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Executive summary: Children of prisoners: fixing a broken system

Report authors: Sarah Kincaid, Manon Roberts

Wednesday 10 April 2019

REPORT (PDF): Children of Prisoners: Fixing a broken system
Children of prisoners are at risk of signifi cantly worse outcomes than children not affected by parental imprisonment. These include, amongst others, an increased risk of future offending, mental health issues, and poor educational attainment.[1-5]

The extent to which parental imprisonment is a specifi c and independent risk factor is contested. Nonetheless, recent research shows that parental imprisonment is associated with a fivefold increase in exposure to other adverse childhood experiences.[6]

Despite such findings, children of prisoners remain an ‘invisible’ group – currently, children are not systematically identifi ed or assessed when a parent goes to prison. As a result, there is no record of who, or even how many of these children there are. Currently used estimations, based on data from 2008, put the number of children of prisoners in England and Wales at 200,000. However, new Crest research (see chapter 3 of the report) shows that there are significantly more children – an estimated 312,000 – affected by parental imprisonment than previously thought. This has profound implications for the development of sufficient and appropriate services for children of prisoners.

Current policy landscape and provision for children of prisoners


That parental imprisonment is of itself an adverse experience, associated with additional disadvantages for children affected, suggests that a parent going to prison should be a red flag for services to ensure the wellbeing and support needs of the child or children in that family are addressed. However, no such red flag currently exists.

Information gathering and assessments are undertaken at numerous points during offenders’ journeys through the criminal justice system. However, information relating to the families of offenders is collected inconsistently, for different purposes and is not used in any systematic way neither to understand the wider family picture nor to engage with services who are best placed to support families while the family member is in prison.

Provision for prisoners and their families is largely provided by the voluntary and community sector. There are many excellent family services working in custody and in prison visitors’ centres to support families and ensure prisoners and families are able to stay in touch. Lord Farmer’s review[7] and the Government’s response have the potential to change the prison landscape to create a greater family focus, making Governors responsible for a family and significant others strategy in every prison.

However, this is only one part of the picture. Whilst a family member is in custody, children have to cope on the outside with all the attendant practical and emotional problems, such as the impact of losing a parent (sometimes without notice), the family’s loss of income, and sometimes the loss of their home. This may happen without explanation – frequently, children are not told what has happened, or are instructed to keep it a secret due to shame or stigma. Visiting a parent may mean long journeys to a strange place, to spend an hour or two with a parent who is unable to get out of their seat, resulting in unauthorised absences from school and a subsequent impact on attainment.

On the ‘outside’ (i.e. community based services) dedicated services for families in this situation are harder to come by. There is no national guidance around recognising children of prisoners as a distinct group of children in need, and the absence of any mechanism to notify schools or the local authority when a parent enters custody will in most cases mean that the event goes unnoticed. Instead, the system unduly relies on children and parents self-identifying to services. For many families, this is the last thing they want to do as there is a widespread perception that this could mean children going into care. As a result, in most cases help arrives only in response to the manifestation of distress or difficulty such as the behaviour of a child, absence from school or threatened eviction. We spoke to services operating on the ‘outside’ as part of this research, who highlighted the significant challenges of piecing together a whole family view that encompasses the family on the outside as well as the parent on the inside, and in engaging criminal justice services in building that picture.

The case for change


Whilst progress has been made in recognising the value of maintaining family ties for the offender, there is much more that needs to be done to both recognise, and realise, the mutual benefits of maintaining and strengthening ties for an offender’s family and children. Maintaining family ties is not only predictive of more successful desistance from offending, but also improves outcomes for children of offenders. A whole family, holistic approach is a win-win situation both within and outside the criminal justice system. However, the current system does not provide any shared objectives to facilitate the joint working that is required to provide a coordinated, whole family approach.

This is not the first attempt to highlight the position of children of prisoners: a good deal of research has been carried out demonstrating the significant disadvantages suffered by this group. Much of this has been through an offender/prison lens; there has been less work exploring the merits of a whole family approach, which takes into account the needs and circumstances of the family on the outside and the prisoner when delivering interventions.

Moreover, this report includes revised estimates of the number of children of prisoners, reflecting the size of the prison population as it is today and forecasts figures going forward. It recognises that this population is significantly bigger than previous estimates, which should be a wake-up call to policymakers, both nationally and locally. All relevant agencies should recognise the value of reducing parents’ risk of reoffending, and their children’s risk of future offending, by investing in a whole family approach.

We argue these children should be a priority for services that target children and families with multiple and complex needs, for example, early help, children in need, troubled families and social care services.

We argue these children should be a priority for services that target children and families with multiple and complex needs, for example, early help, children in need, troubled families and social care services.

The opportunity


The point of sentencing represents an opportunity for services to ensure the well-being of the family left behind. It is a point when one arm of public services (the courts and criminal justice services) makes a decision that is of interest to another part of public services (children’s services). HM Courts should inform the relevant local authority when they have sentenced a parent to custody.

Building a ‘prompt’ in the form of a notification system into our public service infrastructure is of course only part of the picture. From there we need to ensure that the needs and circumstances of the family left behind are identified and build the evidence base for the interventions that work best to build resilience in children and families. Building effective partnerships between prisons, local authorities and probation services and their voluntary sector partners which can overcome the prison walls in order to develop whole family approaches that nurture family ties will also be vital.

These are golden opportunities not only to reduce reoffending for adults but to halt the cycle of intergenerational offending and improve outcomes for children.

This is a child welfare and a crime prevention opportunity which we are currently wasting.

Aims of the report


Overall, this report aims to improve understanding of:

  • Who this ‘invisible’ group of children is 

  • The extent, nature and root causes of their poorer outcomes 

  • How a whole family approach can be used to improve outcomes for children and parents and what needs to change.

Recommendation 1

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

Recommendation 2

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.

Recommendation 3

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

Recommendation 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.

Recommendation 5

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

Recommendation 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.

Recommendation 7

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

1 Farrington, D. P., Barnes, G. C., & Lambert, S. (1996). The concentration of offending in families. Legal and criminological psychology, 1(1), 47-63.

2 Murray, J. (2003). Fathers in Prison. University of Cambridge: Institute of Criminology.

3 Loureiro, T. (2010). Perspectives of children and young people with a parent in prison. Edinburgh: SCCYP.

4 Rakt, M. V. D., Murray, J., & Nieuwbeerta, P. (2012). The long-term effects of paternal imprisonment on criminal trajectories of children. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 49(1), 81-108.

5 Comfort, M., Nurse, A. M., McKay, T., & Kramer, K. (2011). Taking children into account. Criminology & Public Policy, 10(3), 839-850.

6 Turney, K. (2018). Adverse childhood experiences among children of incarcerated parents. Children and Youth Services Review, 89, 218-225.

7 Farmer, L. (2017). The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime. London: Ministry of Justice.


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