are being blacklisted.

One thing that came through powerfully in the Howard League for Penal Reform report, "When big brother goes inside", was that children did not want their teachers to know that they had a brother in prison. They thought that it was not their teacher's business, or that they might be pitied, or that their teachers would think that they were cut from the same cloth as their older brother. So there is concern that targeting could affect children in a bad way, rather than ensuring that they get the help that they need. That issue could be addressed across the board, rather than being specifically addressed in school.

Schools need to be made aware of what is happening, but perhaps the relevant children should not be taken to one side. There has been some suggestion that this issue could be addressed on a whole-class basis, with the whole class being told how to deal with children whose family members are in prison, but I can imagine a child sitting there thinking that the eyes of the whole class are on him or her. So, although it is important that these issues are flagged up, it should be done as subtly and sensitively as possible.

Annotations

barbara richards
Posted on 13 Nov 2008 9:28 am (Report this annotation)

How many of these 18,000 children's mothers were sent to prison by the secret family courts for "contempt of court"?

I was threatened with prison, many times, over a seven year period, when the man who raped me - if such a person can be described as a man, I prefer the word monster - decided to further stalk me using the secret family courts, and the Richard Gardner theory, Parental Alienation Syndrome. I am a survivor of the Staffordshire Pindown child abuse scandal, I am not a drug addict or alcoholic, but a lady who still suffers from PTSD and chooses to deal with it by turning to Jesus Christ rather than the bottle or the medicine cabinet.

It's disgusting what has happened to our family, and many other families in this country. This country is putting innocent women into prison on trumped up charges in secret family courts. This is nearer to Nazi dictatorship than civilised democracy!