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What about me? Recognising and supporting children with a mother in prison

What about me? Recognising and supporting children with a mother in prison

What about me? Recognising and supporting children with a mother in prison

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Sarah Beresford is a Prison Reform Trust Associate and author of the What about me? report. 

When Sam* (aged 13) came home from school one Thursday last summer, he expected, as on any other day, to hear his mother calling from the kitchen, asking how his day had gone. On that particular Thursday, however, there was no call. Sam’s mother had been sentenced to prison earlier that morning, and no one had given any thought to her son.

Sam is one of 25 children and young people whose stories inform a recent Prison Reform Trust report. What about me? highlights the shocking neglect of some of society’s most vulnerable children – those with a mother in prison. Like many children whose primary care givers receive a custodial sentence, Sam was eventually taken into care – an experience that he says left him feeling “very angry, sad, and confused.”

As this report makes clear, there is no accurate recording and monitoring of the number of children in the UK affected by maternal imprisonment. The estimates that are available (around 17,240 children every year in England and Wales) are patchy at best and are likely to be underestimates due to women’s reluctance to disclose. None of the 31 women who contributed to the report’s findings could recollect being asked on admission to prison if they had dependent children.

Children affected by imprisonment are rarely recognised as a distinct group within the systems and structures that are there to protect them. The Children’s Commissioner for England has included children of prisoners as a separate vulnerable category within her newly published Vulnerability Report. This is a welcome step in the right direction and provides a framework for local authority children’s services to follow suit.

What is needed is a government-led framework for identifying and safeguarding children affected by maternal imprisonment. That’s why this report is calling for the implementation of child impact assessments to ensure that a child’s needs are identified and addressed as soon as a mother is in contact with the criminal justice system. Such assessments would focus on children in their own right rather than as an aspect of mitigation. They would require the court to consider the welfare and wellbeing of any dependent children and seek to ensure that each child affected receives appropriate support. Most importantly, they would serve as a reminder that imprisonment should always be a very last resort, particularly in the case of primary carers.

Of course, data collection, monitoring, and information sharing about children must be open, sensitive, and transparent so that families understand who knows, what they know, and how the information will be used.

Despite such a traumatic experience at the start of his mother’s sentence, Sam is now coping much better thanks to support from charity Children Heard and Seen. He has a volunteer mentor who is supporting him to fulfil his potential, and he draws comfort from knowing other children who have had similar experiences.

When asked what support he should have had when his mother first went to prison, Sam replied, “Someone to explain where mum had gone, why she had gone, and what would happen now.” That seems a reasonable request. Perhaps it’s time to listen to what children are saying.

* Not his real name

 

(Photo Credit: AndyAitchison.uk and Pact (cover image for What about Me?))

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