Do any of your pupils have a parent in prison?

Written by: HTU | Published:

Do you know which children in your school have a family member in prison? It is more common than you would think and incarceration has implications well beyond those convicted. We investigate what schools can do.

You may not know just how many children in your school are affected. It is not something that most families like to broadcast. The imprisonment of a family member brings stigma as well as a sense of loss and practical hardship.

It is also probably more common than you think – seven per cent of children live through the imprisonment of a parent during their time at school and there are two-and-a-half times as many children of prisoners as there are children in care. These are vulnerable children who are not always easily identified. 

Elisabeth Carney-Haworth is headteacher at Torpoint Nursery and Infant School in Cornwall and has had first-hand experience of supporting children with a family member in prison: “It is crucial that parents have a good relationship with school so that they tell us if a parent is likely to go to prison or has been imprisoned. We need to demonstrate that the school is part of a network supporting them and their children and will not be judgmental.”

If schools are not informed, changes in a child’s behaviour can be misdiagnosed or ignored. Either way, there can be serious consequences for the child. 

Until recently there has perhaps been little consideration of the great impact that arrest and imprisonment of a family member can have upon the children. They are frequently overlooked and yet are, in fact, serving their own “hidden” sentence.

A third of children of imprisoned parents have witnessed the arrest. This might have involved a raid on the home with police carrying guns, a house searched and possessions removed or ripped apart. 

Children with a parent in prison are three times more likely to have serious mental health issues than children in the general population. They can suffer from a sense of loss and confusion. The remaining parent can find it difficult to talk honestly about what has happened and the release of the prisoner does not necessarily mean that problems are over. 

Ms Carney-Haworth continued: “There are very real issues concerning the reason for the prison sentence and how the offender will be viewed by the remaining parent. There may also be situations when the parent in prison is no longer going to be part of the family on their release. Their sudden disappearance needs very careful but truthful handling.”

Half of prisoners lose contact with their families and yet maintaining close family ties reduces reoffending by up to six times – another powerful incentive for ensuring that children are supported and cared for at this difficult time.

Raising awareness 

Perhaps one of the first steps in supporting children with family members inside is staff training and awareness. Many members of staff will not have considered the implications of conviction on the children and their extreme vulnerability. The stigma around imprisonment means that families often don’t seek help. 

Emma Wells has been delivering “Hidden Sentence” training in Warwickshire since 2009. She is aware of the great burden these children can feel and the need for professionals to be made aware of this.

She explained: “Trained school staff and other workers who see children daily can pick up on signs of anxiety and withdrawal in the child, unexplained absences, financial difficulties, and realise that these signs could mean a parent has gone to prison.”

At a Child and Family Strategy Group meeting at HMP Edinburgh in September 2012, it was suggested that training teachers within the prison would add to the impact of their awareness. 

An interactive programme was developed that allowed teachers and support staff to experience each stage of a prison visit. The CPD sessions were held in 10 different prisons in Scotland. 

Sarah Roberts is child and family support manager for Families Outside, an independent charity that helps prisoners’ families in Scotland. She has been closely involved in the project to put teachers “behind bars”.

She told Headteacher Update: “Actually going into a prison – passing through security, encountering a sniffer dog, sitting in the visits room – means that teachers walk the journey of children affected by imprisonment.”

Being honest

Awareness-raising need not be quite so dramatic, however. There are many practical measures that schools can take to make the life of these children and their families outside easier.

The prison visit can be a particular time of tension. Ms Carney-Haworth continued: “Some of the support from the school will be around the practicalities of prison visiting. Time off school to undertake these visits and supportive mechanisms in place for the child after the visit are important.”

Each case is very different but it is likely that whatever the offence committed the child will still love the parent and be juggling the fact that others might not like them. It can be difficult for the remaining parent to be honest about what’s happened. 

Ms Carney-Haworth recognises the tensions in this: “The child must be able to understand why their parent is in prison. What is said and how should be done in consultation with the remaining parent and be at an age-appropriate level. I do feel that we should be honest with children.”

Perhaps most difficult is the sense of exclusion, stigma, shame and guilt that the remaining parent and children might still carry with them. 

Ms Roberts sees schools as a key support mechanism in these situations: “They are the places where children are known and can, therefore, receive the care and support they need. They can be communities of compassion that say to families, ‘you are not alone in this. We can help you’.”

However schools might feel about the crime, the responsibility is towards the children in their care. These children have additional needs and having a favourable school environment can help to reduce the impact of the stress, stigma and sense of loss they feel.

Parents in prison: advice for schools

Families Outside has produced its own literature to help schools support families affected by imprisonment. 

Supporting Prisoners’ Families emphasises the range of emotions that children who have a relative in prison may feel. From worry that other family members might be taken away to guilt that they are somehow to blame.

It is a complex picture that will vary enormously according to the relationship the child had, the length of the prison sentence, and the crime that was committed. They suggests that schools and teachers can:

  • Ensure that staff are aware and trained in how to deal with issues around imprisonment.
  • Create a “safe space” where children and their carers can share what’s going on.
  • Build positive relationships with the families affected and help them access support.
  • Provide information for children and families.
  • Liaise with partner agencies (maintaining confidentiality).
  • Keep the parent in prison informed through copies of school reports, newsletters, phone calls and visits if possible.
  • Reduce bullying by incorporating issues around prison, crime, blame and punishments into PSHE and citizenship. 
  • Authorise visits to prison on school days and offer support to children following these visits.
  • Encourage ongoing contact between the child and parent in prison (such as copies of work, pictures, photos).
  • Consider in-school support groups where there are a number of affected families.

 

  • All statistics in this article have been taken from the document Supporting Prisoners’ Families published by Families Outside. Visit www.familiesoutside.org.uk


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