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What’s it like being the child of a sex offender?
The distinct challenges faced by children with a parent in prison for sexual offences.

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Invisible harms and hierarchies of shame

New research by Ross Hextall of Children Heard and Seen looks at what it’s like for children who have a parent in prison for sexual offences. “Invisible Harms and Hierarchies of Shame: The distinct challenges faced by children with a parent in prison for sexual offences” is based on interviews with those caring for children with a parent in prison for a sexual offence, professionals who have worked with these children and an adult with lived experience. We know that sex offenders are at the bottom of the prison hierarchy, stigmatised more than other groups, both in prison and on release. This research set out to find out whether their children also suffer aggravated levels of stigma and discrimination.

Findings

The research suggests that the nature of a parent’s offence dramatically impacts the way in which young people experience shame and stigmatisation, with participants recognising a hierarchical structuring of the moral culpability of criminal offences from a public perspective. The restructuring of parent-child relationships in the aftermath of learning of a parent’s sexual offending had profound implications for how children navigated adolescence and impeded their capacity to form their own identity and sense of self during a crucial developmental stage. Failure to acknowledge and ameliorate these distinct harms represents a non-fulfilment of the residual obligations owed to these children that arise from the pursuit of punitive policies against their parents.

The report explores how the nature of the offence can disrupt a young person’s sense of identity, whilst community backlash and the threat of vigilante violence forces many families to change homes, schools, or even their names. Its principal findings are set out below:

  • These children are even more at risk of social exclusion and decline in emotional wellbeing than those with parents imprisoned for other offences.
  • The revelation of parent’s sexual offending had significant implications for the way in which children were able to form their own identity during a crucial developmental stage. Difficulties were felt most profoundly in children entering adolescence
  • Being hunted by dedicated vigilante groups reduced familial capacity to hide their identity and undermined children’s sense of security, whilst sensationalized media reporting of sexual offences fuels negative social responses to sexual offenders and their families.
  • Long term placement on public registers and enforcement of supervised contact post-release caused confusion for young people hoping to rebuild a relationship with their parent after they had been released.
  • There is no support available from government/social services that appropriately respond to these needs.

The drawing reproduced below was submitted by a 12 year old boy, Martin, and conveys his emotions when his father was sent to prison.

Family impact

One mother interviewed in the study was forced to move her and her 5 children over 100 miles from their family home after her husband was arrested for viewing indecent images of children online. She explains how her own children have missed out on school and how existing friendships have really suffered. The children have also had to change their names to avoid detection from vigilantes. In the report, she explained:

“Relocating meant that he lost out on starting in Year 7. He went into a form of denial for a time, and he just kept asking: when can we move back?…”

Conclusion

The research identifies a number of distinct themes that render these experiences broadly different from cases where a parent is imprisoned for a non-sexual offence. The disruption of personal identity and derailing of sexual maturity marked two of the key defining markers of this experience on an individual level for these young people. Harms suffered were exacerbated by volatile media and community responses, that lead to cascading losses which isolated young people from former systems of support and security.

The report also highlighted the lack of understanding and knowledge of these experiences in professionals who work with children and is an invaluable resource for social workers and other people working with the families of sex offenders.

 

Thanks to Sophia, the 15 year old girl who painted the header image which explores how parental imprisonment made her feel.

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