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Who is looking after the ‘unseen children’?

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When mothers are imprisoned the impact on them and their children is significant. Dr Shona Minson recently presented research findings to the Quality Circle on mothers who are in prison and the impact on their children. Often these are women who are given short sentences for non-violent offences, may have suffered domestic abuse and are more likely to be single parents. Aside from their loss of freedom, the consequences for these mothers can include extreme anxiety and stress, losing their home, stopping of benefits, not being able to attend family law proceedings, and most importantly, being separated from their children and sometimes not even knowing who is looking after them.

Dr Minson told the meeting that judges often did not consider, or even ask, if a woman had dependent children. Pre-sentence reports are not always requested and do not require information about children to be included. Custodial sentences are not necessarily anticipated by the women and sometimes they may have been advised that because they are mothers, they would avoid prison sentences. As a result, they may not have identified who could and would look after their children if they were sentenced to prison. Kinship arrangements may be made in haste. There is a right to ask for pre-sentence reports for safeguarding reasons, and this is something that social workers and family lawyers need to be actively advocating for.

Children in kinship arrangements face many challenges. Anxiety about the future, maintaining family relationships, disrupted education, lack of emotional and educational support, difficulties with peer relationships are but a few. For those children whose mothers are in prison, there is an added element of stigma, loss and lack of understanding. Like many children living with kinship families they may not want or feel able to share their story or circumstances. The knock on – and damaging – effect is that schools and health professionals may not be aware of the fact that a child isn’t living with either of their parents.

More than 160,000 children in the UK are living in kinship arrangements. Many of these are informal and unsupported with kinship carers not knowing where to access information or support for themselves and the children they care for. How do we find out about informal kinship arrangements and support the carers and these children who have suffered loss and trauma? Their needs will be on a par with many children who have been removed from their parents and placed in the care of the local authority yet little may be known by professionals about their experiences and circumstances.

Support with family time and maintaining relationships is often cited as a key need for kinship carers. Taking children to see their mother in prison is a daunting prospect and sometimes seen as potentially harmful. Dr Minson highlighted the need to promote a child’s ongoing bond with their mother, where safe, and the need for carers and social workers to understand the additional preparation and after visit care these children will need make sure it is a positive and meaningful experience. Carers of children in informal arrangements whose mothers are in prison will find it harder to access this vital support. This is compounded by the additional costs incurred, placing strain on those who are likely to be struggling financially.

Children who are not living with their parents may say that they don’t want to see their parents. For some this will be connected to the reasons why they have been removed and are living elsewhere; for others, it may be because visiting times are restricted so that it impacts on school or weekend activities leading to conflicting feelings for the child. Family courts can also take a negative view of parents if visits haven’t taken place – which can have implications for care planning.

As we wait for the government’s response to the Final Report of The Independent Review of Children's Social Care, the Quality Circle meeting highlighted the need for early Family Group Conferences to consider planning for all children. This is especially pertinent for children whose mothers may be sent to prison. Family Network Plans could be invaluable in making clear, possibly short-term plans, for children whose lives are going to be disrupted.

We need to widen our own knowledge and raise awareness of children in informal kinship arrangements with colleagues working in education, health and the judiciary. We need to do this better. The research is clear. Children whose needs aren’t being met and whose carers will be struggling to meet them without help are out there. And we need to find them and make sure we are curious, ask the right questions and enable them to access the support they need.


Clare Seth, Kinship Consultant, CoramBAAF


You can find useful information here:

Visiting Mum | Prison Advice and Care Trust

Sussex Prisoners' Families

"This is Me": A Child Impact Assessment toolkit | Prison Reform Trust