By Patrice Lawrence,
Development Officer, Clinks
There is a heart-breaking book called ‘The Road to Low Newton’. It is based on a photographic project about the lives of women who served sentences in HMP Low Newton, a women’s prison in Durham. Besides each individual portrait, a woman tells her story. Many experienced or witnessed abuse, violence and addiction in their families or communities and all struggle with substance abuse.
Many of the women are also mothers. While some are able to care for their children, others have been unable to cope. Their children are in foster care or adopted, others are living with grandparents – short term, while the mother serves her sentence, or, as in Clare Maclean’s case, as a permanent arrangement. She says,
My son lives with his father’s mum. I haven’t seen him for six years. I write to him every fortnight and I send him presents at Christmas and on his birthday.
She is hopeful that face-to-face contact will begin again soon.
This story is repeated many times, up and down the country as grandparents juggle the needs of their grandchildren as well as the children’s parents serving custodial and community sentences. As the women’s stories show, resettlement following release is not easy. Self-harm, poor mental health and drink and drug addiction remain live issues making it tough to create a suitable home environment for a child.
So how do grandparents cope? Some may be caught in the middle. The children they are caring for may be missing their parents, but may have suffered neglect or witnessed violence. Children affected by family imprisonment often talk about stigma and isolation, as well as mixed feelings about visiting their parent inside. Guard dogs, body searches, the locking and unlocking of metal gates and the formal setting of visiting halls can be frightening.
Then add to that the distance and costs of visits. As research shows, kinship carers rarely have money to spare and may feel the impact of future welfare cuts. Access to training to help them to support the children in their care as well as direct services for the children vary from area to area. In the meantime, the grandparents’ own son or daughter may have urgent needs – homelessness, recovery from addiction, managing poor mental or physical health.
My role at Clinks is to raise awareness of the impact of imprisonment on family members. Family support is often an essential element of preventing reoffending, but families’ experiences and the services that support them often receive little attention. I will be visiting organisations and projects, talking to families and prisoners, building an evidence base to raise the profile of families and family support. More information about my work can be found here.
If you are caring for children whose parents are in prison, here are some places where you can go for additional support.
- Pact is a national charity which supports people affected by imprisonment. They run prison visitor centres’, deliver relationship and parenting courses and operate a helpline for the families of prisoners. A befriending service and peer support groups offer more personalised support.
- Partners of Prisoners (POPS) is based in Manchester, providing information and support to the families of offenders from their earliest contact with the Criminal Justice System to post-release, across the Greater Manchester area. POPS also run visitor centres, work with other agencies to support prisoners’ families and have particular experience of working with black and other minority ethnic families.
- NEPACS works in prisons across the north east of England, running visitors’ centres, play facilities and tea bars. They organise special visits for children so they can spend quality time with their parent, learning through organised play activities. NEPACS helps about 500 offenders and/or their families each year with a small grant to help them through financial difficulties and provides free caravan holiday breaks for up to 40 families with a relative in prison each year.
- Ormiston Families Unite Programme operates in at least ten prisons across the east of England. Their services include running visitors’ centres’, organising family-friendly children’s visits, accredited parenting courses, family liaison and community work.
- Spurgeons run visitors’ centres in prisons in London and Winchester and deliver targeted programmes for young offenders or those at risk of offending – including mentoring for young people in custody, and family based intervention to prevent offending and reoffending. They also offer specialist support for children experiencing the loss of a parent through imprisonment and community support services for the families of offenders.
- Adfam is a national charity supporting families affected by drink and drugs use. They offer advice, information, opportunities to share experiences and peer support groups.
- The Offenders’ Families Helpline and website has a wealth of practical information about all aspects of the Criminal Justice System from arrest to release.