What happens to a child when one of his or her parents goes to prison, and what is life like for that child?

With more and more parents scared that local authorities will take their children into care if they ask for help, mothers and fathers who face a custodial sentence are unlikely to reach out for support. The stigma of a parent in prison is also a powerful deterrent to reaching out.

Despite this obvious gap in support, the government still has no system in place to identify and protect these children.

In this podcast, we hear from children who have, or have had parents in prison, and the ways this has affected their mental health, including one child who was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, after police routinely raided his home.

Sarah Burrows, the founder of award winning charity Children Heard and Seen, explains the often frightening and lonely experiences of these children, and why more needs to be done to support them.

You can listen to the Voice of the Child here.

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Image of Sarah courtesy of the Big Issue.

Useful Links:

Children Heard and Seen Impact Report

Human Rights and the Government’s response to COVID-19: children whose mothers are in prison

BBC Woman’s Hour interview with Sarah Burrows

Changemakers: Sarah Burrows ensures prisoners’ kids are heard and seen



1 (12s):
Hi and welcome to the Voice of the Child. 310,000 children in England and Wales have a parent in prison. And before the coronavirus pandemic, 10,000 visits to prison were made every week by these children to see a parent. But information about these children is so limited that when their mother or father goes to prison, there’s no system in place to make sure they’re safe. They just fall through the cracks. Sarah burrows is the founder of award-winning charity, Children Heard and Seen, which gives a voice to children with parents in prison and aims to offset the impact parental imprisonment can have on children, which can lead to family break down poor mental health and offending.

1 (49s):
Sarah has received the government’s prestigious Points of Light award for her work. And in 2019, her charity received the Queen’s award for its services. Sarah, why did you decide to start Children Heard and Seen?

0 (1m 1s):
I started Children Heard and Seen, because I was really concerned, to find out there wasn’t any provision for children who have parents in prison. And I was working in the youth offending service in Oxfordshire as a pre-court prevention manager. So looking at children and people who were entering the criminal justice system for the first time, and I was quite surprised to see how many of those children had a parent in prison and made an assumption that there would be a support service out there for them and had a look around and realized that there wasn’t anything actually for them, that was basically community.

0 (1m 36s):
So decided to set something up because I was particularly alarmed about 65% of boys with a parent in prison going on to offend I’m thinking, well, it’s quite a stark figure and actually let’s do something about it. Since starting the charity, although obviously the offending is quite important, it’s much more about the shame, stigma and the loneliness that these children experience and the secrecy around having a parent in prison.

1 (2m 8s):
What’s life like for children from the moment one of their parents gets taken into custody through the trial process and beyond?

0 (2m 16s):
So every child, it’s really different. So if a child is actually living in a home of the parent who was arrested or happened to be staying with them, that has happened in quite a few cases, they often witnessed the arrest and that actually has been quite traumatic for children. If they aren’t in the home with a parent, they obviously still have the trauma of the parents suddenly not being around. Sometimes children are told that they’ve gone away, they’ve gone on holiday.

0 (2m 49s):
So children don’t actually know, but they have a sense there’s something wrong. And then they can actually find out in the school playground that their parent is in prison or the, they can be with the parent who is no longer with a partner and have their own feelings about the ex partner having been arrested and the child is having to navigate those feelings.

1 (3m 8s):
How else does the experience affect children? Obviously there are going to be, as you say, a variety of different kinds of experiences, but what do they see day to day as they’re going through that process with their parents?

0 (3m 20s):
I think it’s much more about the isolation and shame and loneliness that the children feel. I mean, we’re currently providing online support and as it’s the end of term we’ve being going out to different schools, seeing if children would like support and we get comments that we don’t have children like that in our school. And to say something that we haven’t got children like that actually sort of reinforces that view of why children must be struggling.

0 (3m 51s):
I’m sure that they do have children with a parent in prison and in school, you know, it’s estimated from the quest data that is 312,000 children a year do, but it’s a, it’s an attitude. And so I think children, it just reinforces that bit of coping with the loss of the parent, or they could have been the victim of the parent’s offending themselves, or their parent could have been the victim of offending. Or they could be missing the parent, this is a host of different things, but it’s that isolation and not being able to, to talk about it.

0 (4m 23s):
And we all know that it’s much better to be able to talk about things. If you have experienced traumatic things happening to you. Also one of the, one of the challenges and difficulties that children experience is if other people know about the parent’s offending, then they can suffer greatly. So one of the things that we would like as an organization not to happen is the person who has committed the offense and who who’s facing the sentence, or who has been sentenced’s address to be published because that is obviously identifying where children are living.

0 (4m 58s):
And we have had children that have been very badly beaten up at school. We have had children who’ve had faeces through their letter box and we have had children that have witnessed their other parent being assaulted all for the other parent’s offending as if in some way that, that the family is responsible for that parent, offending.

1 (5m 22s):
That’s all incredibly traumatic. In terms of alert systems or processes within either the justice system or the social care system, are there any kind of indicators for child welfare professionals when a child’s parent goes into custody?

0 (5m 39s):
There isn’t any, there isn’t any national, no national databases about who these children might be. There’s no system set up about having a parent in prison. For instance, with the school submissions entering the school, you’re asked if your child’s on the child protection register, or if you’re part of the military, but there’s nothing in terms of children whose parents are in prison. And so children, schools obviously don’t routinely ask. So they wouldn’t know. And there isn’t anything through the courts for finding out who these children might be.

0 (6m 11s):
So children slip through the net.

1 (6m 13s):
So there’s no process which actually triggers as soon as a child’s parent goes into prison?

0 (6m 17s):
No, there’s none at all. And in fact, we’re quite a small charity. And yet I think our provision is probably the largest in the country for children, with their parents in prison, based in the community. And it’s really, really small.

1 (6m 30s):
How many children are you currently supporting through the charity?

0 (6m 35s):
Currently we’re supporting about 200 children, that has increased by about 50 since lockdown because we very quickly put all our support services online. Prior to lockdown, we were offering children, one-to-one mentoring, a mentor, volunteer mentors with the child for a year to 18 months, different group work, provision and programs, and also one-to-one support with a specialist worker. So when lockdown happened we put our services very quickly online.

0 (7m 9s):
We did a second hand laptop collection with a volunteer who kindly wiped all the laptops, we got all the children connected. So we could then provide online support. Our spin off us has been that obviously we don’t need to just stay in our geographical areas and have children from different parts of the country and the parent or grandparent caring for them, accessing our support.

1 (7m 35s):
Have you ever come across any cases where a child has been left without anyone at all to care for them because there’s no alert process or system in place to identify these children?

0 (7m 44s):
We have had cases where the parent didn’t expect to have a custodial sentence. And so therefore hadn’t made provision for the child to be picked up from school.

1 (7m 55s):
And what happened to that child?

0 (7m 57s):
She found her friends at school and asked if she could keep her daughter.

1 (8m 2s):
Why are children just not being identified when a parent goes to prison? Why is there no support system in place for them on a national scale?

0 (8m 10s):
I guess that it, it doesn’t fit into a government department, children, the parents in prison. So there isn’t a particular department that would, that would be capturing this data to find out and parents will be very reluctant to disclose as well. They would be concerned that in some way that social care might get involved and remove their children. And there isn’t, there isn’t an incentive for families to disclose that they have a parent or partner in prison at school. You know, if the events I talked about, you know, of being bullied, being assaulted, why would children and their families identify unless there’s some provisional support, why would they anyway,

1 (8m 53s):
Is there a balance that could be struck to ensure that that support

0 (8m 56s):
Is provided without making families feel like they’re being targeted or threatened in any way? Yeah, definitely. I do think it’d be really good in terms of trying with school admissions and being seen as a group that actually needs support and being given support. So I think, but it has to come with identification. It has to come with the support. The Joint Committee on human rights, published a report on the 29th of June, examining the effects of COVID-19 on children and their ability to see their mothers in prison during the outbreak.

0 (9m 31s):
I think it was just focusing on mothers, this particular report, and Children Heard and Seen engaged in this report. What did you share with the Committee and what were the main findings of that report? We were asked if any children wanted to talk about the impact and the effect of having their mother in prison. And so two families gave evidence as audios. One of the families had five children and they found it two of the children, gave evidence.

0 (10m 2s):
There was six, six year olds in the eight year old. And it did take a few days to do because they found it so painful and they, they miss their mother so much, their mother was coming out on resettlement. So she was coming out five days out of every 14 days. So they were seeing her and obviously it was lockdown, they weren’t seeing her. So it was really important to get their views across and to be heard. And then the other family that we spoke to, it was a baby of one.

0 (10m 33s):
And obviously he’s pre-verbal. So the impact of not being able to have the visits. What did the children who were able to speak and express their thoughts, say to the Committee? It’s much more around the pain that they were experiencing about missing them greatly and wanting their mother around. I think after the Committee met, they then gave their recommendations. And what was really interesting in their recommendations was that one of the things was that it should be mandatory to ask all women entering prison, whether they have dependent children and what their ages are, it would be great to actually have it as mandatory to ask men and women entering whether they have dependent children and focusing on the children and seeing what support could be offered.

0 (11m 18s):
You also collected the thoughts of some of these children, which you very kindly shared with the program. So this is what the children had to say about having a parent in prison and what life is like for them in their own words:

2 (11m 29s):
I was asleep in my bed and eight police officers bust into his house at nighttime. I was absolutely terrified. I am too scared to sleep in my own bed at night. So I sleep in with my mom. I don’t like the dark anymore because I am scared of people bursting into the house and shouting. Someone came up to me in school and said that there’s a rumour running around that your dad is in prison. And I cried and I wasn’t ready for everyone to know. Everyone assumes that we all visit, but we don’t.

2 (11m 59s):
I find it really difficult because I am not allowed to see my dad. He is in prison for hurting my sister, the prison won’t let me see my dad. And this makes me really angry. I used to spend time with my dad when I got angry and now I don’t have him to talk to. I feel angry all the time and I can’t concentrate at school and I keep getting excluded. When we visit, we aren’t given enough time. It’s a really intimidating experience. It can end with no 10 minute warning when you just have to get up and leave.

2 (12m 31s):
Is it fair that we should be punished by losing a visit, even though our parents haven’t acted good by not seeing them. Before Children Heard and Seen, there was no support for us as a family about dad going to prison. Support would have been very helpful for my mum as she has to look after all of us. It wasn’t fair that my dad was moved to a prison that was really far away. I’ve only visited three times over the whole year. The rule that should be changed. If people in prison have children, they should be moved as close as possible.

2 (13m 2s):
So it’s easy for the children to have contact. If my dad was closer then I’d be able to see him more often. My house has been raided multiple times. This has really impacted me and I feel really unsafe in my own home. I have now been diagnosed with PTSD.

0 (13m 21s):
Some of these experiences are very vivid and quite frightening, but it’s wonderful that Children Heard and Seen are able to offer children support. And they’re clearly very happy to have found you. How were those clips produced? We attended a children’s voice conference at New Oxfordshire safeguarding board just before lockdown and the conference was giving children a voice. And obviously the children decided what they would like to talk about at the conference. And the, the children all put their experiences together as quotes and then other children at the conference stood up and presented the other children’s voices.

0 (13m 59s):
So we could give anonymity, but they were all real experiences that the children have had experienced. The last audio clip, featured a child talking about an experience which led to the child in that particular experience, getting PTSD. Do you think that that is perhaps a, a hidden issue within children in this context, and are there more children, do you think who are suffering from PTSD as a result of what’s happening and the lack of support available? Yes. I think going back to PTSD children have been diagnosed with it, particularly for ones that have witnessed the arrest in the home.

0 (14m 37s):
And it’s that for them is very frightening. Also children who have witnessed severe domestic violence from their parent towards their mother and resulting in arrest and needing to keep that secret. So we had one little boy whose father had knocked his mother out. So she was unconscious, and he served a prison sentence, but did not want to say to school at school, what the offense was.

0 (15m 12s):
So he was telling his friends that his father was in for murder and school were appalled that he could do this. And couldn’t actually see that the child was doing it because to actually talk about his father having done that to his mother was too painful for him.

1 (15m 30s):
Do you think that there’s a lack of awareness generally around how these children are affected by one of their parents going into prison?

0 (15m 37s):
Definitely. I think there’s so many different things that happen with the, with the children and, and what they, what they experienced. And it is that bit about what just, just being so isolated of the, of that experience of having a parent in prison, you know, for the ones that go and visit they’re being searched, the waiting, going in, do they say to people at school they’ve gone to see that parent in prison? Do they not? You know, just yeah, they’re just the general bit that families, when they visit, they’re not near, you know, there could be anywhere in the country.

0 (16m 15s):
I think at one stage in Oxfordshire when we were supporting about 150 children at that time, they were in 41 different prisons across the country. You know, people make assumptions that it’s sort of the local prison. That’s where the families go to, but obviously they’re, they’re going everywhere. There’s different categories. It depends on what’s available. So, you know, families have a long way to travel as well.

1 (16m 39s):
In one of the audio clips that we just listened to, one of the children says that she can’t see her dad or she, or he can’t see their dad and that one of the reasons for that is because he is in prison for hurting their sister. And there’s obviously a very complex bond there in terms of a little person or a child just wanting to be with their parent, despite something they’ve done, which may potentially have been traumatic for them, or put a strain on that bond. I think that highlights the complexity of family ties and why we perhaps need to be a little bit more careful about how we handle those ties during a process like this.

1 (17m 17s):
What kind of changes would you like to see to make sure that children are not unnecessarily removed or those ties are not unnecessarily severed or damaged during a process like this?

0 (17m 27s):
I think it has to be individual support for the families and looking at the complexities and what is going on in the family and it needs to be support for the family and, and looking at what the relationships are. And is it looking at it from the child’s perspective, much more than is done currently really is. Does it benefit the child to see the parent instead of does it benefit the parents? There’s a lot of about there’s a lot, you know, particularly from Lord Farmer’s review that it reduces the offending of the,sorry, it reduces the re-offending of the parents.

0 (18m 5s):
But what about from the family’s perspective? How important is it for the children to see their parents? There shouldn’t ever be pressure on the children to feel that they need to see the parent. They’re not a tool for that parent’s re offending it’s it’s what is right for that child and relationships that have ended between couples and the child is with another partner that we have. We’ve had situations where the father is in for an offense, and it was a previous domestic violent relationship.

0 (18m 39s):
And then he’s trying to use the child as a tool to, to get at the mother. Every family is different and everything needs to be looked at, but without support, how can it be looked at?

1 (18m 52s):
COVID-19 is obviously having an impact on children with a parent in prison because of limits on visitation. What’s that like for, for children at the moment, how has that process gone, and have they been able to have some kind of meaningful contact during the last three months?

0 (19m 7s):
One of the difficulties of supporting children whose parents are in, you know, many different prisons across the country is how different it is for each child. So some have phones in their cells and they can speak to the child frequently and often, and they do. Some have calls once a week. Some have had video calls though. They’re only once a month and there’s a limit on numbers. So then families larger families have had to make decision which child could be left out and which, which children can be part of it.

0 (19m 45s):
It’s been really difficult for video calls because obviously they freeze if, if, if anybody moves. So for young children, they’re impossible. So there’s not been any consistency for anybody, for any, for any of the children. And obviously children have been sharing experiences and some have been able to have much more contact, although obviously not to be able to, to have gone to the prison, but they have actually had more content and some have had very little.

1 (20m 18s):
You were just saying that the video freezes, if somebody moves on the call,

0 (20m 22s):
Why is that? I think it’s a security. So it has to be that who is registered to be on that call. And when moves, it sets an alert.

1 (20m 34s):
That must be incredibly difficult if you’re having contact with small children who are a little bit fidgety or babies who have no awareness of, or very limited awareness of body control.

0 (20m 45s):
Yeah. Really, really difficult for families for that. Yeah. Just talked about, you know, that, that really looking forward to seeing somebody and then the frustration because it freezes and the time goes, and then it stops. The hardest one has been the nig family that had to couldn’t have two of the children doing the video calls because of the number of children in the house. And it meant that they had to wait for another month. That was really hard.

1 (21m 13s):
Some of the children have also talked to you about feeling like they’re being punished, if they’ve had contact removed or restricted, because a parent has perhaps not followed the code of conduct in prison or behaved badly within prison. How do you feel about that removal of contact in that context?

0 (21m 32s):
That one I just think should, I think the children should be a priority and there should be other ways of a prisoner being punished for whatever he’s done. Is is a punishment for the child, not to be able to see the parent, if they’ve lost that privilege, there must be other ways of losing privileges to enable the child to still see the parent. It is really important for some children to see the parent to know they’re safe.

0 (22m 1s):
They watch lots of things in television, They have this view of what it might look like, and it doesn’t look like it. And they just need reassurance that they, the parent is safe and well, and to be able to go and see the child, I’m sorry to go and see the parent and to lose that as a privilege. It just seems so unfair that we’re not thinking as a society about the children at all.

1 (22m 25s):
Children Heard and Seen has already done an enormous amounts for children who have a parent in prison, but what’s next for the charity?

0 (22m 34s):
I really hope that it isn’t too long until the children, there are more children that are identified, supported across the country, that there is a government department that takes responsibility for identifying children of them to be able to access support. And for ourselves, I hope we just continue to be able to support as many families which would like us to.