Around 160,000 children in the UK are affected by the imprisonment of a parent or carer at any one time. Families affected by imprisonment experience grief and readjustment throughout the course of arrest, trial, imprisonment and release. You may have difficulty getting the information and support you need to help you feel in control during periods of crisis and stress.
Grandparents and other members of the extended family often step in to look after the children when a parent, especially a mother, is in prison. Only a minority of the children of women prisoners are cared for by their father. A survey carried out by the Home Office in 1995 found that only half of women prisoners had expected to be given a custodial sentence, so had not made any child care arrangements. The sudden and unexpected imprisonment of a mother often causes great problems for the whole family.
In this section we look at some of the specific emotional and practical issues related to caring for a child with a parent in prison, and the sources of support for prisoners’ families. You may also need information and advice on benefits, housing or legal arrangements for the care of the children. See our other advice pages or call our advice line on 0300 123 7015.
What do we tell the children?
This is your decision, but it is widely acknowledged that children cope better when you are honest with them about what has happened and where their parent has gone. By being open with children you will show them that it is ok to ask questions and talk about how they feel.
The child may have seen their parent arrested, and this can be very traumatic. Children who have witnessed the arrest need explanations and reassurance to help them deal with this shocking experience.
A sudden disappearance of a parent without explanation can leave a child feeling confused and scared. This is especially true when the adults around them are upset or angry. Children often internalise their feelings which can result in nightmares, tantrums and withdrawal from others.
It is tempting to believe that a child is too young to understand, or is not aware of what is going on. But even very small children sense tension or upset at home. A simple explanation that a young child can understand may relieve at least some of the anxiety. Lack of information, on the other hand, may make children insecure and afraid. There is also the risk they will find out some other way.
You may be able to explain in simple terms to a very young child, but older children need much more information, and they will get it somehow. If you tell them yourself, you can control the quality of that information and have some influence over its emotional impact.
Of course, each child is different and you will know the individual personalities in your family. What works for one child may not be a good idea for another, and it is always important that you take decisions that suit the needs of the individual child.
Children may need reassurance that their mum or dad still loves and cares for them. They need to know that it is not their fault that their parent has gone away and, if possible, how long they will be in prison. Reassure the child that their parent is not a bad person, even if they have done something wrong. You can also talk about contact with their mum or dad.
It can be more difficult knowing what to tell a child if the parent has committed a sexual or violent offence, or a crime against the other parent or another family member.
What, and how, to tell the children may be one of the most important challenges you will face. Advice and support is available from the organisations listed below. You can download a leaflet by Action for Prisoners’ Families called The Outsiders – Telling the Children here. This leaflet contains advice on how to talk to children about their parent’s imprisonment and how to deal with their reactions to the situation.
The child’s feelings and behaviour
Every child and every family copes in a different way with having a family member in prison. Children may experience a strong sense of loss or have muddled feelings about the parent who is in prison. They may feel guilty, angry, resentful, let down or ashamed. They may even blame themselves. Some children show few signs of being upset and appear to cope as if nothing has happened. Others become so distressed that their whole personality seems to alter. Their behaviour may change and become difficult to cope with.
The effect imprisonment has on the child’s relationships with their friends and peer group will depend on the nature of the parent’s offence and how other people in your community react.
Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to prevent other people from knowing about your situation, especially if it has been reported in the press. This may mean that people say or do things that upset you or the child you are caring for. Children need to know that they can turn to you, and perhaps other close relatives and friends or their teacher, for support, reassurance and comfort.
If you have serious concerns about the mental/emotional welfare of the child and feel they are not coping well, you can ask your GP to refer them to the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for counselling. It’s also a good idea to keep the school informed as they may be able to help – many schools have staff or volunteers who can provide counselling or art or play therapy. Don’t feel embarrassed or that you have failed as a carer if the child is suffering from depression or anxiety because of their parent’s imprisonment – this is a common response to a very stressful situation and you must seek help for them.
Dealing with your own feelings
Whilst trying to support the child you are caring for, you may be struggling with your own feelings. If it is your son or daughter who is in prison you may feel guilty or angry. This is only natural, and is bound to last for a while. Remember that they are responsible for their own behaviour. However hard we may try to influence our children, they are also influenced by their friends, peer group and other influences in society and make their own decisions.
If your son or daughter is depressed or suffering difficulties in prison, you may feel desperate at being unable to help.
You may be worried that the parent’s criminal behaviour will influence the choices that the child makes as he or she grows up. Whilst studies have shown that the children of prisoners are more likely to go on to offend themselves, remember that there are many other factors involved. Children and young people are also influenced by other people they feel a connection with. If you can provide the child with a secure home, a good example of behaviour and respect for others, and if there are other positive role models in their life, this will act against the factors which make offending more likely.
You may find it helpful to seek support from others in the same situation through support groups for prisoners’ families (see below). Many families have also found support from youth and community workers, faith groups or other agencies in the community.
Keeping in touch
Unless a child is very young, you can support them to make their own choices about contact with a parent in prison – whether by post, telephone calls or visits. Take account of the child’s wishes and feelings about whether and how they want to keep in touch.
In some circumstances it may be too distressing, or even harmful for the child to have contact with their parent, for example where a parent has committed a violent offence towards the other parent or towards the child.
Parents may be in prison a long distance away. There are far fewer women’s prisons than men’s, so face-to-fact contact with a mother in prison may be especially difficult. For children visiting, this can mean a long complicated journey, an early start and a day off school.
Even so, visits are often of great benefit to both the child and the parent in prison. Actually seeing mum or dad may help the child cope better – they may be able to see that despite the difficult circumstances, the ‘missing’ parent is alive and well and is the same person as before who still loves them. This can help them come to terms with the situation.
Regular visits may enable children to maintain their relationship with a parent who is in prison, and the parent to keep in touch with their child growing up. Research has shown that prisoners who remain in close touch with their families are less likely to reoffend on release than prisoners who lose that contact.
If the child wants to visit their parent, but you don’t want to, somebody else may be able to take them – such as a friend, relative or social worker. Equally, if the child doesn’t want to see their parent, respect their feelings. If you think it would be helpful for a child but they are resistant to contact, could you suggest to the parent that they write to the child, perhaps to let them know how much they are missing them?
You need to focus on the child’s best interests and try to separate these from your own feelings towards the parent. You may find it helpful to talk through your feelings with one of the support organisations listed below.
Children have to learn to cope with a new type of relationship with a parent in prison. Visiting mum or dad is bound to be a strange and sometimes frightening experience. The child may look forward to the visit but may then be disappointed because of the restrictions imposed when they get there. They may resent not doing any of the things they used to enjoy with mum or dad at home.
Children can often cope better if they know what to expect. Talk to them about what is likely to happen on the visit. If you can, visit the prison without the child at first. This will help you to prepare for visiting with the child and answering any questions they may have before the visit. Ormiston publishes two picture books Visiting My Mum and Visiting My Dad which may help you to prepare a young child for a visit.
Many prisons now have visitors’ centres that are run by voluntary organisations to make visiting more child friendly. They are usually situated outside the prison gates and staffed by family support workers and volunteers who can offer information and support to family members.
Some prisons have play areas within the prison visits hall, with toys and games and playworkers, which can help children to feel safer, less stressed and better able to deal with the separation from their imprisoned parents.
Prisons are beginning to recognise the value of good quality family time. They may offer special ‘family visit’ days, giving prisoners the chance to spend some quality time with their loved ones in a more relaxed environment and outside the constraints of a normal visit. Family visits usually give families the chance to participate in activities together.
Children will react differently to visiting a prison. Some may take it in their stride whilst others may be upset. Prison conditions can make a visit quite distressing and children under stress often behave out of character, perhaps seeming unusually withdrawn or attention seeking. Try to be relaxed with the child . Reassure them that what they are feeling is normal and that they can talk to you about their feelings whenever they need to.
Help with the cost of prison visits
If you are a close relative of the prisoner and you are receiving benefits or are on a low income, you should be able to claim for assistance with travel costs for two visits every four weeks from the Assisted Prison Visits Unit (APVU). In certain circumstances, this may include an allowance for meals and an overnight stay. To make a claim, you should fill in an APVU form, which is available at the prison, the visitors’ centre and benefit offices. For more information, phone the APVU on 0300 063 2100 or click here.
Help and Support
No one is automatically notified that a child has a parent in prison and unless the child is already known to Children’s Services, or assessed as a child in need, they are unlikely to receive any specific support. For information on how to get support from Children’s Services, contact our advice service.
You do not have to inform the child’s school that their parent is in prison, but it might be a good idea so they can be alert to any changes in the child’s behaviour and their need for extra support. Schools can also authorise a child’s absence in order for them to visit a parent in prison (under current DfE guidelines).
There is advice and support available for the children and families of prisoners from the national helplines listed below. There are also some local services providing face-to-face support.
You may find it helpful to get in touch with others who are going through similar experiences. The Offenders’ Families Helpline will be able to tell you if there are any support groups available in your area.
A number of the organisations listed below produce useful books, leaflets and other publications. Action for Prisoners Families has four ‘Outsiders Guides’, with the titles: Sent to Prison, Telling the Children, Living with Separation and Preparing for Release. It also publishes a booklet for young people with a relative in prison. These publications can all be downloaded here.
Your family’s need for support may not end when the parent is released. Separation through imprisonment changes family relationships, and the whole family may need time to adjust. The Offenders’ Families Helpline and some of the other services listed below offer emotional support and practical advice at this time.
Action For Prisoners Families (APF)
APF produces a number of leaflets and other publications aimed at prisoners’ families.
Support for families and friends of offenders facing possible ‘life’/long prison sentences. AFFECT provides a range of support services in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, West Sussex and Dorset areas and national telephone support. Amongst the services offered are: face to face or telephone counselling, telephone support, group meetings and befriending and court support.
Email a Prisoner
Email a Prisoner aims to help family members and friends communicate more easily and frequently with prisoners. Messages can be sent via the website, it takes only a few minutes to sign up and the message gets delivered to the prison safely, securely and rapidly for 35p per message .
The only national charity in Scotland that works solely to support the families of people involved in the criminal justice system. They work to mitigate the effects of imprisonment on children and families – and consequently to reduce the likelihood of reoffending – through support and information for families and for the people who work with them.
Offenders’ Families Helpline (England and Wales)
Helpline: 0808 808 2003 Monday – Friday 9am – 8pm, weekends 10am – 3pm Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
This helpline offers information and support to offenders’ families, from arrest through to release and beyond. The website has lots of information for families who have come into contact with the Criminal Justice System as a result of a family member’s offending behaviour.
PACT supports people affected by imprisonment, providing practical and emotional support to prisoners’ children and families, and to prisoners themselves.
Prison Chat UK
Prison Chat UK is a group of people who have family members in prison in the UK, providing a support/ online chat facility for people like them. The aim is to provide a place where families and friends of British inmates can meet and share advice and support.
Helpline: 0808 172 0098 Mon, Tues 9.30am-6.00pm, Weds-Fri 9.30am-4.30pm.
This organisation provides direct help to prisoners abroad including grants for food and emergency medical care, and supports families of British citizens held overseas – offering information, advice or just someone to talk to.
This service provides telephone information and support. It also offers a befriending service, providing home visits to prisoners’ families in the London area.
Prison Reform Trust
An independent UK charity working to create a just, humane and effective penal system.The website contains information for prisoners’ families, including an A-Z list of factsheets from organisations that the Prison Reform Trust works with.
Women in Prison
Women in Prison supports and campaigns for women affected by the Criminal Justice System.