- About the Prison Reform Trust
- About this toolkit
- Credits and acknowledgements
- Executive summary
- Why focus on maternal imprisonment?
- Section 1: What is a Child Impact Assessment?
- Section 2: Why do we need Child Impact Assessments?
- Section 3: Who should support children with a Child Impact Assessment?
- Section 4: How might Child Impact Assessments be used?
- Section 5: How does the Child Impact Assessment work in practice?
- Section 6: How can we pilot the use of Child Impact Assessments?
- Appendix — toolkit resources
“This is Me”: A Child Impact Assessment toolkit
Resources to support children with a mum in the criminal justice system
About the Prison Reform Trust
The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) is an independent UK charity working to create a just, humane, and effective prison system. We have a longstanding interest in improving criminal justice outcomes for women. This includes calling for a reduction in women’s imprisonment and a step change in how the justice system responds to the needs of women. Further information about PRT’s publications relating to women in the criminal justice system can be found here.
About this toolkit
In July 2018, within our Transforming Lives programme, which was supported by the National Lottery Community Fund, we published a briefing entitled What about me? The impact on children when mothers are involved in the criminal justice system. The report recommended the use of Child Impact Assessments to ensure children’s needs are identified and addressed when a mother is in contact with the criminal justice system. This toolkit lays out how that recommendation might be implemented. Funded by a Churchill Fellowship Activate Award, the toolkit is the result of a consultation process that took place from June 2021 to September 2022 and is informed throughout by the views and experiences of children and young people with experience of a mother in the criminal justice system as well as mothers in prison and those recently released.
Credits and acknowledgements
This toolkit was written by PRT Associate and Churchill Fellow Sarah Beresford with support from Emily Evison, PRT’s Policy and Programme Officer. We are extremely grateful for input from staff from specialist organisations that support children and families impacted by the criminal justice system; particular thanks to Adbul Amin, Dr Lorna Brookes, Denis Byrne, Ciara Corrigan, Kelly Fiorini, Tina Hart, Kerry Knox, Joanne Mulcahy, Aelred Robinson, and Stephen Sinnott. Special thanks to Polly Wright for insights and support and to the academics and voluntary and statutory sector staff who shared their feedback and enabled focus groups with women and children. We would also like to thank Dr Jenny Earle, and Prof Nancy Loucks for commenting on drafts and Dr Shona Minson for commenting on drafts and writing the foreword. Thanks also to Clare Blackburn for support with the design of the toolkit resources. We are very grateful to the children and young people from Time-Matters UK who provided the artwork. Most importantly, sincere thanks to all of the mothers, children, and young people who took part in the consultation for this toolkit. Their insights are invaluable in painting the vision for a more just and humane response to children affected by maternal imprisonment. All children’s names, and some identifying details, have been changed to protect anonymity.
Further information or questions?
For further information about Child Impact Assessments, or anything else related to this toolkit, contact Sarah Beresford on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am delighted and honoured to write the foreword to this toolkit.
It is an innovative and exciting resource, co-created with children whose primary carers have been caught up in the criminal justice system. In my work I advocate for children’s rights to be observed when their parents are in conflict with the law, and I believe that Child Impact Assessments, and the resources in this toolkit, will improve the observation of those rights and lead to the implementation of practices that will directly benefit children.
The unique centring of children’s experiences is an important reminder to all who use “This is me” that the main purpose of the toolkit is to make a difference to a child, rather than to a court, a social worker, a probation officer, or a school.
We know that children whose parents are involved in the criminal justice system are at best overlooked and at worst completely forgotten. It has long been recognised that changes need to be made. The successful consultation for this toolkit provides confidence that “This is me” will contribute to more positive outcomes for children. It is adaptable, and although presented through the framework of primary carers (mainly mothers), it will have wider application, as the resources can also be used for children with fathers involved in the criminal justice system. The comprehensive nature of “This is me” makes it a low cost, high impact intervention, which I hope will be adopted and implemented across the UK.
A practical resource for practitioners, and a visionary resource for policy makers, “This is me” will ensure that we do not have conversations about children, but instead take action with them.
Dr Shona Minson
Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford
This toolkit is inspired by, and rooted in, the experience of 28 children and young people with experience of a mother in the criminal justice system. They said they do not want another report with yet more recommendations; they want action. They want to be seen, listened to, and considered at all stages of their mother’s journey through the justice system: arrest, court and sentencing, prison or community sentence, and prior to her release. They want to be supported, and they want to be included in decisions about that support.
Co-created with children and young people, and underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Child Impact Assessments aim to do exactly that. The toolkit is arranged in the following sections:
- What is a Child Impact Assessment? Child Impact Assessments are not about assessing children, rather their needs. They are not about the parent; instead, the focus is on the child and their feelings. Importantly, the use of Child Impact Assessments is not proposed as a statutory procedure; they should be offered to children with the aim of providing support.
- Why do we need Child Impact Assessments? There is compelling evidence from children that Child Impact Assessments will lead to a better understanding of their needs and increased support.
- Who should support children with a Child Impact Assessment? Child Impact Assessments can be used by a wide range of practitioners, from statutory and voluntary services, as a tool to better understand children’s needs. Keeping children safe, listening without judgement, and sharing information sensitively are vital. The accompanying notes are a guide for practitioners and contain helpful information about how children might be feeling as well as practical actions to support children. Training is key.
- How might Child Impact Assessments be used? The toolkit explains the importance of working in partnership and the role criminal justice agencies and universal and specialist services can play to ensure children get the support they need at the earliest opportunity. Resources have been adapted for use with children with a father in the criminal justice system.
- How does the Child Impact Assessment work in practice? This is explained by a series of case studies based on children’s actual experiences, followed by scenarios that demonstrate the difference a Child Impact Assessment could make and what actions are needed for this to be implemented.
- How can we pilot the use of Child Impact Assessments? “This is me” contains a range of practicable resources for partnership groups to pilot, and evaluate, the use of Child Impact Assessments in their own context. The resources can also be used as standalone documents in the ongoing support of children.
Crucially, "This is me" is a call to action for a range of stakeholders. The actions have been inspired by children themselves. Most are deliverable with immediate effect, requiring nothing more than attitudinal change, creativity, and a vision for improving outcomes for children. The toolkit provides the resources needed to implement these actions.
“There was just nothing; no one asked how we were doing or what support we needed. Nothing.”Layla (aged 21)
Layla’s story1Read the guest post on Russell Webster’s blog about Layla’s story https://www.russellwebster.com/assessing-the-impact-of-maternal-imprisonment. Please note that a pseudonym was used at the time of publishing the blog. Layla has subsequently chosen to use her real name. is one that lays bare the lack of care for children with a primary carer in the criminal justice system. When her mother was first sent to prison, there was no consideration of Layla’s (then aged 10) or her five siblings’ welfare. No one asked how witnessing the arrest had impacted them. As for many children, it was deeply traumatic, and years later Layla still tenses up even seeing a police car in the distance. No one mentioned, let alone requested information about, the children in any court proceedings. No one asked who would be looking after the children following their mother’s sentence, even though she was their sole carer. The children (the eldest was 14) were left to cope alone at home. It was only when the baby became gravely ill due to dehydration and malnutrition that the authorities were alerted.
The lack of regard for Layla’s and her siblings’ needs was the inspiration for the development of a Child Impact Assessment created with, and for, children with a primary carer in the criminal justice system. This toolkit lays out what Child Impact Assessments are (and what they are not). It explores why they are important and, crucially, how they might be used at every stage of a mother’s journey through the criminal justice system (arrest, court, imprisonment or community sentence, and prior to release) to ensure children like Layla get the support they need at the earliest opportunity.
The toolkit is the result of a 15-month consultation with:
- 28 children and young people with experience of a mother in the criminal justice system;
- 20 mothers in prison and 18 who have recently been released;
- a wide range of practitioners from statutory and voluntary services working with children and mothers at all stages of the criminal justice system as well as in the community;
- academics with expertise in this field; and
- policy and decision makers.
The consultation has included people with lived experience, practitioners, and policy makers from all four nations. Statutory and policy frameworks differ in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to child protection, as does criminal justice terminology, but the themes identified in this toolkit, and its underlying principles, are the same across all four nations.2The NSPCC has summarised the key aspects of the child protection system in each nation: England; Wales; Scotland; Northern Ireland Where possible, references to corresponding terms are included.
This toolkit is designed to support pilot projects that aim to test and evaluate the use of Child Impact Assessments in various local contexts. The resources can also be used as standalone materials to inform existing work with children and young people. Links to all the resources are available within the toolkit, and they are listed in the appendix for ease of access. Most importantly, the toolkit is a call to urgent action for a range of stakeholders.
Why focus on maternal imprisonment?
“It was heart-breaking when mum went to prison. I wish I’d had more support.”Aliyah (aged 13)
The imprisonment of a household member is a recognised Adverse Childhood Experience and can be devastating for children.3Felitti, V.J., et al. (1998). ‘Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults’. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), pp.245-258. Parental imprisonment can affect every aspect of life and generate a wide range of emotions, including grief, trauma, and shame.4Condry R, and Scharff Smith P. (2018). Prisons, punishment, and the family: towards a new sociology of punishment? Oxford University Press. Crest Advisory’s 2019 report highlights the shocking fact that, despite being extremely vulnerable, children affected by parental imprisonment remain an invisible group who are not routinely supported.5Crest Advisory. (2019). Children of Prisoners: Fixing a broken system. As documented in our 2018 report on the impact of maternal imprisonment, this is especially the case when it is a child’s primary carer, the vast majority of whom are mothers.6Table 1. Office of National Statistics. (2016). Families and Households. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2016/relateddata The imprisonment of a mother is much more likely to disrupt a child’s life than paternal imprisonment7Minson, S. (2017). Who Cares? Analysing the place of children in maternal sentencing decisions in England and Wales. DPhil Thesis. University of Oxford. and often leads to the break-up of the family.8Epstein, M. (2014). ‘Mothers in Prison: the sentencing of mothers and the rights of the child’. Prison Service Journal, 216. pp.26-43. Only five percent of children remain in their family home when a mother goes to prison,9Caddle, D. and Crisp, D. (1997). Mothers in Prison. Research Findings No 38. Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate. and only nine percent are cared for by their father.10Corston, J. (2007). The Corston Report: A report by Baroness Jean Corston of a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. Home Office. https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/The-Corston-Report.pdf Changes of carer and home may result in a change of school. Even children who are not living with her prior to her imprisonment struggle when their mother goes to prison.11Hissel, S. (2011). ‘The well-being of children of incarcerated mothers: An exploratory study for the Netherlands’. European Journal of Criminology, 8(5). pp.346–360.
“I have provided direct support to children of prisoners for [more than] 10 years. All the children have multiple challenges to face, but the children of imprisoned mothers endure much greater hardships. Although the children share many of the same issues (misplaced guilt, separation anxiety, bullying, etc), it is clear that those with mothers in prison are the marginalised within this marginalised group. There is far more upheaval in their lives, and they feel different because they are in the minority.”Senior Lecturer, Liverpool John Moores University
Women in the criminal justice system are a particularly vulnerable group. Many women in prison have been victims of much more serious offences than those they are accused of committing.12Williams, K. S., & Earle, J. (2017). “There’s a reason we’re in trouble”: Domestic abuse as a driver to women’s offending. Prison Reform Trust. https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/publication/theres-a-reason-were-in-trouble They are more likely than men in prison to report having mental health issues and are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression in prison.13Prison Reform Trust. (2022). Why focus on reducing women’s imprisonment?. https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Why-women-2022-briefing.pdf Most women are sent to prison for non-violent offences and serve sentences of 12 months or less.14Ibid. Short sentences are long enough to break up families but often not long enough for meaningful interventions that address problems leading to offending behaviour. Research suggests that community sentences are more successful in reducing reoffending than short sentences.15Eaton, G. and Mews, A. (2019). The impact of short custodial sentences, community orders and suspended sentence orders on reoffending. Ministry of Justice. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/814177/impact-short-custodial-sentences.pdf Rates of self-harm in women’s prisons have risen by 20% in the last decade;16Prison Reform Trust. (2022). Why focus on reducing women’s imprisonment?. https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Why-women-2022-briefing.pdf a significant number of mothers in prison report that their grief, guilt, and worry in relation to their separation from their children cause severe stress and anxiety.17Baldwin, L. and Epstein, R. (2017). Short but not Sweet: a study of the impact of short custodial sentences on mothers and their children. De Montfort University.
This toolkit focuses primarily on children with mothers in the criminal justice system. The actions that are proposed can equally be applied to children with a father, or indeed any close family member, in the criminal justice system. For those who are supporting children with a father in the criminal justice system, there are adaptations of the Child Impact Assessment and accompanying notes available.
“I would say there is definitely more of a stigma when a mum goes to prison. In particular, young people have seemed more embarrassed to talk about it or felt more shame when it is mum…This could be due to the fact it is so much less common for a young person to have a mum in prison, and as such [they] feel isolated, alone, or like they may be judged.”SCOPE (Supporting Children and Siblings of Prisoners Every day) Project Worker, NIACRO
Section 1: What is a Child Impact Assessment?
“It lets people know how I feel about mum in prison and gives me an opportunity to talk about my feelings in general around the situation. It is a good mix of writing and drawing.”Sam (aged 12)
“It helps me know I’m not the only one.”Neeru (aged 10)
A child-centred approach
At its core, the Child Impact Assessment is about listening without judgement to children’s feelings, views, concerns, and needs in relation to having a mother in the criminal justice system. It aims to ensure children feel well-supported and are involved meaningfully and appropriately in decision-making about them.
Co-created with children and young people who have been directly affected by having a mother in contact with the criminal justice system, the Child Impact Assessment is based around a set of open questions, in child-friendly language, which act as a framework for an ongoing conversation. As well as listening to them, the aim is to help children identify what forms of support might be most helpful at any given time. Children want to be included in decision-making about them and are encouraged to write proposed actions in their own words. With this approach, children become active agents in their own support plans.
The young people who contributed to the consultation felt very strongly that they should be given opportunities to re-visit decisions and change their minds as they adjust to their circumstances. Having choices, including about the person with whom they would complete a Child Impact Assessment and what actions might follow, was of utmost importance to them. Relationships of trust were considered crucial.
“You can voice your own opinion.”Freya (aged 14)
“It explains a lot.”Alex (aged 10)
“I really like the agreed action part at the end, because it tells me something has to come from this and it’s not just another form, like maybe they can provide the right support.”Noori (aged 16)
“The Child Impact Assessment tool is fantastic and makes gathering information from the child after the point of referral simple and child-friendly.”Children and Young People Coordinator, Out There
A children’s rights approach
The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers (of which the UK remains part) recommended in 2018 to member States that children with imprisoned parents are treated with respect for their human rights and with due regard for their particular situation and needs. The recommendation stated that children’s views should be heard, directly or indirectly, in relation to decisions which may affect them. Drs Fiona Donson and Aisling Parkes make a compelling case for children’s rights, and the centering of their voices, to be embedded within criminal justice policies to ensure the practice that follows takes appropriate account of children’s needs. Only then will children, who are currently largely invisible in criminal justice systems and processes, and at best an add-on to the rehabilitation of their parents, be recognised and empowered.18Donson, F. & Parkes, A. “Making children visible: Children’s rights and their role in parent-child contact within the prison system” in Parkes, A. & Donson, F. (2021). Parental Imprisonment and Children’s Rights.
The Child Impact Assessment is underpinned by the following articles from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)19UNICEF UK. (1989). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. https://www.unicef.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/UNCRC_united_nations_convention_on_the_rights_of_the_child.pdf:
All children have:
- the right not to be discriminated against or punished because of anything their parent has done (Article 2);
- the right for their best interests to be a primary consideration of any court taking an action concerning them (Article 3);
- the right to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests (Article 9);
- the right for their views to be considered (Article 12); and
- the right to be provided special protection and assistance if temporarily deprived of their family environment (Article 20).
In addition, the children and young people who contributed to the creation of the Child Impact Assessment agreed that:
- Children deserve support in and of their own right, regardless of what their parent has been accused or convicted of;
- Children should be listened to without judgement or assumption of what is best for them;
- Where appropriate, children should be meaningfully involved in decisions that affect them;
- Children should be given regular opportunities to revisit decisions and come to different conclusions;
- Children may not be ready to accept support at a particular time and should be given opportunities to change their mind about accessing support;
- Children may have experienced trauma at various times throughout their mother’s criminal justice journey, therefore a gentle, trauma-informed approach is essential; and
- Each child within a family group is an individual and may have different support needs, or come to different decisions, than their siblings.
They unanimously felt that the most important guiding principle for any work with children with a parent in the criminal justice system is that:
- Every child has the potential to flourish.
“Would have been a huge difference if we all got one of them [a Child Impact Assessment] because…we all feel different, we all want different things. We all had different experiences, and if we had one of them, we’d know who to help us because we kind of got pawned off just like a group as well, like a group of kids…like we weren’t our own individual person so them impact forms would be to understand what we need as our own person.”Layla (aged 21)
What it is not
It is important to understand what the Child Impact Assessment is not in order to reduce unintended harm to children. It is:
- not about assessing children; rather, it is about assessing their needs. Its aim is to reduce stigma, not compound it;
- not about the parent in the criminal justice system. Its focus is on the child and their feelings and needs. Whilst a child may, of course, talk about their mother, children are not responsible for their parent’s rehabilitation or wellbeing. Children should be given the freedom to express their feelings about their mother without fear that this may have a bearing on decisions regarding her;
- not a statutory procedure. It should be something that is offered to children (never compulsory) with the aim of providing support. It may be used as a tool by staff from statutory services, where they are involved, to better understand children’s need; and
- not a means for practitioners to gather evidence regarding a mother’s supervised contact with, or custody of, her children. If there are questions about contact or custody, the Child Impact Assessment can be a useful framework to understand a child’s views, and may provide helpful information, but it should not be used for assessing a mother’s competency or to remove a child from her care.
“I think it is very child-friendly, and I like how it gives examples of the different feelings a child might experience when their mum enters the criminal justice system… and supports the child to express their own feelings in response to whichever stage mum is at. I think it is so important for the child’s voice and needs to be heard and [this] assessment tool has the potential to be a vital link and support for child and mum to maintain a relationship.”Prison-based social worker
“I think [the Child Impact Assessment] could be invaluable to sentencers.”Retired Magistrate
“It helps get children’s voices heard.”Grandmother looking after children whose mother is in prison
Section 2: Why do we need Child Impact Assessments?
“If I’d had set questions like these to ask me how I was feeling and how I was doing, it would’ve been a lot better for me…It would’ve really helped me.”Ellie (aged 19)
Despite the well-evidenced impact on children of having a parent in the criminal justice system, children themselves are rarely considered in criminal justice proceedings. They are seldom recognised as a vulnerable group within the systems and structures that should protect them, and there is no government agency responsible for their wellbeing.20Williams, K., Papadopoulou, V. & Booth, N. (2012). Prisoners’ childhood and family backgrounds: Results from the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SPCR) Longitudinal Cohort Study of Prisoners. Ministry of Justice.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility to keep children [affected by parental imprisonment] safe, but the reality is, it’s become nobody’s.”Criminal justice consultant
There have been numerous calls for action over the years to address this, but these have remained unheeded:
- In her 2007 report reviewing women in the criminal justice system, Baroness Corston recommended that primary carers of young children should only be remanded in custody after fully taking into account the impact on the children.21Corston, J. (2007). The Corston Report: A Review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. Home Office.
- The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders 2010 (known as the Bangkok Rules) emphasise that, when sentencing a primary carer, non-custodial measures should be preferred where possible and appropriate.22United Nations. (2010). United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules). Adopted 6 October 2010. www.un.org/en/ecosoc/docs/2010/res%202010-16.pdf
- The 2011 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Day of General Discussion emphasised that, in sentencing primary caregivers, the likely impacts of different sentences on affected children should be fully considered and alternatives to detention should be made available.23Robertson, O. (2012). Collateral Convicts: Children of incarcerated parents, Recommendations and good practice from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Day of General Discussion 2011. Quaker United Nations Office.
- The 2018 Council of Europe Recommendations on children with imprisoned parents spell out the obligation for a rigorous assessment of the needs and rights of every child with a parent in the criminal justice system.24Council of Europe. (2018). Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)5 of the Committee of Ministers to member States concerning children with imprisoned parents. https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectId=09000016807b3175
- The UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights 2019 inquiry into The right to family life: children whose mothers are in prison recommended that a primary carer must not be sentenced without sufficient information to enable the court to assess the impact of the sentence on the child. It also concluded that, under the Human Rights Act, the judge must make every effort to understand the potential impact of a custodial sentence on children.25oint Committee on Human Rights. (2019). The right to family life: children whose mothers are in prison, Twenty-Second Report of Session 2017-19. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201719/jtselect/jtrights/1610/1610.pdf
- Crest Advisory’s 2021 report, Counting the cost of maternal imprisonment, recommended that the government should ensure pre-sentence reports (PSRs) consider the impact of a custodial sentence on children.26Pitman, J. & Hull, J. (2021). Counting the cost of maternal imprisonment. Crest Advisory. https://64e09bbc-abdd-42c6-90a8-58992ce46e59.usrfiles.com/ugd/64e09b_869b4734357a49b186292d57ec97b354.pdf
- The Centre for Social Justice’s 2022 report, The Golden Thread: Putting family at the heart of the criminal justice system, recommended that children with a primary carer in prison should be identified as children in need under section 17 of the Children Act 1989.27The Centre for Social Justice. (2022). The Golden Thread: Putting family at the heart of the criminal justice system. https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/CSJJ9464-Golden-Thread-Paper-220311-v2.pdf
These and other calls for action specifically reference the critical importance of providing an assessment of children’s needs at the point of sentencing.28See Dr Shona Minson – The rights of children whose parents are in conflict with the law and Prison Reform Trust. (2018). What about me? The impact on children when mothers are involved in the criminal justice system. https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/publication/what-about-me-the-impact-on-children-when-mothers-are-involved-in-the-criminal-justice-system/ 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 PSR.29Sentencing Council. (2019). General guideline: overarching principles. https://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/overarching-guides/magistrates-court/item/general-guideline-overarching-principles/#Step%202%20Aggravating%20and%20mitigating%20factors The Scottish Sentencing Council 2021 guidelines state that being the primary or sole carer of dependants may be a mitigating factor in sentencing, particularly if a prison sentence would result in children being looked after away from home.30Scottish Sentencing Council. (2021). The sentencing process, Sentencing guideline. https://www.scottishsentencingcouncil.org.uk/media/2118/the-sentencing-process-guideline-d.pdf Sentencing guidelines for Northern Ireland include a guideline case (R v Conlon 07021997) in which a judgement makes reference to the adverse effects of a custodial sentence on both a mother and her child.31R v Conlon. 1997. https://www.judiciaryni.uk/publications/sentencing-guidelines-northern-ireland/personal-mitigating-circumstances-imprisonment
While PSRs, known as Criminal Justice Social Work Reports (CJSWRs) in Scotland, should include information about dependent children, the reality is that many reports are oral, or written hurriedly, and fail to include information about the impacts on children. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this and caused significant backlogs in court procedures.32See https://committees.parliament.uk/work/1521/reducing-the-backlog-in-criminal-courts/ Following Lord Farmer’s 2019 review of women in the criminal justice system, the Ministry of Justice launched a pilot project in March 2021 which recognises women’s complex needs and includes them as a priority cohort who require a more comprehensive, written PSR, rather than an oral report.33Ministry of Justice. (2021). Guidance: Pre-sentence report pilot in 15 magistrates’ courts. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/pre-sentence-report-pilot-in-15-magistrates-courts#next-steps
“I think this [the Child Impact Assessment] is a great idea as these children and their thoughts and opinions are forgotten and need to be heard.”Mother in prison
Considering children in sentencing decisions
Dr Shona Minson, Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, created, in partnership with PRT’s Transforming Lives programme and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, a set of short films and briefings for primary carers awaiting sentencing and for sentencers. These resources, which have been adapted for use in Scotland, are designed to help women appearing before the court understand sentencing guidelines and the rights of their children. Furthermore, they aim to ensure that all those involved in sentencing understand the potential impacts on children if their mother is imprisoned. Children of Prisoners Europe has produced a sentencing toolkit, Keeping Children in Mind, a resource that provides tools for sentencers, child’s rights advocates, and practitioners to consider more effectively the rights and needs of children with imprisoned parents.
An assessment of needs throughout the journey
In the consultation process for this toolkit children and young people were clear that they want to be listened to at all stages of their mother’s journey through the criminal justice system: arrest, court and sentencing, prison or community sentence, and prior to her release.
Children reported feeling traumatised having witnessed the arrest of their mother, or in one young person’s case, coming home to an empty house not knowing where her mother was — she had been arrested and was unable to get a message to her daughter. They spoke about their anger at not being able to tell the judge or magistrates directly what a prison sentence for their mother would mean for them. Many expressed feeling shocked by the prison sentence itself: they, and their mothers, had expected a community sentence or fine. The majority of children and young people said they felt sadness and loss when their mother went to prison, and many experienced a sense of shame and stigma, particularly if newspapers and social media had portrayed their mother unfavourably. Children reported feeling afraid when visiting prison (especially for the first time), and some said that one of the most stressful times was post-release when they had expected “everything to be ok”, but this did not bear out in reality; the transition back into their mother’s care, or resuming supervised contact, can be extremely challenging for children, especially if there is no support available.
“Sentencers should know about the children. You get victim impact statements. What about a child impact statement in the child’s own words or even with pictures?”A mother on release from prison
“The Child Impact Assessment is a great way for the young people to feel like their views are being sought and voices heard. It allows them to share their feelings and ask any questions they may have. It’s a good way of allowing us to have open conversation relating to their [mum’s] imprisonment.”Regional Family Support Coordinator, Families Outside
When asked about support, none of the children could recall receiving any help from any professionals when their mother was arrested or sentenced; most said they first received support when she had already been in prison some time, and for several it was after her release from prison. Some mentioned individual teachers at school who had been sympathetic; the majority said that the main support they initially received had been from family members (with grandmothers being the most common).
All of the children and young people who contributed to the consultation for this toolkit were connected to specialist organisations that help families affected by imprisonment and had clearly benefited from this support. The role of specialist organisations is hugely significant, but they are often underfunded, geographically limited, and do not have the capacity to support all children affected. Furthermore, specialist organisations often begin working with children a significant length of time after a parent’s first contact with the criminal justice system. This can mean that problems are compounded and children may require more in-depth support than the organisations can offer. Staff from the specialist organisations agreed that supporting children as early as possible is crucial.
“Fantastic idea to allow children and young people to feel like they have a voice. I think it is helpful that each stage of the justice process has its own section to complete. This makes it easy to follow and allows the person completing the form to easily identify what sections are needing completed. Each section is not too lengthy and easy enough to understand each question. The ability for the child to draw a picture about their feelings at the end of the assessment is useful for those who may find it difficult to speak about their experience of a loved one going through the justice process.”Groupwork Volunteer, Families Outside
The most compelling argument for the use of a Child Impact Assessment for children with a mother in the criminal justice system is that all of the 28 children and young people and the 38 mothers who contributed to the consultation expressed support for a tool such as this:
“Every child that does it helps them to know they’re not alone.”Malik (aged 10)
“This really gives children a voice on how they are feeling and how it will impact their lives when their mum is taken away from them.”Mother in prison
“I think it is a good thing to do for kids.”Jaz (aged 11)
“This could change people’s bias – they shouldn’t be relying on data from past events but instead on what children are saying.”Mother in prison
Children said that the Child Impact Assessment would give them an opportunity to talk about how they feel at various stages and to access further support if necessary. Mothers also said that it would allow their children to talk about their feelings and would help practitioners (teachers and social workers, for example) to gain a better understanding of children’s experiences and needs.
Some mothers felt that the Child Impact Assessment would help reduce the stigma often experienced by children when their mother is in prison. Several reports and policy documents refer to children of imprisoned parents as more likely to end up in the criminal justice system themselves. This message is upsetting and stigmatising for children, and many feel “tarnished with the same brush” as their parent.34Prison Reform Trust. (2018). What about me? The impact on children when mothers are involved in the criminal justice system (p.22). https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/what-about-me.pdf This in itself can be a barrier to accessing support. It puts a burden of blame on the children instead of a duty of care on those who should protect them. In short, children with a mother in the criminal justice system need support because it is known to be a challenging experience that may negatively impact their mental health and wellbeing.35Jones, A., et al. (2013). COPING: Children of Prisoners, Interventions & Mitigations to Strengthen Mental Health.
“I like this because it means that she can be helped to say how she feels. I don’t know what to say to her, because she is so young and it is easier to pretend like nothing has happened.”Mother in court
Section 3: Who should support children with a Child Impact Assessment?
“Someone you trust – that’s the main thing.”Callie (aged 11)
“It’s got to be someone who knows the child — not someone who’s just read about them.”Mother recently released from prison
“Someone in school helping would be good.”Mother in court
The Child Impact Assessment framework (designed with, and for, children with lived experience) is centred on the needs of individual children. In the consultation for this toolkit, families with experience of the criminal justice system said that they did not feel a tool such as this would work if it became a statutory process, for example, a formal part of a PSR or CJSWR. Mothers, children, and carers (mainly grandmothers) unanimously said that the Child Impact Assessment should be offered to children as a way of identifying support they may need. Therefore, there is no fixed referral route. This presents both challenges and an opportunity.
- With no fixed referral route, or statutory underpinning, the risk is that the Child Impact Assessment is not used. To mitigate this risk, it should be offered to children in as many contexts as possible — through voluntary, statutory, or universal services.
- As well as being child-centred, the Child Impact Assessment must also keep children safe. It is important that staff have a thorough understanding of safeguarding and child protection measures.36See NSPCC Safeguarding children and child protection: Safeguarding children and child protection | NSPCC Learning
- Children reported that choice (deciding whom they complete the Child Impact Assessment with, ideally, someone with whom they already have an existing relationship); and trust (feeling confident that information sharing will be open and transparent) are paramount. If the offer of a Child Impact Assessment is made with these in mind, the possibilities of how it is used are wide and varied, and the opportunity to engage children increases. As well as teachers, and in one case a social worker, children named school dinner ladies, librarians, sports coaches and music tutors as people they would choose to speak to.
“It’s got to be someone I know already and have a relationship with — a teacher or support worker, for example.”Siya (aged 12)
“The place matters — where you fill in a form. Do it with activities, or in a garden.”Mother recently released from prison
“For me, it’d be my youth worker.”Jude (aged 14)
“The kids need someone they can vent to, air their views.”Mother in court
Keeping children safe
In order to ensure children are safe and well supported, those helping a child with a Child Impact Assessment should:
- Be part of an organisation (statutory or voluntary) that can provide support and, where possible, supervision to practitioners. Working with families who are facing complex situations can be emotionally challenging, and support for staff is crucial;
- Have an understanding of the impact of parental, and in particular maternal, imprisonment on children. The accompanying notes give an overview of this, but supplementary training is recommended;
- Be trauma-informed. A child may experience trauma at any stage of their mother’s criminal justice journey, and some questions may trigger emotional memories. Furthermore, the impact of trauma may make it difficult for a child to put their feelings into words, understand their emotions, or order their memories. A gentle, trauma-informed approach is important to minimise re-traumatisation. The charity Trauma Informed Schools UK has further information and resources; and
- Recognise their own unconscious bias. Many families report feeling that decisions are made about them and things are done to them, on the basis of assumptions rather than consultation. Listening without judgement allows children the freedom to engage more meaningfully in the process of decision making and action planning.
“It would be good if it was someone they trusted, like a teacher or something.”Mother in court
Sharing information sensitively
The sharing of information is something that worries many families affected by imprisonment. Several mothers and grandmothers described feeling that decisions were made about children with little or no consultation; this compounded their feelings of powerlessness within criminal justice processes. Media treatment of women in the criminal justice system can be particularly harsh,37Chesney-Lind, M. & K. Irwin. (2008). Beyond Bad Girls: Gender, Violence and Hype. and families often fear that information will be misrepresented or used to make decisions about custody. If families understand who knows what and, crucially, why, and if they feel included in the sharing of information, this can help to build trust. Data collection should be used to shine a light on the issues and must not become a barrier to families accessing support.
The importance of family relationships
Most of the children who took part in the consultation were living with grandparents (most commonly grandmothers). Grandparents play an important role in supporting children with a mother in the criminal justice system, often with little or no financial or emotional support.38For more information see What about me? The impact on children when mothers are involved in the criminal justice system, Prison Reform Trust (2018) https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/publication/what-about-me-the-impact-on-children-when-mothers-are-involved-in-the-criminal-justice-system/ A significant number of children in the consultation for this toolkit said that they would like to use the Child Impact Assessment with a grandparent, and some said it would be helpful to complete it with their mother. Whilst the Child Impact Assessment has been designed for practitioners who can help draw up an action plan, it may also be used to support helpful conversations between family members and children. In some cases, these conversations may lead to more formal forms of support.
“It goes over what a kid can know about it and it explains it a lot.”Malik (aged 10)
“This [the Child Impact Assessment] is good because it would help me as well to talk to her and she can draw a picture of what she thinks has happened and what is in her mind.”Mother in court
“As a tool I think it is good for starting these types of discussions and allowing children and young people affected by imprisonment to share their feelings and thoughts clearly, as well as having some control over how they are supported.”Regional Family Support Coordinator, Families Outside
“Something like this assessment is important at all stages. It’d help me understand what the kids need as well.”Grandmother looking after children whose mother is in prison
“Don’t leave us behind” podcast
In this podcast conversation, a small group of children in Merseyside with lived experience of a parent in prison shared why they feel Child Impact Assessments are important. Notably, none of the children received any help when their parent was first arrested and sentenced – support came much later, after their parent was in prison. The podcast highlights that each child within a family may have different needs and that talking to someone they trust is key. This may not be someone obvious; one girl talks about the important role dinner ladies can play in supporting children. The importance of relationships that children often have with staff such as dinner ladies is also highlighted in this narrated PowerPoint presentation which gives an overview of the background to, and importance of, Child Impact Assessments.
The accompanying notes are designed for use by practitioners completing the Child Impact Assessment with a child. They:
- provide an overview of how children might feel at each stage of their mother’s journey through the criminal justice system;
- promote a trauma-informed, non-judgemental approach; and
- contain links to further information and organisations that can provide additional resources.
The notes incorporate a list of possible actions for each stage of the justice system based on what children in the consultation process said they would find helpful. It is made clear that this is not an exhaustive list and that any actions should be in agreement with the child and written in their own words. Some practitioners and policy makers who contributed to the consultation expressed concern that children may need support that is costly or has significant waiting lists, such as a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). It is noteworthy that children themselves identified actions such as writing their mother a letter, speaking to a specific teacher, or accessing online support from an organisation that specialises in supporting families affected by imprisonment. Whilst interventions such as CAMHS are hugely important, many children would benefit from support that is possible to put in place without lengthy waiting lists, complex referral systems, or the need for additional funding.
“Children will feel valued that they have been involved, rather than decisions being made on their behalf, which could potentially leave them feeling unhappy with the outcome.”SHINE Women’s Mentoring Service Family Outreach Worker, Circle
“I think [the Child Impact Assessment] is very comprehensive…The notes are useful in the possible solutions you could offer, and you would hope that it reinforces the message to the child that they are not alone in it all and that something is going to be done to help them. I certainly would use it and it provides us with a reminder of the actions taken to follow up within an agreed time span.”Visiting Mum Coordinator, Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact)
Importance of training
Training for practitioners on the impact on children of having a mother in the criminal justice system, and an understanding of how being separated from their children affects mothers, are key to ensuring children receive the right support. One study found that practitioners lacked confidence when it came to families affected by the criminal justice system, and their perception was that they did not have the necessary skills to adequately support families. The study revealed, however, that staff were able to identify families’ main needs and concerns when asked.39Goldsmith, C. & Byrne, D. (2018). Scoping the Needs of Prisoners’ Families in West Sussex. Sussex Prisoners’ Families. In other words, it was the anxiety of practitioners about not having a knowledge of the criminal justice system that became a barrier to effective support, and not their lack of skills.
The same study showed that families want to be listened to without judgement — something echoed very much by the children and young people in this consultation. Training and understanding are key to helping professionals realise that the skills they regularly use to support vulnerable children and families (such as listening, empathy, understanding, and reassuring people that they are not alone in their situation) are exactly the same skills that are needed when it comes to children impacted by the criminal justice system. The list of training and useful resources in this toolkit can be used to support children as well as to train staff.
“I think that the guidance is clear and allows for professional judgement in regards to things such as who should complete the form with the child or young person, however I feel that it may be beneficial to accompany this with a short training or webinar.”Regional Family Support Coordinator, Families Outside
Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit, in collaboration with Thames Valley Police and Children Heard and Seen (CHaS), has designed a process of offering families support for children as soon as possible after a parent’s admission to prison. Operation Paramount uses available prison data to approach families. If families agree that support may be helpful for children affected, an initial assessment of needs is undertaken by CHaS, a charity that specialises in supporting children impacted by a parent’s involvement in the criminal justice system, and a bespoke package of ongoing support is put in place. Feedback from the pilot suggests that families welcome early intervention such as this and that it improves outcomes for children. Working with police to safeguard children with a parent in conflict with the law is a toolkit produced by Children of Prisoners Europe. Its aim is to support practitioners across the criminal justice sector to work collaboratively with the police in their community. The toolkit promotes trauma-informed training, recommends changes to policy and practice, including arrest procedures, and offers guidelines on how to form and maintain lasting relationships with the police.
Section 4: How might Child Impact Assessments be used?
By its very nature, the Child Impact Assessment is centred on the needs of individual children; its potential use is therefore wide and varied.
The importance of working in partnership
An integrated, coordinated approach is key to ensuring children receive the support they need in a timely way. Support is best promoted and delivered within multi-agency partnerships that acknowledge a collective responsibility for the welfare of children with a parent in the criminal justice system. Women’s Alliances, Criminal Justice Boards, local authorities, Violence Reduction Units/Partnerships, and Safeguarding Children Boards are uniquely placed to champion children impacted by parental imprisonment. By working within existing partnerships, these groups can develop innovative and creative solutions to improve the lives of any child impacted by having a parent in the criminal justice system and in particular those with a primary carer. A cross-sector approach must be underpinned by funding arrangements that ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of services.
Local partnership in action
Merseyside Violence Reduction Partnership (MVRP) has formed a collaboration with three specialist voluntary sector organisations that support children with a parent in the criminal justice system. The group is piloting the use of Child Impact Assessments for children with a parent appearing in court pending a custodial sentence and for children with a mother in HMP Styal. Support for children is offered to families through posters in court and in prison with a single point of contact who refers them onto Time-Matters UK, POPS, or PSS, according to need. These organisations use the Child Impact Assessment to put bespoke support in place and can also offer ongoing one-to-one sessions to explore feelings and coping strategies; fun activities (including day trips); and support groups with other children. The project is in its early stages, but a scoping exercise found that young people welcome this support and find it beneficial: “It’s really good having someone to listen to you and to help you.” Ethan (aged 17)
“I think this should be done in the beginning, like at arrest, because, if you are a single mum, like me, it really leaves your child worried and upset if they don’t get what’s going on, because you are the only one there really at the end of the day.”Mother in court
The role of key agencies
The consultation for this toolkit highlighted the important role certain agencies have at each stage of the criminal justice journey in identifying that there may be children impacted. These are:
Court: probation officers (criminal justice social workers in Scotland), sentencers
Community Sentence: probation officers (criminal justice social workers), sentencers
Prison: prison visitor centre staff, prison staff
Release: probation officers (criminal justice social workers)
Some children with a mother in the criminal justice system may have a designated social worker to support them throughout each stage of their mother’s journey through the criminal justice process. Many children, however, do not have this level of support, as having a parent in the criminal justice system is not a child protection concern in and of itself.
These key agencies may not focus primarily, or even at all, on children, but they are often the first to be aware that there may be children impacted by their mother’s arrest, court appearance, community or prison sentence, and her release from prison.
With the exception of prison visitor centre staff (who are often linked to voluntary sector organisations that offer support to families), the agencies highlighted above were viewed by many of the children who contributed to the consultation with fear and suspicion: the police officers arrest and take mum away; the probation officer does not mention the children in a PSR; the magistrate sentences mum to six months in prison without considering the impact on her children; prison staff lock mum up; and the social worker ceases supervised contact now that mum is in prison.
The perception that these agencies are not ‘on their side’ makes it extremely challenging for them to offer support to children, and for most, it is not within their remit to do so. Of course, there are exceptions to these negative perceptions:
- Harry (aged 14) spoke about the police officer who asked if he was okay;
- Bella (aged 13) said the probation officer came to the house and met the whole family before writing her report;
- Maddy (aged 8) and Ethan’s (aged 10) mum’s sentence was suspended because the magistrate heard that she was the children’s sole carer and understood the impact a prison sentence would have on them;
- Joel (aged 10) said that the prison officers were friendly; and
- Skylar’s (aged 5) social worker found a way of continuing supervised contact with her mum in prison.
Sadly, these are exceptions. Most of the 28 children and young people who contributed to the consultation had low levels of trust in key agencies.
All staff in these organisations can consider the impact on children of their actions and decisions at the point at which they are involved. This might not change any outcomes (a mother will still be arrested), but it may mean the impact on her children is less harmful (the arrest may be conducted in a way that aims to reduce trauma for the children). Training and understanding are vital. In addition, these key agencies can promote support for children, including the Child Impact Assessment, and signpost families to organisations that can offer appropriate interventions.
The role of universal services
Staff from universal services that come into contact with all children (for example, health visitors, GPs, and nursery, primary, and secondary school teachers) have a focus on the needs, wellbeing, and safeguarding of children but may not be aware of the specific impact on children of having a parent in the criminal justice system. The Child Impact Assessment and accompanying notes are tools that may be useful for staff, both in raising awareness of the issues children may face and how they might support them. Many children named teachers as key people from whom they would like to receive support; one young person said that they would have liked to have spoken to their GP about their anxiety about their mother being in prison but was afraid of sharing private information about their mother. Health visitors and nursery staff have a key role in considering the best interests of very young children.
Sometimes the focus of universal services is on the identification of children with a parent in the criminal justice system. This is a complex issue that needs careful consideration to ensure identification processes do not further stigmatise children. The Child Impact Assessment moves the emphasis away from the process of identification of children and focuses instead on how they are feeling and what support they may need. If all staff in universal services were to undergo training on the impact of having a parent in the criminal justice system as part of regular safeguarding training, and if children with a parent in prison were referenced in existing safeguarding documents, this would go a long way to ensuring children are sensitively identified and appropriately supported. The accompanying notes are designed to help staff in universal services signpost children and young people to specialist support.
The role of specialist organisations
Organisations with a specific focus on families impacted by the criminal justice system are key forms of support for children and young people. Most have a range of resources to help children at each stage of the criminal justice system, and many can offer one-to-one or peer group support. Children and young people who contributed to the consultation for this toolkit confirmed that the most important message for them to hear is that they are not alone. The role of specialist organisations in disseminating this message cannot be underestimated.
Specialist organisations have the knowledge and expertise to negotiate their way through criminal justice processes (for example to facilitate special prison visits) and work hard at maintaining constructive relationships with policy makers whilst also campaigning for reform. Many offer training to a wide range of practitioners, and they are an invaluable source of support to families who are impacted by the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, the capacity of specialist organisations is frequently restricted by inadequate, often short-term, funding streams. The funding of specialist organisations must be a priority for the Ministry of Justice (Department of Justice in Northern Ireland and Justice Directorate in Scotland) and the Department for Education (Department of Education in Northern Ireland and Education Scotland) to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of services that support children and young people with a parent in the criminal justice system.
Section 5: How does the Child Impact Assessment work in practice?
This is best described through the experiences of children themselves. The case studies below are based on children’s actual experiences. Some details have been changed, including all names and some genders, to ensure anonymity.
The ‘Imagine if…’ scenarios are based on what children and young people (and some mothers) have said they would prefer to have happened (and in some cases have actually experienced). The aim is to paint a picture of what could, and should, happen to ensure all children are listened to and supported. These examples demonstrate how Child Impact Assessments might be used at each stage of the criminal justice system.
The calls for action do not necessarily mean complex policy changes are needed; many simply require creativity and a vision for improving outcomes for children. All the actions listed in this toolkit have been collated in the appendix.
Brad (aged 15) was woken suddenly in the early hours as police officers swore at him and pulled the covers off his bed. It later transpired that Brad looked older than 15, and officers mistook him for a possible co-defendant. “It was horrible”, Brad reports, “people shouting and screaming and swearing at us.”
“My little sister wet her bed, but they (the police) wouldn’t let me go to her. We were so scared for my mum and had all these questions:
‘Where were they taking her? What had happened? Is she hurt?’ I ran out to the van as they were taking her away, but they wouldn’t let me say goodbye. I just wanted to give her a hug, but they said no. Then it was just me and Riley (his sister, aged 13), and it was too early to call Nan so we just sort of sat there. Riley was screaming, but I was just frozen. Loads of the neighbours must’ve heard it, but no one came to see if we were ok.”Brad (aged 15)
Brad reports that since his mother’s arrest, he doesn’t trust the police and gets nervous even seeing police in the street. Riley is a very anxious child and has found transitions at school difficult.
As Brad and Riley’s mum was arrested, a designated officer (in plain clothes) focused on the children’s welfare. The officer spoke calmly and reassuringly to Brad and Riley and explained that their mum needed to go with the police but that she would be safe. Brad and Riley were asked if there was another adult who could come and stay in the house. Brad called their nan, and the officer waited with the children until she arrived. The officer gave nan a card with a link to a page on the Police and Crime Commissioner website about Child Impact Assessments and related support for children. Nan took a copy of the Child Impact Assessment and accompanying notes to Brad and Riley’s school. They were each invited to choose someone to speak to about their mum’s arrest.
Riley spoke to the librarian and decided to keep a diary to record her feelings. Brad chose his PE teacher and connected online to an organisation that supports young people with a parent in the criminal justice system.
Carly and Leah
Carly (aged 12) and her sister Leah (aged 7) were at school when their mum was arrested. Carly came back to an empty house and knew something was wrong, as her mum was always there when she got home. When the phone rang, it was Leah’s school asking why no one had come to collect her. Carly thought her mum had died.
“I get panic attacks all the time now…it was ages before we knew where mum was. It’s the worst thing that’s happened to us.”Carly (aged 12)
On arrival at the Police Custody Suite, Carly and Leah’s mum was given the opportunity to call her sister to arrange for Leah to be collected from school and to be there when Carly got home. She was also told about a local initiative piloting the use of Child Impact Assessments following a mother’s arrest and gave permission for information about this to be sent to her sister. Carly and Leah moved into the care of their aunt, who contacted the Women’s Centre coordinating the pilot project.
Leah completed a Child Impact Assessment with a worker from one of the partner organisations in the pilot project; she drew pictures for her mum and said she wanted to visit her as soon as possible. Carly chose to speak to a teacher who helped her write a letter to her mum saying that she didn’t want to visit her for the time being (she later changed her mind about this and did visit her mum).
Time for action
- Receive training about the impact on children when a parent, and in particular a mother, is arrested;
- Put measures in place to reduce as much as possible the trauma of an arrest on children (for example, consider the time and place of the arrest);
- Provide an additional officer whose role is to focus on the welfare of children if it is known that there will be children present;
- Pass on information to families about Child Impact Assessments and organisations that can offer support; and
- Give primary carers who have been arrested the opportunity to make necessary phone calls to ensure their children are safe.
As Kai (aged 16) listened to the magistrate saying, “As a mother, you should have thought about your children”, he felt crushed.
“I’ve got those words stuck in my head”, he says. “What did that mean? Did mum not love us (Kai has three younger siblings)? She was just a normal mum, but I began questioning all that. That’s when my mental health spiralled down.”Kai (aged 16)
Kai’s mother’s probation officer had written a PSR which mentioned four children but did not go into detail about Kai’s mum being their sole carer and one of the children having significant health needs. Kai’s mum received a six-month prison sentence, which came as a huge shock and meant decisions were made hurriedly. The children were split between family members in separate parts of the country; because of Kai’s brother’s health needs, no one felt they could cope with all of the children together. In addition to the grief of losing their mother, the children lost their family home and their connection as siblings. The impact on them all has been significant. Three years on, Kai’s mum is still fighting to regain custody of all of her children.
Kai’s mother’s probation officer wrote a detailed PSR, highlighting the challenges facing a sole carer of four children, including one with a serious health condition. On reading the report, the magistrate adjourned proceedings and asked for an assessment of each child’s needs to be undertaken. The probation officer met with the family to determine who would be best placed to complete a Child Impact Assessment with each of the children.
Kai chose his football coach, his two sisters wanted to speak to a teacher, and Kai’s brother nominated one of his doctors. The probation officer liaised with each of the professionals about the Child Impact Assessment, offered support as needed, and collated all the information for submission to court.
Prior to the subsequent hearing, the magistrate had a full picture of the impact of a custodial sentence and decided to impose a suspended sentence, allowing the family to stay together and mum to receive support. Kai and one of his sisters got involved in a peer support group for children with a parent in the criminal justice system and became youth ambassadors, campaigning for change.
Time for action
- Be made aware of the serious impact on children when a parent, and in particular a mother, is remanded or sentenced to custody;
- Be proactive in seeking information about whether a defendant has caring responsibilities;
- Request a written, detailed PSR (CJSWR in Scotland) for all primary carers;
- Request a Child Impact Assessment for any children affected to ensure they are recognised within court proceedings and their best interests are taken into account;
- Avoid remanding a woman to prison when a custodial sentence is unlikely;
- Make every effort to divert women away from prison; and
- Provide the opportunity for sole carers to make necessary care arrangements for children before entering prison if a custodial sentence is unavoidable.
Probation staff (England & Wales, Northern Ireland) and Criminal Justice Social Workers (Scotland) can:
- Receive training on the impact on children of having a parent, and in particular a mother, in the criminal justice system;
- Write PSRs (CJSWRs in Scotland) that contain as much detail as possible about children and the impact on them of a potential prison sentence;
- Promote the use of Child Impact Assessments to ensure children’s support needs are met; and
- Liaise with other relevant partners to support the use of Child Impact Assessments with children.
Alena (aged 14) was really angry when her mum went to prison and told her gran (who was caring for her) she didn’t want to see her mum again. This suited gran, as she had a fractious relationship with her daughter (Alena’s mother).
Alena felt really alone and isolated; she desperately wanted to see her mum but didn’t know how to broach this with gran. It took just over a year before Alena was able to visit her mum.
“But then I changed my mind…it was so awkward because I couldn’t say anything to gran – she was made up I didn’t want to see her because mum and her fell out.”Alena (aged 14)
Alena’s mum saw posters and flyers on the prison wing about Child Impact Assessments for children with a mum in prison. She wrote to her mother to suggest this might be helpful for Alena. Gran got in touch with the charity named on the flyer, and they offered to undertake an assessment of Alena’s needs. Completing the Child Impact Assessment with a worker from the charity confirmed to Alena that she wanted to visit her mum.
With the support of her worker, Alena spoke to gran, and they made a plan for Alena to visit her mum with another family member. Prior to the visit, her worker gave Alena information about life in prison and helped her write a letter to her mum. Alena has built up a very positive relationship with her mum and has also been able to have video visits to supplement face-to-face contact, as the prison is quite a distance away.
When his mum first went to prison, Cooper (aged 11), found going on visits really stressful. “It’s all the searching and stuff, it makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong”, he says.
“I had to pretend (to school) that I was at the dentist or something, because dad didn’t want anyone to know. I liked seeing my mum, but I hated all the bits before you get to the visits room, and there was nothing to do in there, you just had to sit there and talk. And I hated all the lying about why I was off school; dad said we had to keep it a secret.”Cooper (aged 11)
Cooper became increasingly withdrawn at school and developed an eating disorder.
On a visit to the prison, Cooper’s dad saw a poster about support from an organisation that supports families affected by imprisonment. He was nervous about any unnecessary attention but was concerned about Cooper so contacted them. A member of staff from the specialist organisation met Cooper and his dad at home and was able to offer a range of practical and emotional support. With support, Cooper’s dad was able to tell the school what had happened, and the school in turn agreed to authorise Cooper’s absences for prison visits.
A full assessment of Cooper’s needs was completed; he attended some special family day visits in the prison (which are more relaxed and include age-appropriate activities) and was able to talk about his worries about the prison security measures which reduced his anxiety levels.
Cooper’s confidence increased so much that he decided to write a letter to the prison governor with some suggestions for improving the visits experience for children and young people. Cooper knows these suggestions are unlikely to be implemented imminently but wants to use his experience to make a difference to others.
Time for action
Prison governors can:
- Provide regular opportunities for parents to talk about concerns they may have about their children;
- Offer induction visits as early as possible in a parent’s sentence so children can see where their parent is living and ask questions about their daily routine;
- Expand the availability of child-centred visits;
- Ensure video links are available to supplement (not replace) face-to-face visits;
- Ensure visits are recognised as the right of the child, rather than as a privilege for their parent’s good behaviour or related to the length, or status, of their sentence;
- Ensure search procedures are carried out in a manner that causes minimum distress to children; and
- Promote services in the community that offer support to children including the use of Child Impact Assessments.
Jade (aged 13) was really pleased that her mum had been given a community sentence. “I was so scared she was going to go to prison”, she says.
“It was a massive relief, but no one explained what it would be like. We just had to kind of work it out. My mum had a tag on and couldn’t come to watch me play football any more (the football ground was outside of the permitted location). I’m really good at football, and I was starting to play in bigger matches, and I just wanted my mum there like she always was. And I spent the whole time panicking that she was going to break all the rules, like not being home in time (for her curfew) or being late for her meetings, and end up in prison so I didn’t want us to go out anywhere. Plus, I was scared that everyone would see the tag round her ankle and know.”Jade (aged 13)
Jade started suffering from stomach problems and eventually stopped playing football altogether.
Jade’s mum’s probation officer offered to meet with the whole family to talk through any concerns about Jade’s mum wearing a tag and what the implications of any geographical and curfew restrictions might be. It became clear that the training ground for Jade’s football team was just outside the permitted area. In discussion with the family, the probation officer was able to amend restrictions to enable Jade’s mum to attend training and home matches. Jade understood that her mum would not be able to attend away matches, but the family made a plan to ensure that other family members would accompany Jade to these.
The probation officer was able to show Jade and her siblings what a tag looked like and how it worked and answer questions to alleviate the children’s concerns. The probation officer picked up that Jade felt responsible for her mum and was able to pass on information about a local partnership offering Child Impact Assessments and ongoing support for children with a parent in the criminal justice system. Through this initiative, Jade was able to talk about her feelings; she found this support really helpful and remained involved in her football team.
Time for action
Probation staff (England & Wales, Northern Ireland) and Criminal Justice Social Workers (Scotland) can:
- Receive training on the specific impact on children when a parent has restrictions such as a tag or a curfew;
- Communicate with families about restrictions and what they might mean in practice, particularly for children; and
- Pass on information to families about support for children, including Child Impact Assessments.
Leon, Dawson and Callie
Leon (aged 6) couldn’t wait for mum to come out of prison. He was excited about being able to do things with her again and imagined it all being great because mum had ‘got fixed’ in prison. Dawson (aged 10) said he wasn’t bothered either way. Callie (aged 12) was very worried about mum’s release. She knew her mum’s addiction meant things might not be straightforward even though her mum was trying really hard. “I liked grandma being there and didn’t want her to go; she was strict sometimes but you knew the rules. With mum, you never really knew what would happen and if she might lose it.”
Despite a few ROTL (release on temporary licence) visits40Temporary Release and Extended Home Leave (Scotland) and Temporary Release and Home Leave Schemes (Northern Ireland)., there was no agreed release plan, and it all seemed to happen very quickly:
“It was like she was just home again and meant to carry on like nothing had happened, Callie says, “But she’d been away for a year and we hadn’t seen her loads, and everything at home was calm again, and then she was back.” The transition was difficult for everyone: “My brothers just wanted to be with mum all the time; Leon wouldn’t let her go. I don’t think my grandma knew how to act – my mum just wanted to let us do whatever we wanted, but I could tell grandma didn’t like that.”Callie (aged 12)
Callie felt she was walking on eggshells, waiting for her mum to start using drugs again, but she felt she couldn’t talk to anyone about it: “Everyone kept saying, ‘Isn’t it great to have your mum home again?’ And it was but it also wasn’t, but I couldn’t speak to anyone about that.” Feeling very alone and guilty about her feelings about her mum being home, Callie began self-harming.
Having spoken to mum in prison about her expectations of her release, the probation officer met with grandma to discuss the impact that mum’s return to the family home may have on Leon, Dawson, and Callie, including restrictions that would be in place while she was under a supervision order. Grandma shared her concerns about differences in approach with the children as well as how each child might respond to mum’s return. The probation officer suggested that the children did a Child Impact Assessment with a trusted adult and gave grandma website details of a local partnership project that was supporting this.
Dawson didn’t want to speak to anyone about his mum being released from prison, but Leon and Callie both spoke to a teacher. Leon understood that everything might not be perfect when mum got home and felt able to speak to his teacher if needed. Callie’s teacher suggested that a family group conference might be helpful as soon as possible after mum’s release and made a referral to an organisation that offered this. This enabled mum, grandma, and the children to make a plan, including family rules, for the transition of caring responsibility from grandma to mum.
Amari (aged 2) didn’t live with his mum before she went to prison but had regular supervised contact with her in a local children’s centre. He seemed to enjoy these meetings and played happily with his mum with support from his foster carer. This contact stopped as soon as Amari’s mum went to prison, not because there were any concerns about contact, but because Amari’s social worker had relocated, and there was no handover meeting to decide how contact should continue and who would be responsible for taking Amari to the prison. As her release date approached, Amari’s mum assumed that her supervised contact would continue as before.
“It was a nightmare” she says, “I kept trying to get someone to bring him to visit me in the prison, but that never happened. And then when I got out, it felt like everyone thought he was better off without me, but nothing had been properly decided. They hadn’t even told me he had a new foster carer who wanted to adopt him. I got sent papers about a meeting, but I got them after the meeting had happened, so I had no chance to say anything. It was like they thought, ‘Well she’s in prison, he’s better off without her.’ But I was getting my life back together. I thought we’d go back to weekly contact and then talk about me having him overnight and maybe even to live with me. Now they’re suddenly talking adoption. It all happened so fast. I’ve lost my baby. I’m heartbroken.”Mother of Amari (aged 2)
Amari’s social worker did a full handover before relocating and made sure the new member of staff was fully briefed on the situation with Amari’s mum being in prison. Having completed training about women in the criminal justice system, and the impact on their children, the new social worker met with Amari’s mother in prison and undertook an assessment of Amari’s needs with input from his mum and her probation officer, his foster carer, and nursery staff.
It became clear that the foster carer was not going to be able to take Amari to prison visits, and a plan was made for Amari’s aunt to take him on fortnightly visits. The social worker made contact with Amari’s mum’s key worker in prison, and they made arrangements for regular review meetings between mum, her probation officer and key worker, and Amari’s social worker, foster carer, and aunt. These were mainly by video conference, and there were two face-to-face meetings in the prison in order to put together a post-release plan for contact between Amari and his mum.
On release, Amari’s mum was able access a range of support from a Women’s Centre and resume supervised contact with Amari in the community. There is a plan in place to consider overnight visits.
Time for action
Probation staff (England & Wales, Northern Ireland) and Criminal Justice Social Workers (Scotland) can:
- Consider the impact on children in post-release and supervision plans;
- Help manage expectations of release both for those leaving prison and for any family members they may be living with; and
- Encourage families to consider support for children, including a Child Impact Assessment.
Child and family social workers can:
- Receive training on the impact on children of having a parent, and in particular a mother, in prison;
- Ensure that children with a parent in the criminal justice system receive consistent support throughout their parent’s sentence;
- Liaise effectively with primary carers and all relevant partner agencies to ensure children’s needs are fully assessed;
- Ensure primary carers in prison receive all relevant paperwork and timely invitations to supervision and care proceedings concerning their children; and
- Use a Child Impact Assessment to gain a full picture of children’s needs and to ensure their own views are taken into consideration.
Time for more action
The call to action reaches well beyond the key agencies noted above. Children with a parent in prison are among some of the most vulnerable in society, and as such, a collective responsibility is called for. The actions listed below are well supported by multiple reports urging for improvements in support for children with a parent in the criminal justice system:
UK governments can:
- Ensure measures are in place to minimise the use of imprisonment for sole and primary carers;
- Ensure legislation and policy documents recognise and mitigate the impact on children of having a primary carer in the criminal justice system;
- Recognise that children with a parent in the criminal justice system deserve support in and of their own right and not as a means of influencing their parent’s rehabilitation;
- Encourage all criminal justice stakeholders (police, sentencers, probation, prison staff) to consider, and mitigate, the impact on children of having a primary carer in the criminal justice system;
- Call for data collection and sharing about children to be open, transparent, and sensitive;
- Provide sustainable funding to specialist organisations that support children and families affected by imprisonment;
- Invest in women’s centres to provide a one-stop place of safety where women can receive emotional support and practical help with parenting; and
- Support the use of Child Impact Assessments at all stages of a parent’s journey through the criminal justice system to ensure children get the support they need.
Children’s Commissioners can:
- Recognise children with a parent in the criminal justice system as a vulnerable group who need support and protection; and
- Promote the use of Child Impact Assessments to ensure children get timely and appropriate support.
Local authorities can:
- Include children impacted by parental imprisonment as a vulnerable group in their strategic planning with particular recognition of children affected by maternal imprisonment;
- Ensure that information about parental imprisonment, including where to go for support, is readily available to children and carers; and
- Commit to piloting, and evaluating, the use of Child Impact Assessments to ensure children get timely and appropriate support.
Education leaders can:
- Ensure all nursery and school staff receive training on the impact on children of having a parent, and in particular a mother, in the criminal justice system;
- Actively reduce the stigma and shame associated with parental imprisonment by raising awareness through the curriculum or school assemblies; and
- Appoint school ‘champions’ who are trained in how to support children affected through using a Child Impact Assessment.
Police and Crime Commissioners (Chief, Deputy Chief, and Assistant Chief Constables in Scotland and Northern Ireland) can:
- Recognise children with a parent in the criminal justice system as a vulnerable group who need support and protection;
- Promote the use of Child Impact Assessments to ensure children get timely and appropriate support; and
- Commit funding to pilot, and evaluate, the use of Child Impact Assessments.
Criminal Justice Boards can:
- Recognise children affected by imprisonment, especially maternal imprisonment, as a vulnerable group who need support and protection; and
- Commit to piloting and evaluating the use of Child Impact Assessments to ensure children get timely and appropriate support.
Section 6: How can we pilot the use of Child Impact Assessments?
Partnership groups who commit to piloting and evaluating the use of Child Impact Assessments can:
- Agree a governance structure for this work: Who will lead? Which partners will participate? How often will the group meet? Who will keep a record of actions? How will progress be measured?
- Agree guiding principles for a pilot project.
- Undertake a scoping exercise in the local area: Where are partnership relationships strongest? What stage of the criminal justice journey should a pilot project focus on (restricted resources may make it unrealistic to test the use of the Child Impact Assessment at all stages in one pilot)? Are there any specialist services that support families affected by imprisonment? What training needs are there for staff who will be involved in the project? Is there scope for practitioners in training to be involved (for example student social workers)? Can children and mothers with lived experience be involved in the planning of the project (bearing in mind the need for support for people sharing their experience in formal meetings)? The Child Impact Assessment narrated PowerPoint and podcast may be helpful to inform the scoping exercise.
- Agree a collective goal using SMART indicators (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). For example: By the end of the financial year, we will pilot, and evaluate, the use of a Child Impact Assessment for 10 children at the point of their mother’s arrest. Because children with a mother in the criminal justice system are a very hidden population, it is more realistic to keep pilot projects small and then scale up following an evaluation and any learning that emerges.
- Address any concerns about the pilot project or possible risks.
- Draw up an action plan which lays out clearly who will do what and by when.
- Promote Child Impact Assessments through universal services (nurseries, schools, GP surgeries, youth clubs, children’s centres, etc). Even though the project itself might focus on a specific partnership and referral route between certain organisations, it is a good opportunity to widen the access for families through universal services. As previously highlighted, children with a parent in the criminal justice system are a hidden population. Increasing awareness of, and opportunities for, support may encourage families to self-identify, particularly if this comes with the offer of support.
- Evaluate the use of Child Impact Assessments and what difference it makes to children. This is key to scaling up the project and embedding it into standard practice.
“This [the Child Impact Assessment] will not only improve kids’ mental state but also how far they can go in life.”Axel (aged 15)
There is compelling evidence from children’s lived experience, supported by academic research, that children with a parent in the criminal justice system remain largely invisible and unsupported in the very systems that claim to protect them. It is unforgivable that, despite widespread awareness among policy makers and politicians of the harmful impact on children, so little has been done to address this.
The National Audit Office41National Audit Office. (2022). Improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system. https://www.nao.org.uk/report/improving-outcomes-for-women-in-the-criminal-justice-system, Public Accounts Committee42Committee of Public Accounts. (2022). Improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system. House of Commons. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5802/cmselect/cmpubacc/997/report.html, and the House of Commons Justice Committee43Justice Committee. (2022). Women in Prison. House of Commons. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5803/cmselect/cmjust/265/report.html have all criticised the England and Wales government’s poor progress in delivering its own Female Offender Strategy44Ministry of Justice. (2018). Female Offender Strategy. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/female-offender-strategy, which highlighted the importance of early intervention and community-based solutions to reduce the number of women in custody. It is regrettable that the Ministry of Justice’s most recent Prisons Strategy White Paper sets out to improve understanding of the likelihood of children becoming offenders themselves, rather than focusing on the impact on children of having a parent in the criminal justice system and what support they may need.45Ministry of Justice. (2021). Prisons Strategy White Paper. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/prisons-strategy-white-paper
There is an opportunity in Northern Ireland’s 2022 to 2029 strategy for women and girls in the criminal justice system to consider and mitigate the impact of maternal imprisonment on children.46Department of Justice. (2022). Supporting Change: A strategy for women and girls in or at risk of contact with the justice system. https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/publications/supporting-change-strategy-women-and-girls-or-risk-contact-justice-system The Scottish Prison Service Strategy for Women in Custody (2021 to 2025) includes a section on reducing the damaging impact of a mother’s imprisonment on children and calls — in all provisions, policies, and measures affecting children — for the undertaking of Childs Rights and Welfare Impact Assessments. This is a process through which the anticipated impact of any proposed law, policy, or measure on children’s human rights and wellbeing can be identified, researched, analysed, and recorded.47See Scottish Prison Service strategy for the management of women offenders in custody. https://www.sps.gov.uk/Corporate/Publications/Policies2.aspx This is to be welcomed, though is not to be confused with the Child Impact Assessments outlined in this toolkit, which focus on individual children’s views and needs.
Rather than more research and additional recommendations, the time has come for action to improve outcomes for children.48Flynn, C. (2017). Changing minds to change lives. Paper presented at the 2017 International Coalition for the Children of Incarcerated Parents Conference. Presentation available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNIrYmeYLk0 Reports have been published; lip service has been paid to recommendations; Ministers and policy-makers have come and gone; yet still children like Layla, whose words opened this toolkit, remain unheard.
Thankfully, children and young people themselves, often with the help and support of dedicated practitioners who long for change, are speaking out about what they want. All of the children and young people who took part in the consultation for this toolkit said they want to be listened to. They want to be supported, not judged, and they want to be included in decision-making about that support. This toolkit offers the resources and mechanisms to turn their aspirations into action. The time for that action is now.
“I’m kind of looking back and obviously wishing I had the support, and I can see the impact it would have on someone if they had it [a Child Impact Assessment] because, now I’m older, I’m obviously picking up the pieces of what happened years ago, whereas if I was younger, and I got that support, I’d be fine now.”Layla (aged 21)
Appendix — toolkit resources
A range of practical resources have been produced for partnership groups to pilot, and evaluate, the use of Child Impact Assessments in their own context. These resources can also be used as standalone documents in the ongoing support of children.
Further information or questions?
For further information about Child Impact Assessments, or anything else related to this toolkit, contact Sarah Beresford on email@example.com.