What about me?
The impact on children when mothers are involved in the
criminal justice system
A new Prison Reform Trust report examines the impact of children when their mothers become involved in the criminal justice system. The report’s author Sarah Beresford argues not only that children are often devastated when their mum is sent to prison but that their interests are rarely considered by a justice system which is blind to their needs.
For most children, their mother is their primary carer. Every year an estimated 17,000 children experience their mum being sent to prison. Last year, 83% of women sentenced to prison had committed a non-violent crime and 62% were serving a sentence of six months or less.
The report shows that a mother’s imprisonment not only damages the child’s relationship with her, but can affect every area of their lives, including their housing, education, health, and well-being. Key findings within the report include:
- Only one in 20 children whose mother is sent to prison each year is able to stay in the family home. They may be placed with a number of different carers during their mother’s sentence.
- Many children face financial hardship and encounter significant disruption to their lives such as moving school and being separated from brothers and sisters.
- Children experience a wide range of emotions as a result of their mother going to prison, including grief, trauma, and shame. The knock-on effects of stigmatisation may also lead to social isolation and discrimination.
Aliyah, 13, said:
It was a horrible time. I was sad a lot of the time and didn’t want to explain to my friends what had happened.
A mother interviewed for the report said:
My family ceased contact with my children when I came to prison; they no longer see any extended family. My son lost his love for life and has attempted suicide twice as a result of me being in here. My daughter had to leave school to care for her brother. They had issues getting along as siblings, and I was not there to help them work it out. My son stopped taking any interest in school and refused to eat. My children were left to starve due to lack of financial help because the benefits stopped.
The report is based on conversations with children and young people who experienced having a mother in prison; mothers in prison and on community orders; grandparents who have had to pick up the pieces; and statutory and voluntary agencies supporting women and children. It also draws on the available academic research.
Despite the significant impact the imprisonment of mothers can have on children, the report found that the views and best interests of children are rarely considered by the criminal justice system and that they face many barriers to getting support. No government agency has responsibility for ensuring the welfare of these children is safeguarded and their rights are protected, judgemental attitudes limit the support available, and specialist services have been cut.
Coming hard on the heels of the government’s new Female Offender Strategy, launched last week, the report reinforces the case for change. The strategy emphasises the damage done by short periods of imprisonment and commits to a review of family support for women offenders and the roll out of training for criminal justice practitioners on the impact of imprisonment on children. However, it falls short of promising a comprehensive childcare assessment for anyone facing a criminal conviction called for in our report.
Commenting, Jenny Earle, Director of PRT’s Transforming Lives Programme to Reduce Women’s Imprisonment, said:
This report lays bare the devastating impact on children of mothers’ imprisonment. Children are completely innocent and yet are being cruelly punished by a criminal justice system which is blind to their needs. Children should be at the centre of decision-making not an after-thought. While we welcome the commitment in the government’s women offender’s strategy to better provision for primary carers, it falls short of the comprehensive approach needed to prevent children from falling through the cracks of our justice system.
This very thorough report concludes with over 70 recommendations to government, the media, local authority children’s services, police, prisons, probation and schools among others.
The primary recommendation is for the government to follow the Scottish Government’s pledge to implement a presumption against the use of custodial sentences under 12 months. To back up this recommendation, the report also makes six recommendations aimed at sentencers which, it says, should:
- Be proactive in seeking information about whether an offender has caring responsibilities.
- Request an impact assessment on any children affected to ensure that they are recognised within court processes and their best interests are taken into account.
- Be made aware of the serious impact on children when a mother is remanded or sentenced to custody, and of specific consequences in each case.
- Avoid remanding a woman to prison when a custodial sentence is unlikely.
- Make every effort to divert women away from prison.
- Provide the opportunity for a mother to make necessary care arrangements for her children before entering prison.