By Nicki Wray, Barnardo’s Scotland
Barnardo’s Scotland knows from our direct work with families that children affected by parental imprisonment are an extremely vulnerable group who often suffer in silence, unseen and unheard by statutory agencies.
Within our own Barnardo’s Scotland children’s services we recently did a small survey of staff and found that over 69% of staff members surveyed had worked with a child or young person experiencing parental imprisonment at some point. These services were not specifically designed to work with or address the needs of children with a parent in prison. Staff cited issues such as confusion, isolation, stigma, secrecy, social exclusion, poverty, loss, bereavement and trauma among a raft of other things. These experiences reflect the international literature on children affected by parental imprisonment and highlight for us just how significant an issue this is within our own services.
What systems and structures are currently in place to put the welfare of families, and in particular the rights of children at the centre of justice processes which affect them? The Scottish Government is committed to making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up; this can be seen through investment in the early years, GIRFEC, the whole systems approach, and the prevention agenda. Much work has also been put into ways to reform the justice system and reduce reoffending, in particular the Justice Secretary’s recent announcement to abandon the new Inverclyde prison. But to date there is still a lack of joined up thinking when it comes to children with a parent in prison, all too often they fall between the cracks of services or aren’t noticed at all.
Barnardo’s Scotland leads on the Thrive Public Social Partnership which works in Perth & Kinross and Angus with children and families affected by imprisonment. We have early evidence that the support the service provides both during prison visits and in the community has been really beneficial for the families and children they are working with. The service is unique in that it provides parenting and attachment sessions in the prison with both parents as well as providing support to partners and children in the community, including working with the offender and their family on their release. Labour MSP Mary Fee has launched a consultation on her proposed Support for Children (Impact of Parental Imprisonment) Bill. The Bill seeks to increase the support provided to children and young people with a parent in prison, this would be done through assessments after sentencing and within the education system. We believe that this group of children have flown under the radar for too long and legislation is required to stop them from slipping through the gaps in statutory services. This is why we will be supporting the proposed Bill.
We need to reframe how we as a society view families of offenders. We need to start talking about them as individuals with individual rights, especially children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child states that the best interests of the child must be a paramount consideration; it states that children have a right to be listened to and taken seriously; it states the right of children to protection, an education, healthcare and a family life. In its concluding observations in 2014 the UN stated that state parties should ensure support to children with one or both parents in prison.
When a parent or carer is given a prison sentence these rights must be upheld. Regardless of whether a family can help to reduce reoffending or rehabilitate an offender, the best interests of the children involved must remain paramount. Questions must be asked about how their wellbeing needs will be addressed, how will they be kept Safe, Healthy, Achieving, Nurtured, Active, Responsible, Respected, Included when their parent or carer is in prison? In short, how can we make sure they are okay? “No-one has asked me what I want to do; no-one has asked me if I want to see my dad; no-one has asked me anything.”
One of the issues faced by agencies and organisations in Scotland working with children and families is that children affected by parental imprisonment are more often than not a hidden population, they are not counted and they are not identified, it is therefore difficult to develop services which are tailored to their needs. It is estimated that there are 27,000 children in Scotland affected by the imprisonment of a parent, but an estimate is the best we can do because there is no robust form of identification or assessment for this group of children.
The proposed Bill seeks to introduce Child and Family Impact Assessments when a parent is sent to prison, these assessments would ensure that the rights of the child are upheld and respected and appropriate supports are put in place to address their particular needs. These assessments should be focused on the age and stage of development of each child and on their individual wellbeing needs. It is equally important that the parent left behind is supported as well, and if necessary signposted to appropriate adult services. Crucially, these assessments could also start to identify and quantify the numbers of children affected by the imprisonment of a parent which is data we do not routinely collect in Scotland.
The Bill also proposes that children with a parent in prison would be automatically assessed for any additional support needs they may have, through the education system. Research has shown that schools are well placed to provide support to children with a parent in prison, however many schools are often unaware of the issue and information is not shared. The COPING project, conducted in four European countries, which aimed to identify children with imprisoned parents and their needs, found that around half of the children of prisoners they interviewed in the UK needed some level of emotional support from school or other agencies. It is important to assess and address the needs of this group of children in a non-stigmatising way; it is therefore welcome that the Bill seeks responses on potential ways to do this through pre-existing, additional support for learning structures.
This Bill has the potential to enhance and further the rights of children and young people experiencing the imprisonment of a parent. We are delighted that this issue is being highlighted in the Scottish Parliament and we hope that all parties will be able to come together to progress this agenda.
Responses to the consultation are being sought from individuals and organisations up until the 7th May; please follow this link to respond to the consultation.
Nicki Wray works for Barnardo’s Scotland in the Policy and Influencing Team.