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14 August 2023

Blog: Steph’s story

In this short blog, PRT Associate Sarah Beresford shares a recent example demonstrating how Child Impact Assessments can work in practice, and the importance of interagency partnership working.

Steph*, mother of Caleb (aged 8) and Marnie (aged 13), was facing a custodial sentence. As her hearing date approached, the children’s social worker called a Team Around the Family (TAF) meeting with Steph, her mother and sister (who had both been supporting Steph in caring for her children), Steph’s probation practitioner, a project worker with Time-Matters UK (a peer support group for children and young people with a family member in prison), and me. I was invited to talk about the role Child Impact Assessments can play in ensuring children are listened to, supported, and included in decision-making about that support, at every stage of a parent’s journey through the justice system, as laid out in the “This is me” toolkit, published in December 2022.

Steph’s main anxiety was about how to tell Caleb and Marnie that she was going to court and may well go to prison. This is a very common concern, and many families find it easier to tell children that mum or dad is ‘working away’. In today’s social media frenzy, however, the chances of children finding out what happened (or, even more likely, unhelpful distortions of what happened) are high. Everyone agreed that it would be helpful for Steph to tell Caleb and Marnie in her own words and in her own time. The Time-Matters UK project worker offered to meet with Steph to practice how she might do this.

Care arrangements were discussed in light of Steph’s impending sentence. When mothers go to prison, children are often cared for by extended family (grandmothers, aunts). They typically receive no financial or emotional support, putting a huge strain on everyone. It was clear that this was a family with very strong relationships with each other and with the services that were supporting them. It was no doubt going to be tough, but I felt hopeful that they had a good stating point. Many families feel so stigmatised by the very services that should be supporting them that they feel unable to ask for help.

It was then my turn to talk about why Child Impact Assessments are so important in giving children space to say how they feel and what support they may need following a parent’s arrest, when they go to prison, or prior to their release from custody. Child Impact Assessments can also provide valuable information to sentencers about the impact of a custodial sentence. Sentencing Council guidelines for England and Wales state that being the ‘sole or primary carer for dependent relatives’ is something which the court may consider. An expanded explanation states that, when considering a community or custodial sentence for someone who has caring responsibilities, the court should ask for these issues to be addressed in a Pre-Sentence Report (PSR). The reality is, however, that many PSRs are oral, or written hurriedly, and fail to include information about children and the impact on them. I recommended that the probation practitioner submit Caleb and Marnie’s responses to the court section of the Child Impact Assessment (gathered by the social worker who knew the children well) alongside Steph’s PSR.

A few weeks later, the news that Steph had received a two-year suspended sentence (including continued support from relevant agencies to address her underlying issues and regular engagement with probation) was as joyful as it was unexpected. There was a flurry of emails between those of us who attended the TAF meeting.

“Mum and the children are so happy and relieved”

read one. Another:

“It’s been so good working with you all to support this family.”

And the one that affirmed phase two of the Child Impact Assessment work, focused on implementation and funded by the Dulverton Trust: 

“I can’t tell you how much difference having the Child Impact Assessment toolkit made – it’s fantastic!”

This was not just an excellent outcome for Steph (we know from research that her outcomes will be so much better being supported in the community, rather than in prison) and her children (we also know the huge damage that separation from a primary carer-giver has on children); Steph’s story highlights the key factors behind an effective response to primary carers in the justice system:

  • Positive relationships between practitioners and families;
  • Effective inter-agency partnerships;
  • Full consideration of the needs of children; and
  • A gentle, kind, holistic approach that focuses on people’s strengths and recognises their potential to change.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Steph’s story is that it needs telling at all. Hers should be the experience of every single mother in our justice system. Sadly, this is far from reality. Many women talk about their lack of trust in services, feel left out of essential communication, and experience stigma and judgement, rather than kindness. Most are not even asked if they have children, let alone what support those children might need. In the current climate of extremely high prison numbers, severe funding cuts, and staffing crises across all sectors, it is hard to feel hopeful. We need to remember that we already know what works (and what doesn’t). When Steph was asked what has most helped her, she didn’t say ‘this programme’ or ‘that intervention’. She named the people who were at that TAF meeting. It is always about relationships. I look forward to the day that Steph’s story is so commonplace that it is not worthy of a blog.

Sarah Beresford
Prison Reform Trust Associate

* All names have been changed

Child Impact Assessments

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