It seems as if the winds of change in the family courts are blowing in two opposite directions – as fast as the President moves to clean up the system and make it more sophisticated and user-friendly, half-baked pixies inside the system are waving their wicked wands and sentencing parents and family members to prison for failing to disclose the whereabouts of children subject to care orders and other family law proceedings.
And whilst we are in no way sanctioning non-disclosure in situations where children are at risk and in need of locating, two very obvious sentiments emanate from this recent spate of jail-happy judges imprisoning parents in a seemingly never-ending stream of hearings: jail time in this context helps and serves no one, placing inordinate financial pressures on already struggling families, which play out in the family unit and manifest through heightened tension and emotional instability, and very often, children who are shielded from the court process in this way are shielded because the system has let them down.
It is worth noting that most of these jail sentences are in part, symbolic – often prescribed in terms of short stays in prison, usually reduced or halved (though at the end of the day it still goes on your record), but no word yet on whether these spells in jail make tight-lipped parents talk. It is also hugely damaging for children to grow up knowing their parents have been subject to a prison term. Here are some cases over the last few months where judges have decided a stint in prison is the order of the day for parents and family members:
- Mrs Justice Theis, November 2013 Mother Jailed for Refusing to Disclose Whereabouts of Children We do not yet know whether the court had any information at all on the children – such as whether they were being cared for by someone other than the mother, because, gosh, that could mean these young children could be on their own right now, or being neglected or abused by another. We await the judgment on BAILII
- Mr Justice Keehan, October 2013 Family Jailed for Not Revealing Girl’s Location – the article does not explain whether the prison term for these relatives was instrumental in the mother returning to the UK after taking her daughter abroad
- Mr Justice Bodey, May 2013, Father is Jailed for Refusing to Return Children To Their Mother
- Judge David McHugh, Ireland, January 2013 Mother Jailed For Keeping Kids Off School
The very real problem of non disclosure and other concerns the family courts must deal with on a daily basis should not be trivialised, but whilst the problems are serious, and it may seem as if intense punishments are the order of the day, they neither deter desperate parents nor improve the outcomes for children.
Barnardo’s Policy and Practice briefing on parents in prison offers some positives to parents being jailed, but it’s hard to take this research seriously when considering that these parents are unlikely to rock the boat and criticise their time in prison for fear of any possible repercussions should they do so. The impact of a parent in prison on children though, is highlighted in this report and is, to our mind at least, the most important factor of all. The report cites research which shows that children can suffer severe emotional, behavioural and social reactions as a result. These include:
- Becoming quiet and withdrawn
- ‘Acting up’, with caregivers as a result of parent’s absence
- Shyness with parents during visits
There is also evidence that children who witness their parents in jail, or who have parents who are jailed, are, sometimes, more likely to go on and offend themselves.
So, please, let’s have a conversation inside the family justice system on effective handling of cases like these – a conversation which, we would modestly suggest, should focus more on support and family care, than on incarceration of minds and bodies.