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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

How parental imprisonment affects children’s mental health

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Important new guide from Action for Prisoners' and Offenders' Families on how parental imprisonment affects children's mental health & where to seek help.

A guide for professionals

A new guide from Action for Prisoners and Offenders’ Families: “The impact of parental imprisonment on the mental health of children and young people” sets out to help professionals working with children and young people to raise awareness of the impact on their mental health when a parent, carer or close family member is imprisoned.

Context

It is estimated that there are some 200,000 children in England and Wales with a parent in prison, with more children being  affected by imprisonment than by divorce each year. There is a strong association between parental imprisonment and adverse outcomes for children but it is also widely accepted that the impact a parent’s imprisonment has on their children is not fully known and that more research is needed. Compared to their peers, children of prisoners have been found to have three times the risk of mental health problems, anti-social delinquent behaviour and other adverse outcomes.

However, there is no obvious way to identify children and families affected by imprisonment as criminal justice services such as courts, probation, solicitors and prisons have no statutory obligation to tell health, education or employment services that someone has been sent to prison or received a community sentence. A teacher will not necessarily know a child has a family member in prison if the family choose not to let the school know.

Whenever a parent goes to prison the lives of those left with the responsibilities of caring for their children are profoundly affected at a time when the carer may be least able to cope themselves. Changes in the family structure can mean the father, partner or oldest sibling becomes the main carer. The child/children may move in with relatives or family friends, often this it is the grandparents who give the support or in some cases the child/children are taken into foster care or adopted.

The Young Person’s experience

The guidance lists a wide range of difficulties that a young person may experience which a family member is imprisoned including:

  • Witnessing a police raid and a loved one’s arrest
  • Not being informed about what is going on
  • Having to take over caring for younger siblings
  • Not being able to keep in touch apart from through sometimes traumatic prison visits
  • Stigma and bullying at school

These and similar experiences can take a serious toll on emotional and mental health; often creating feelings normally associated with bereavement but can be even harder to cope with since imprisonment doesn’t always the same sympathetic or supportive response from others.

Raise awareness

The guidance encourages individuals or organisations working with children or young people to be alert to the possibility of those they work with experiencing the imprisonment of a parent or carer and when they find a young person in this situation to ensure they get expert support from one of a number of key agencies:

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