Fixing a broken system
Every local authority has a responsibility to protect and promote the welfare of children in need in its area. However, children who have a parent in custody are not regarded as a vulnerable group by definition of their parent’s incarceration. They are an invisible group.
A new report by Crest Advisory: Children of Prisoners: Fixing a broken system seeks to shed a light on them.
There is no system for identifying such children at the point of sentence and therefore no robust arrangements for ensuring that at this traumatic point in a child’s life, our public services are able to step in and check on their welfare. We are therefore missing the chance both to address the immediate needs of those children, and to tackle the long term risks to their life chances which losing a parent to custody entails. This is despite the well established evidence of the multiple disadvantages experienced by children who have a parent in custody and the poor outcomes which they face: studies show over two thirds of prisoners’ sons go on to offend themselves. It is clear that the current ad hoc arrangements are simply not fit for purpose.
Whether our justice system sends a mother or a father to prison, it relies on whoever is left on the outside to pick up the pieces. The vast majority of those parents sentenced to custody will be fathers, and we therefore largely rely on mothers to seek help, or on so-called ‘disclosure’ by the offender that they are a parent. This is not a reliable route by which to ensure that children get help, due to the widely-held view by families that their children could be taken into care. The absence of a system to identify children in these circumstances flies in the face of all existing policy imperatives around safeguarding and improving life chances for children.
We have relied for years on an estimate of 200,000 children being annually affected by parental imprisonment in England and Wales, which is based on data that is a decade old. Crest has developed a more rigorous estimate of 312,000 children which not only reflects changes in prison numbers over the last 10 years, but also draws on data relating to the age distribution of the children of prisoners, and distinguishes between the number of children affected by their mother or father going to prison. This updated figure should be a wake up call for policy makers and service providers nationally and locally.
Crest is calling on the Government to ensure that children in this situation do not remain invisible, and to develop a national strategy for children of prisoners which should include as a priority a requirement that courts notify the relevant local authority when a parent is sentenced to custody, so that a child’s needs can be assessed.
The report argues that support for children of prisoners should occur as early as possible; take the form of
whole family support; be flexible and targeted; and should last as long as necessary. It sets out seven key recommendations reproduced in full below:
- A new set of arrangements that require courts to notify the relevant local authority when a parent is sentenced to custody.
- Joint protocols between local authorities, prisons and probation services to address the needs of prisoners’ families based on an assessment of the needs of the children.
- Courts should satisfy themselves that they have taken reasonable steps to identify where a convicted person has dependent children.
- Revision of CRC and NPS contracts to include a greater emphasis on family support and the importance of working jointly with local authorities to ensure children are safeguarded.
- Drive forward reform in prisons in line with the Farmer review’s recommendations.
- Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to develop justice devolution arrangements that aim to improve outcomes for children of prisoners, framed around reducing inter-generational offending.
- A £20M Prevention of Inter-generational Offending fund to support the rollout of a national strategy.