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Highlighting the damage done by maternal imprisonment
New resources from Shona Minson and the Prison Reform Trust to safeguard children when parents are sentenced in court.

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Safeguarding children when sentencing parents

17,000 children affected a year

In an innovative partnership, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University and the Prison Reform Trust have come together to create new resources, including films and briefings, for criminal justice professionals to help improve their understanding of the impacts of maternal imprisonment.

It is estimated that 17,000 children every year are affected by maternal imprisonment in England and Wales. 95% (16,000) of these children are forced to leave their homes as their mother’s imprisonment leaves them without an adult to take care of them.

Despite this, no government agency has responsibility for ensuring the welfare of these children is safeguarded and their rights are protected.

Dr Shona Minson (@shonaminson), a Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University has conducted research on the implications of maternal imprisonment for children. The study explored the lived experience of children whose mothers were in prison at the time of interview. It is thought to be the largest study of its kind that has been conducted in England and Wales, with members of 27 family groups taking part in the research, including 14 children, and 22 adults who were taking care of children during their mother’s imprisonment. (You can read a summary of the research here.)

The research findings show that the experience of having a mother in prison not only negatively impacts a child’s relationship with their mother, but can affect every area of their lives including their education, health, and well being. The knock-on effects of stigmatisation may also lead to social isolation and discrimination. The work highlights the importance of considering child dependents and understanding the profound impact that maternal imprisonment can have on children who themselves have done nothing wrong. In the past week research from 2 other countries has been published indicating that parental imprisonment in childhood also contributes to premature death as an adult.


Funded by the ESRC and supported by the Prison Reform Trust Transforming Lives programme Dr Minson’s research findings have been used to create information resources for all criminal justice professionals involved in adult sentencing decisions, to support sentencers’ understanding of the impacts of maternal imprisonment on children. 

Launched nationwide on 24 January 2018, the resource includes a film “Safeguarding Children when Sentencing Mothers: Information for mothers” which you can watch below. 

There is also a briefing paper to accompany the film. 

The partnership has also produced three other films  made specifically for different professional audiences: 

  1. There is one for Sentencers  – it will be used in Judicial College sentencing courses and will also be hosted by the Magistrates Association in the members only bit of their website. 
  2. The film for advocates will be disseminated through the Law Society and the Criminal Bar Association.
  3. The film for Probation officers will be part of all new probation officers’ report writing training, and will also be seen by all probation officers as part of their team meetings in the next 6 months. 

Any lawyers who want to show the films for regional meetings of criminal lawyers etc should contact Shona Minson directly. Any organisation which wants to download the film for mothers and embed it in their own website and receive the accompanying briefing paper should also email Dr Minson.

Dr Minson said: 

My research found that children whose mothers are sent to prison are not afforded any of the same protections or support which are applied to children separated from their parents within the family courts as a result of care proceedings. Children of imprisoned mothers face extremely challenging circumstances which impact not only upon their immediate situations but also their future life chances.

It is hoped that these resources will ensure that all professionals involved in sentencing, have a more comprehensive understanding of the potential impacts on children if their mother is imprisoned, and this will enable children’s welfare to be effectively safeguarded

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