Ensuring that vulnerable children remain safe and protected is our top priority. For children who have a parent in custody, their circumstances vary considerably and therefore local agencies are best placed to determine what support is needed. This may include early help, statutory social care services, or support for other needs, such as mental health. A child’s need for support should be assessed individually. We do not believe a prescriptive approach – such as regarding all children of prisoners as children in need – is the right one. However, it is vital that all services consider the safeguarding and welfare issues that may be faced by children of prisoners.
The statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children (2018), is unequivocally clear that anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should make a referral to local authority children’s social care. The local authority and its social workers then have specific roles and responsibilities to lead statutory assessments or enquiries to determine whether the child is in need (section 17, Children Act 1989), or suffering or likely to suffer significant harm (section 47, Children Act 1989).
We know that attending education settings is an important protective factor for vulnerable children. That is why we have ensured vulnerable groups, including children with a social worker and children assessed as otherwise vulnerable by educational providers or local authorities, can continue to attend educational settings. We are also providing laptops and tablets for children with a social worker and care leavers, and those in year 10 preparing for exams who do not already have such devices, to help children’s social care services keep in touch and keep children safe, and to support remote education.
For schools and colleges, the statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, sets out that staff should consider the additional needs of children with parents in prison. The guidance highlights the risk of poor outcomes including poverty, stigma, isolation and poor mental health. It signposts staff to the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders website which provides specialist advice and resources to support professionals working with offenders and their children, to help mitigate negative consequences for those children.
We recognise the importance of supporting and maintaining links between offenders and their families, when this is in the best interests of the child. This is why HM Prison and Probation Service have been active in responding to this need and providing support for the families and children of those men, women and young people in their care. This includes the issuing of 900 mobile phones to establishments, piloting a video calling service, video messaging, using social media to update families, issuing letters from senior prison staff to prisoners’ families with information and updates on conditions, weekly bulletins and updates from establishments, reassurance updates from healthcare and psychology teams, and running art competitions for children of prisoners.