Published on 01 December 2020

The forgotten victims of crime

All too often the children of parents who have been incarcerated are the forgotten victims of crime.

Families who have a loved one in prison are left with financial concerns, childcare issues, and the huge emotional burden on the children and partners left behind.

With a single parent or caregiver left to pick up the pieces, looking after the emotional wellbeing of the family can be a much more complex process than handling the practical elements that come with the imprisonment; and now the Covid19 pandemic has left these families at breaking point.

Despite the dramatic shift in dynamics within their family or homelife, children are expected to attend school and continue on as normal, but the undercurrent of anxiety and shame they are left with is a stark reminder of the new hole in their lives.

Not only is this sudden absence of a parent extremely distressing, but the potential repercussions in later life for these children is creating a huge task for charities like Ormiston Families.

A 2019 Crest report ‘Children of Prisoners; Fixing a Broken System’, states that two thirds of boys with a convicted father go on to offend themselves and around 30% experience significant mental health problems compared to 10% of the general population. The Crest report also states that 312,000 children are impacted by parental imprisonment each year.

Without emotional support and guidance these children often turn to crime and anti-social behaviour. Without support many end up with poor school attendance, or exclusion, reduced opportunities and a lack of empowerment resulting in them having poorer outcomes than their peers both emotionally and mentally. Sadly, despite these worrying statistics, there is very little support available for children affected by parental imprisonment across the UK.

We at Ormiston Families however offer a range of services which support families affected by offending, including one to one support for children with a parent in prison, prison visitors’ centres, and support for ex-offenders through their reintegration back into society.

Our Breaking Barriers service is for children aged between 5 and 18 who are affected by the imprisonment of a loved one. Telling a child of any age that their parent has gone to prison is a heart-breaking conversation that no one would wish to have, but we are there when a parent can’t find the words themselves. Our practitioners work with them to find the best way to do so, and from there they begin their service user/practitioner journey together.

The realisation that their parent or loved one is in prison can trigger a catalogue of emotions in children; guilt, sadness, anger, and a great deal of fear for what their parent might be experiencing ‘inside’. For some, the shame and fear of peers finding out their parent is in prison can make them withdraw into themselves, and have a detrimental impact on their attendance, behaviour and performance at school.

Our practitioners always advise parents to inform their child’s school if a family member is in prison (although ultimately this is the family’s choice) so that the school is well informed and can seek and obtain the right support for the child or young person. Once schools are aware of the imprisonment, they will be able to monitor the child or young person’s wellbeing and can make a referral to us if needed. Our practitioners can then work with the school as a multidisciplinary team to support the young person going forward.

For many children, loss of connection between themselves and their parent in prison is a huge concern, and they express feelings of bereavement at this loss. At the same time, a lot of younger children struggle to understand what has happened, which can make things very difficult at home. Not only is sustained contact within the families integral to a child’s emotional wellbeing now and in the future, family ties are the ‘golden-thread’ in re-offending, with prisoners who receive visits are 39% less likely to re-offend (Lord Farmer Review). For many children however, contact with the parent in prison is not straight forward is not always black and white.

Senior practitioner Jade explains:

“Contact with the parent can feel too painful for a child at first and they might struggle because they don’t understand their feelings. By enabling them to express and manage feelings, they can feel better about telephone contact, or letters and visits.

“Covid19 has been so difficult for some families because children treasure visits with their family member in prison, and I have received feedback from families who have found their children’s emotional wellbeing has dipped due to not being able to visit.”

She explains:

“We give children the opportunity to explore and process their emotions, and acquire coping mechanisms which they can use going forward to manage life’s hurdles. Our support does not change circumstances nor lead to the omission of hardship in the future, but instead helps children at a young age to understand and find ways to manage ‘big’ feelings (as some children refer to them) so that they are able to cope and build on their resilience.”

We also work closely with ex-offenders in order to support them in their rehabilitation journey and prevent reoffending further down the line. People who are supervised by a Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) or the National Probation Service (NPS) under a Community Order or Licence can be supported by our Transforming Rehabilitation service. The programme helps service users to integrate back into their local community, reconnect with family members and start over.

The Who Am I? course as part of this service provides an opportunity for participants to look at their past and understand where things might have gone wrong. It is a chance to learn new communication skills, understand others’ point of view and perspectives, and learn about their own behaviours. In some cases the practitioners will facilitate and chaperone family meet-ups including helping introduce young children to their estranged parent. This is a cherished and crucial part of their journey which has impacted many ex-offenders in the positive choices they have made to start afresh.

With the sudden rise in Covid19 infections, the subsequent lockdown and continued restrictions, our teams quickly adapted to continue supporting families despite the circumstances. Support sessions resumed either online, over the phone, and in some cases due to financial circumstances or illiteracy, access to equipment was provided in order to utilise video call sessions.

Our prison visitors’ centres have had to adapt to the new way of life since Covid19.  The centres have always been busy and regularly attended by families and friends with children happily enjoying activities with volunteers in the designated children’s areas.  Since reopening after many months of closure during the first lockdown, the centres saw a dramatic decline in visits. New restrictions in visit time allocation and number of people allowed per visit played their part, families were often travelling a fair distance for a much shorter visit, and many residents were fearful of an outbreak of Covid19 within the prison. The visitors’ centres closed yet again for the second lockdown.

Video calls and keep in touch kits have provided a suitable replacement for the moment but do not always provide the comfort a face to face visit could do, which is why our Breaking Barriers service for children is needed even more than ever.

Jackie a senior family support worker who works at the heart of one of our prison visitors’ centres says:

“December is usually our busiest time of year and a time when we strive to make visiting the prison an even more positive and enjoyable experience.  In ‘normal’ times we have all-day visits every Wednesday in December culminating with our Children’s Christmas party on the last Wednesday before Christmas.

“Prison visits are an incredibly important means of maintaining relationships and even if we are able to have visits again before Christmas they will be in a very different format from usual.  Here, visits are restricted to two per month for less time now with a maximum of two children allowed.  Many of our families have more than two children so this is another difficult obstacle for them to overcome. Also, the lack of physical contact on visits is hard for children to understand when previously they could give their loved one a hug and kiss, and on Family Days play games and enjoy craft activities together.”

It is sadly an inevitable fact that everyone’s Christmases will be very different this year, but for some of the families, young people and children we work with, Christmas and the months to come will be unrecognisable.

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