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When daddy can’t say goodnight

When daddy can’t say goodnight

Published on: 30/01/2018

“In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf. One Sunday morning the warm sun came up... and ‘pop’, out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.”

On any evening, across the world, thousands of fathers will be reading Eric Carle’s timeless story to their toddler. A bedtime story is a daily affirmation of the love between parents and small children.

For a child whose father is in prison, this connection is lost.

For serious offences the loss of freedom is how justice is served in our criminal system and it can throw family life into free-fall. In some cases the absence of the breadwinner might even send a partner and children into poverty. At school, a child may not feel able to talk about the whereabouts of his or her father but, if the news gets around − as it often does − the child may be bullied.

At home, the sons and daughters of prisoners may be angry and resentful that their fathers are not there for them. It may affect their behaviour, their schoolwork and their relationships with their mothers and siblings.

In the East of England, Ormiston Families is helping people who find themselves in this situation. It does not mitigate what offenders have done but it does try to save relationships under stress for the sake of the children. One way they do this is to record dads telling bedtime stories to their children. It is one of a raft of ways Ormiston Families works to keep families together. Lucy Adams, friendly, approachable, candid, is prisons cluster manager for Ormiston Families at Highpoint, and Warren Hill and Hollesley.

“As well as helping children and young people cope with the trauma of offending behaviour or imprisonment in the family, there is significant evidence that offenders who are able to maintain positive family ties are less likely to re-offend and that the cycle of offending within families is more likely to be broken.”

The play area at Ormiston Families' prison visitor centre. Picture: ORMISTON FAMILIES

“For those that we can help it is so rewarding,” says Lucy and adds that awareness of the role of families in prison work had become so much better in recent times, with research proving its positive effects. She praises the commitment of the agencies involved in prisons which work together to identify gaps in services.

Lucy talks about the emotions that come into play when an offender is jailed and his family has to try and carry on. “Now, probably, they are without their main breadwinner; there is the stigma; school playground gossip. Sometimes parents don’t tell the children where their dad is.”

She says that denial of the situation is pointless. “If you do that, you’re losing out on support.” Moreover, if a parent is not honest with a child it can foster distrust.

“Often schools are very supportive when they know children have a parent in prison.”

Since October 2017 when Ormiston Families took over responsibility for the visitor centre at Highpoint, Lucy has been running it with the help of her dedicated team and a prisoner who works for Ormiston Families, promoting its services.

“The prison wants to stop re-offending. They want to put men back into a family unit that is supportive.”

“When they go to prison, some guys almost shrug off their responsibilities. We tell them, ‘you need to support your wife’. There are lots of honest conversations between us and the people in prison.

“If there is a chance they are going to go back to their families, we will work with them.”

“We do see people back (in prison) again and that can be upsetting,” agrees Lucy with a brief nod but adds that the good outcomes make the work worthwhile.

Twice a month, Ormiston Families runs special children’s visits for up to 10 families at a time. Here, dads can move freely. “We do food and we take a photo so they have a picture of themselves with their children,” says Lucy. “We film the dads reading stories for their children and send them out to the family - the children will watch it day after day. This is so popular there’s a bit of a waiting list for it.”

Why do they do all this? “It’s a huge question and it comes down to what you think prison is for,”

Being in prison is the punishment but the children and often the families are innocent of any crime, Lucy says. “The offender will be joining society again and we want them to be ready to rejoin it.”

Lucy describes a regular prison visit:

“It’s an emotional, scary thing for children and adults. There are gates, uniforms, barbed wire fences. You have to be searched − children have to be searched; they have to open their mouths; someone looks in their hair. After that, they have to go around the corner and stand in a line. A drug dog − they are exceptionally good with children − will walk along the row.

“Then, they go into the hall where the prisoner sits in a chair and can’t move from it throughout the whole visit. They can embrace (their visitor) at the beginning and end but that’s all.”

“There’s a play area but dads are not allowed in and small children can find this confusing.”

Credit: Lynne Mortimer, East Anglian Daily Times