Left outside – when Dad or Mum goes to prison…

A parent going to prison isn’t the fault of the child. Obviously. Yet thousands of children suffer as a result…

Father & child holding hands through bars...

Photo courtesy ©iStockphoto/patanasak

Imagine coming home from school to find that Dad or Mum have gone to jail. This is the reality for around 230,000 children in the UK.

So what needs do these children have?…

With other agencies, Barnardo’s has been running a campaign and leading on the development of work to help these children.

In May this year, produced a report called, On the Outside: Identifying & Supporting Children With a Parent in Prison.  Some of the content in this post is taken from this report.

The sorts of issues faced by children of prisoners include:

  • Loss – children experience the sudden absence of a parent as exactly that; a great loss. They also suffer a kind of grief that is quite unique. Imprisonment affects the attachment relationships of both child and parent.
  • Stigma – how do you tell your friends or your teacher that your Dad or Mum are in prison? If someone finds out, there can be great pressure on kids from others who look down on their situation.
“My son, who’s incredibly close to his father, was literally for the first two weeks – I mean I think he was in shock. He was having night terrors, nightmares. I would wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and he would be in the loo, just rocking and saying,”I want my Daddy, I want my Daddy, I want my Daddy”… I had to make decisions very very quickly under a huge amount of pressure.” (From: Gill &  Jacobson, 2013)
  • Bullying – stigma of this kind, like many others, can lead to bullying. And bullying comes in many forms in this digital age.
  • Isolation – stigma, shame and the threat of bullying can drive children into isolation. They really need to talk to someone, but who is there?
“The Police just turned up and Dad disappeared and that was that.” From Gill & Jacobson, 2013
  • Mental health problems – unresolved grief and loss, worry, isolation and stigma, as well as the usual self-doubt of many teenagers, can have a profound impact on mental health. Children of prisoners are twice as likely to suffer mental health problems than other children.
  • Accommodation & finance issues – debt, unpaid rent, financial difficulties to the point of dire poverty can result when the main bread-winner goes to jail. 12% of children go into care when Mum goes to prison. There are around 18,000 children who have a mother in prison.

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  • Out of sight… – think of the rigour applied to taking children into the care system. Then imagine a situation where a parent is imprisoned without any serious assessment being made as to whether they have children and what the impact on them might be. This is the situation currently in the U.K..

Take a look at this short video to hear a summary of the issues and some of the things being done to help.

What needs to happen?…

The On the Outside report calls for a number of things to be done to limit the damage to children when they experience parental imprisonment:

  • Identify the children affected by parental imprisonment – this is the biggest single-issue group of vulnerable children in the U.K. – and we don’t even know who they are… Before sentence or remands decisions are made, this should be established.
  • Raise awareness of the issues: – GPs, schools, social care agencies, mental health professionals all need greater understanding of this issue affecting thousands of children…
  • Support in prison – running family-friendly visits in prisons with better, child-friendly and welcoming environments. Family visiting days where children can enjoy activities like cooking or reading with the parent or grandparent in prison.
  • Support in the community – support for families, training for professionals and building better community-prison links to help improve family relationships and reduce the inter-generational cycle of offending.

For more info and some useful links, go to Families Left behind.

Final thought…

Many young people in the care, youth work, youth justice, LAC or child protection systems will have experienced parental imprisonment.

It’s incumbent upon those of us who work with such children to know about the impact this can have, to be aware of what services exist to provide support and to do whatever we can to help.

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Your thoughts?…

  • What can you do tomorrow to enhance your practice by including this knowledge?

Please add your views in the comments section below, or by clicking here.

Practice example…

The Dreadnought Centre in Cornwall has a service dedicated to offering support, facilitated discussion and factual information to children and young people dealing with parental imprisonment.

They also conduct group work with siblings and provide support for parents and carers. Download a leaflet here.

Related previous posts…

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

  • Source: Gill, O. & Jacobson, D.M. (2013) Working with Children with a Parent in Prison, Barnardo’s
  • Source: On the Outside: Identifying & Supporting Children with a Parent in Prison, Barnardo’s, 2014

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