Neither seen nor heard: children of prisoners

We’ve come a long way from the days when most people genuinely believed that children should be seen and not heard. In education and social care, a huge emphasis is placed on listening to what young people have to say. Even in the justice system, efforts are made increasingly to give children a voice, for example in care proceedings and the family courts. And yet here there remains one distinct and vulnerable group who seem to be invisible to a system whose decisions massively impact on their lives: the children of prisoners.

Parental imprisonment is recognised as an adverse childhood experience – a stressful or traumatic experience that happens in childhood which can have a profound negative effect in adult life. Existing research demonstrates that the learning, behaviour and physical and mental health of children of prisoners suffers and that parental imprisonment is associated with a fivefold increase in exposure to other adverse childhood experiences.

Crest has spent the last few months examining how children are affected during a parent’s whole criminal justice journey, from their arrest to their release from custody. What we have found suggests, to coin another phrase, the sins of the father (or mother) are too often visited on their children.

For a start, there is no proper system in place to identify the children of prisoners. Nobody knows who they are or where they are. In fact, we don’t even know how many children are growing up with a parent in custody. Current estimates, based on data from 2008, suggest there are approximately 200,000 children of prisoners in England and Wales. We have been modelling more recent data and expect to publish in our final report a more accurate figure which will be significantly higher.

This lack of knowledge means we do not know what children of prisoners need. They are not recognised as a vulnerable group of children in their own right and there are virtually no obligations on agencies to provide them with support. In fact, the incarceration of a parent may actually lead to the withdrawal of existing support. Currently, support is provided largely by voluntary or third sector agencies, is often piecemeal and short-term, and relies on children or their parents self-disclosing.

Through no fault of their own, children of prisoners face a multitude of disadvantages. In our report, we aim to identify the potential touchpoints these children have with agencies as their parent goes through the justice system, and the opportunities these present for their needs to be recognised and help provided.

If you would like to know more about this project, or believe you can help in any way please get in touch.

Manon Roberts

Manon Roberts

Policy & Research Analyst

Manon Roberts is a Policy & Research Analyst at Crest. Previous prison-based experience in family work and substance misuse means Manon has seen first-hand the effects of criminal justice policy reforms on service users and their families. She is passionate about engaging service users and gaining their perspectives to inform recommendations for positive change.