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Assessing the impact of maternal imprisonment

Sarah Beresford calls for a child impact assessment for every child with a primary carer in prison.

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Child impact assessment

This is a guest blog by Prison Reform Trust Associate and Churchill Fellow Sarah Beresford.

There was just nothing; no one asked how we were doing or what support we needed. Nothing.

Yasmin

When her mum was sent to prison, there was no consideration of Yasmin’s (not her real name) or her 5 siblings’ welfare. No one asked how witnessing the arrest had impacted them (as it is for many children, it was deeply traumatic, and years later Yasmin still tenses up even seeing a police car in the distance). No one mentioned, or requested information about, the children in any court proceedings. Most concerningly of all, no one asked who would be looking after the children following their mother’s sentence, despite the fact she was their sole carer. In all the years I have been working with, and advocating for, children affected by imprisonment, Yasmin’s story is one of the most harrowing: the children (Yasmin’s elder sister was only 14 at the time) were left to cope alone for weeks. It was only when the baby became gravely ill due to dehydration and malnutrition that the authorities were alerted.

Yasmin’s story lays bare the lack of consideration of, and coordinated care for, children with a primary carer in the criminal justice system. The imprisonment of a parent can be devastating for children, affecting every aspect of life, and generating a wide range of emotions, including grief, trauma, and shame. As I wrote in a report for the Prison Reform Trust, this is often all the more the case when it’s a child’s main carer. Despite this, children are rarely considered in criminal justice proceedings, and calls for action over the years have remained unheeded. In her 2007 report, Baroness Corston recommended that primary carers of young children should only be remanded in custody after fully taking into account the impact on the children. 12 years later, the Joint Committee on Human Rights 2019 enquiry into ‘The right to family life: children whose mothers are in prison’ recommended that a primary carer must not be sentenced without sufficient information to enable them to assess the impact of the sentence on the child. It also recommended that, under the Human Rights Act, the judge must make every effort to understand the potential impact of a custodial sentence on children.

Co-creation

It is in this context, and underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that I have co-created, with Yasmin and other children with lived experience, a Child Impact Assessment for children with a primary carer (normally a mother) in the criminal justice system. The assessment aims to ensure children are listened to at every stage of their mother’s journey (arrest, court, imprisonment or community sentence, and release) and that they are meaningfully involved in decision-making about their care and any support needs they may have. The accompanying notes to the assessment provide background information to those working with children and offer suggestions of support. Importantly, not all of the suggested support costs money or involves formal referrals to specialist organisations. Many of the children who contributed to the creation of the assessment said that they just wanted to be listened to by a trusted adult and to have their story heard.

© Andy Aitchison

Thanks to the Churchill Fellowship, I am now testing out the Child Impact Assessment framework in a variety of UK contexts (although the jurisdictions are different, the issues remain the same) and exploring key questions, including:

  • Whose responsibility is it to consider the welfare of children in criminal justice proceedings?
  • How should data about children be collected, collated, and shared?
  • How might Child Impact Assessments be integrated within existing systems and processes whilst remaining child-centered?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but I am hopeful that this project will offer something concrete to the considerations around how to hear children’s voices at all stages of the criminal justice system and in particular at sentencing.

Ultimately, this project is about ensuring children like Yasmin receive the support they need in and of their own right. All too often, children with a parent in prison are at best ignored within the systems that should protect them. Decisions are made about them, without really listening to what they are saying. When I first met Yasmin, she was upset because she had previously told a social worker that she didn’t want to visit her mum in prison; Yasmin had since changed her mind but had not been given the opportunity to revisit that decision. At worst, children are referenced only as potential future criminals. This is a damning message to send young people and one for which there is a lack of robust empirical evidence.

Listening to children

Having been excluded from school at one point (feeling that no one was listening, her anger and frustration built up and bubbled over), Yasmin is now a peer mentor for other children with a parent in the criminal justice system and is keen to ensure no others experience what she did. What helped Yasmin turn things around was not a headline declaring how likely it was that she too would end up in prison (unfortunately she has seen plenty of those), nor was it someone at court saying that her mother was receiving a prison sentence to teach her children lesson (as happened to another young person I know). What made a difference to Yasmin was someone simply listening to her and helping her discover her own potential. Listening to children, involving them in decision-making, and giving them choices, are the principles right at the heart of the Child Impact Assessment. If we don’t try something, we will be reading the same reports making the same recommendations in another 12 years’ time.

Further information about this project, and details of how to get involved, are available here or by contacting Sarah Beresford directly on sarah.beresford@prisonreformtrust.org.uk.

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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