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Children of prisoners: fixing a broken system

Insights Report


Authors: Sarah Kincaid, Director | Manon Roberts

Wednesday 10 April 2019


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 vulnerable by definition of their parent’s incarceration. They are an invisible group.

A significant body of research, outlined within Crest’s Children of Prisoners report, demonstrates that children of prisoners are at risk of significantly worse outcomes than children not affected by parental imprisonment including an increased risk of mental health issues, and of being involved in the criminal justice system themselves in later life.

Our research, including new modelling using up to date prison population records, has shown that there are 312,000 incidents per year of a child losing a parent to custody in England and Wales, 17,000 of which as a result of mothers being sent to prison. This revised estimate is a significant increase from the previously used figure of 200,000. However, with no formal process in place to systematically identify the children of prisoners, there is actually no central record of who these children are.

The number of incidents of children affected by paternal and maternal imprisonment, based on Crest’s data simulation

Gaps in the system mean that chances to support the needs of the children of prisoners are continually missed. Crest’s report takes a whole-system view rather than simply focusing on custody. We found that during a parent’s journey through the criminal justice system there are numerous points which children of prisoners could be identified – on arrest, at sentencing, on entry to prison, and under probation supervision. But at the moment, at no point does the system ask: ‘If this is a parent in custody, where is their child? Should we be concerned about their welfare?’ – not even when a primary carer is imprisoned do any red flags go up to prompt inquiries as to whether help is needed for the family who are left on the outside. Instead it is left up to the offender or the parent left behind to seek help – something which we know is problematic because of stigma and fear about children being taken into care.

Children of prisoners’ potential points of contact with criminal and non-criminal justice agencies at different points of their parents’ criminal justice journey


Crest Advisory’s report calls for:

1. A new set of arrangements that require courts to notify the relevant local authority when a parent is sentenced to custody

2. Joint protocols between local authorities, prisons and probation services to address the needs of prisoners’ families based on an assessment of need of children

3. Courts should satisfy themselves that they have taken reasonable steps to identify where a convicted person has dependent children

4. 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

5. Drive forward reform in prisons in line with the Farmer review’s recommendations

6. Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to develop justice devolution arrangements that aim to improve outcomes for children of prisoners, framed around reducing intergenerational offending

7. A £20M Prevention of Intergenerational Offending fund to support the rollout of a national strategy


Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner for England said:

"In my work as the Children’s Commissioner I want us to have an accurate picture of the number of vulnerable children so we can ensure they are getting the support they need. Of course not all children who are vulnerable will end up living poor lives, but if we don’t even know who they are we can’t ensure they have the right safety nets. This report gives us a real opportunity to get this group of children onto the grid and radar of the agencies who can assess and support their needs."

Baroness Louise Casey, Advisor at Crest Advisory said:

"When the criminal justice system and the courts put a parent in prison, it impacts massively on their children. We need public services to join the dots, and the impact on the welfare of children would be profound were they to do so. Communication between court and children’s services is not the whole story, but could lessen the chances of a family struggling to cope on their own. Crest’s report makes it clear that action is needed for the children of prisoners and makes straightforward recommendations."


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