Published 15 March 2019
The children of prisoners have themselves done nothing to warrant punishment – yet parental imprisonment is increasingly considered as an adverse childhood experience, associated with an increased risk of negative outcome including mental health problems and poor attainment at school.
These and other findings of Crest’s latest report, including new data on the scale of the problem, were discussed at a roundtable of experts we hosted on Monday 11 March. Chaired by Dame Louise Casey, it was a thought-provoking and constructive session, with contributions from the Troubled Families programme, the Magistrates’ Association, think tanks, third sector organisations and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) policy team.
The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, who joined us for the event, highlighted how important it is that we know who these children are, stressing the opportunity that now exists to put things right;
“In my work as the Children’s Commissioner I have been trying to ensure we 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.”
Lord Farmer’s report has led to a number of positive changes within the prison estate, based on an increased awareness of the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties. During our discussion, Samantha Callan, parliamentary advisor to Lord Farmer, spoke of the relevance of Crest’s report to the second Lord Farmer review, due out shortly, which will focus on women offenders. A representative from the Troubled Families programme spoke about the importance of taking a whole family approach (a key theme in Crest’s report), and the importance of good quality data for assessing need and required service provision; “these are the basic tools service providers need.” With so many agencies on the same page, there is a real opportunity to once again highlight the issue of invisible children and the need for a clear notification system to raise the red flag when a parent with a dependent child is sent to custody.
Attendees highlighted the lack of data on children of prisoners as a problem. Without any central record of children of prisoners, it is necessary to rely on estimates to make the case for increased support for the children of prisoners. Crest’s new data modelling provides an updated estimate, revising it upwards from 200,000 to 312,000. That is nearly double the estimate of 160,000 children of prisoners in 2007, suggesting action is needed urgently to grip this problem.
As Sarah Kincaid set out in her remarks, Crest are not the first to highlight the plight of children of prisoners. Barnardo’s called in 2014 for a systematic identification system to be put in place, describing it as a ‘policy black hole’. The MOJ and Department for Children, Schools and Families published a joint review to consider how to support children of prisoners in 2007, and the Social Care Institute (set up to improve practice in adult and children care services) recommended the same in 2008. But no changes have yet taken place in the system and the numbers of children affected continues to rise.
With a clear consensus about the importance of the issue and the need for the development of a proper identification system, the debate moved over to how it should be done; which agencies in the criminal justice system would be best placed to deliver any change and what systems are already in place that could potentially be tweaked relatively easily.
With Lord Farmer exploring the practical changes needed for women offenders, is this finally the chance to fix the broken system for the children of prisoners too?