How can we better support children, young people and their families who are affected by parental imprisonment?

Following Amie’s blog about what it’s like to have a brother in prison, Nicki Wray of Barnado’s Scotland considers how we can better support similarly affected families.

Labour MSP Mary Fee has this month 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.

This proposal is a welcome step forward in acknowledging an issue which has fallen slightly off the political radar in recent years. As mentioned in the consultation document, attempts were made in previous Parliaments to address the impact of parental imprisonment. During the passing of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 a series of amendments were proposed by Aileen Campbell MSP. These amendments were unsuccessful and since then the issue has been put on the back burner in favour of more prominent justice issues such as the female prison estate and the reducing re-offending agenda.

However, this is an issue affecting thousands of children and young people in Scotland today. As highlighted through the voices of young people at the recent Living It event in Parliament, it is estimated that there are over 27,000 children in Scotland affected by the imprisonment of a parent[1] but an estimate is the best we can do because there is no robust form of identification or assessment for this group of children. Barnardo’s as a UK wide organisation has been engaged in work which supports children affected by parental imprisonment and their families for over 20 years, in both prison and community-based settings.

Within our own Barnardo’s Scotland children’s services, of which there are over 120, we recently did a small survey of staff and found that over 69% of the staff members surveyed had worked with a child or young person experiencing parental imprisonment at some point. These services are largely family support services and not specifically designed to work with or address the needs of children with a parent in prison.

Our 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 research on children affected by parental imprisonment and highlight for us just how significant an issue this is within our own services. 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. Because they are not counted and they are not identified, it is difficult to develop services which are tailored to their needs or equip professionals with the skills and awareness required to support them.

As well as the children and families we work with who will disclose that they have a partner/parent in prison, there are many, many more who we will be working with, for other reasons who don’t want to disclose this information. There is a huge stigma attached to imprisonment, some families are so desperate that the school doesn’t find out that some mothers tell their children that ‘daddy is off working on the oil rigs’. This secrecy and confusion can often compound other issues the family might be having with poverty, housing, unemployment etc. We need to ask questions about what can be done to reduce this stigma so parents and children feel comfortable asking for help and support.

Sue Brookes, Governor of HM YOI Polmont has said: “If we focused on these kids and gave them the support in a more targeted way then potentially we could break the cycle of crime in families.” She continues “I would like there to be some kind of service so that if your mum and dad is in prison you would – automatically – be given some kind of support, because we know these kids are going to struggle for all sorts of reason” [2]

This group of children have been overlooked for too long. What systems and structures are currently in place to put the rights of these 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 Cabinet Secretary for Justice’s recent decision 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 education, social work, justice, health or aren’t noticed at all. As illustrated by the below quote from a young boy working with Barnardo’s:

“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” [3]

The proposed Member’s Bill seeks to introduce Child and Family Impact Assessments when a parent is sent to prison [4]. 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, the current proposals in the Bill seek to introduce Child and Family Impact Assessments (CFIA) after the point of sentencing. Previous attempts to legislate for CFIA have been unsuccessful for various reasons; the key concerns being that they would add more bureaucracy to the sentencing process or inspire sentencing leniency for offenders with children. The decision by Mary Fee to propose these assessments after sentencing shifts the whole debate out of the realms of sentencing and into the realms of Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) and children’s rights. As noted by the Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson in a recent Justice Committee session:

If issues are identified but a custodial sentence is still considered to be the most appropriate route, it is important that the right support services are put in place in order to support the child in a way that appropriately meets their needs” [5]

 Statistics released last May by the Scottish Government showed that the number of Criminal Justice Social Work Reports being requested, and the number of reports being submitted, is continuing to fall. This is concerning for Barnardo’s Scotland as these reports are currently the only way for external agencies to find out about the dependent children an offender might have. Even when conducted these reports only touch upon any childcare responsibilities and tend to be largely offender focused. We believe all children should have a separate assessment of their wellbeing carried out if their parent or carer is sentenced to custody in order to prevent the longer term adverse effects on their physical, social and emotional development.

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.

The proposal of legislation on this issue is a huge step forwards. The Scottish Government have also announced their intention for a Community Justice (Scotland) Bill which will hopefully provide other legislative opportunities to look at how we can better support this vulnerable group of children.

If you would like to respond to Mary Fee’s consultation you can find it here. The consultation closes on May 7th.


1. Scottish Government Justice Analytical Services (2012) ‘Freedom of Information request’ from Dr Chris Holligan, 26 January 2012

2. Children in Scotland magazine, April 2014 (Page 19)

3. Barnado’s (2013) ‘Working with children with a parent in prison: Messages for practice from two Barnado’s pilot services’ Pg 9

4. Loureiro, T. (2009) ‘Child and Family Impact Assessments in Court: Implications for Policy and Practice’ Families outside

5. Justice Committee Meeting (Dec 16th 2014) 





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