Published on 27 July 2022

The Hidden Sentence: Trauma caused by witnessing an arrest

When Katie’s* dad was arrested at home she was there to witness the whole thing.  The sudden bangs at the door caused by the battering ram, the door breaking down and a team of armed police officers and dogs entering the house and spreading quickly through each room. Katie and her younger siblings cowered in the corner, petrified by the avalanche of shouting and movement.

When a child has a close family member imprisoned, schoolwork, playing with friends and other innocent priorities can quickly be replaced by feelings of shame, confusion or isolation.

Navigating these feelings can be extremely difficult for children, not aided by limited or sporadic contact with their imprisoned loved one.

But another, often overlooked, hidden sentence caused by such a distressing time may come from events witnessed long before anyone is put behind bars.

Many children are left with the traumatic memories of their loved one being arrested at their own homes.

With police often left with no choice but to enter these homes forcefully, and with a whirlwind of protocols and safety procedures following these events, the experiences of onlooking children are rarely recorded or referred for support.

Breaking Barriers is a support service for children and young people struggling with the imprisonment of a loved one, delivered by leading family charity Ormiston Families across the East of England.  The service has noted this lack of recognition for the trauma caused by witnessing arrests at home, and its skilled practitioners are doing everything they can to raise awareness of its effects.

Louise Duxbury, Senior Practitioner, has worked with many children and young people in this situation.

“People don’t understand the hidden sentence served by children who have a parent in prison, let alone the traumatic events leading up to the imprisonment.  Arrests can be really distressing.  They may involve an armed response, children may see their parent being held at gunpoint.

“Whatever the situation, the experience for a child is that one moment their parent is there and the next moment they’ve gone.  They don’t know where they’ve gone to, when or whether they’ll come back.  Children are left with all sorts of worries – will Dad be safe?  Will we be safe?  Will the police come back and take Mum? – a whirlwind of questions and fears.”

Breaking Barriers’ practitioners are there to support children and young people in working through the impact of arrest and imprisonment.  Using a range of play-based resources, talking and creative activities, children and young people are supported to explore their feelings, worries and questions about what has happened.

Tina Hickey, Regional Manager for Breaking Barriers, explained:

“There’s no systematic recording of children who witness arrest, so what this means is that schools are not routinely informed.  You may have a child who has witnessed something really distressing and then they’re going into school with all of that going on in their head, not sure of who they can tell.”

“Sometimes the arrest might have been really public, with everyone in the street seeing what’s going on.  Details of the offence might be posted online so that the child and their friends at school find out what is going on via social media, which of course might not always be accurate but is always upsetting. Children can feel isolated – stigmatised and ashamed, sometimes sworn to secrecy but really needing an outlet for their emotions.”

Breaking Barriers aims to support children and young people early on in the process so if a child has witnessed an arrest of a loved one they can then be supported to process what has happened and be supported through this very difficult time.

Suzy Coulson, Senior Practitioner, has seen how children’s difficult feelings can often come out as difficult behaviours without the right support.

“When children are struggling and don’t have the opportunity to talk about their feelings, they will communicate through their behaviours.  That is when the remaining parent or carer or school will notice that something’s not right.

Suzy Coulson, Breaking Barriers Team Leader

“We can support at any stage of the process when a parent or close family member has been imprisoned.  This might be imprisonment immediately following arrest all the way up to after release, but the sooner we can offer support the better.  If friends, family, schools or others know that a child has witnessed an arrest and that person has been imprisoned then we would urge them to get in touch to get the right support for that child.  I suppose that if there was one clear message it would be that arrest can be a traumatic event for children and we are here to help.”

Breaking Barriers practitioners are keen to break this cycle of silence by raising awareness in schools and in the wider community that families with a loved one in prison may well be dealing with a lot more than missing this person.  Referrals for support can come directly from family members, carers, schools and other agencies.

The Breaking Barriers service provides tailored one-to-one support to children and young people, reducing their anxiety around prison and supporting their emotional wellbeing and helping them to find healthy ways of coping with their experiences and feelings.

The team also provides talks and presentations to teachers, social workers, police offers and other professionals to help them understand the hidden sentence often endured by children and young people with a close family member in prison.

The service currently operates in Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.

For more information on Breaking Barriers, visit www.ormiston.org/what-we-do.

To make a referral to the service, please contact bbreferrals@ormistonfamilies.org.uk.

*Not real name.

We are looking for an experienced practitioner confident in work with children, young people and families to join our dynamic, ambitious Breaking Barriers team in Bedfordshire. You will need to have a passion for improving the outcomes for children/young people. View our vacancies on our website:

https://www.ormiston.org/work-with-us/