Working with families in different settings
- The NICCO knowledge hub
- Breaking down barriers
- Handling sensitive information
- Diversity and cultural issues
- Cultural differences in attitude to crime and punishment
- Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) prisoners
- Prisoners' children with special needs
- Crimes which are hard to talk about: murder, rape and sexual crimes
- Supporting children after a serious crime
- Domestic abuse
When working with families, please bear in mind that many of them may be affected by imprisonment, and that:
- there is a bewildering amount of information online, some of which is out-of-date - it's important to use a reputable source, and check its curency
- every prison is different in terms of its visiting regime. If a prisoner is moved, the visiting family has to learn a whole new procedure
- there are some really good websites and blogs to refer family members to. However bad it feels, they are not alone in the situation they are in
- it is important to keep schools informed. This makes any change in the children's behaviour or time off for visits easier to manage
- all professionals working with families should have information from organisations that support prisoners' families displayed and available in their workplace
- prisoners come from all backgrounds. Keep an open mind and encourage families to talk. It isn't the end of the world - even if it feels that way to them now.
The NICCO knowledge hub
NICCO (formerly i-HOP) was set up in 2013, funded by the Department for Education, to provide support and information to all professionals working with offenders' children and their families.
The NICCO publication Supporting Children and Families Affected by a Family Member's Offending - A Practitioner's Guide was published in 2017 as a comprehensive and practical resource aimed at all professionals who have direct contact with children and families.
Working in conjunction with NICCO, Greater Manchester Safeguarding partnership has produced its own guidance for working with children affected by familial imprisonment.
Breaking down barriers
Making a school, a health centre, a mother and toddler group or any place where parents gather, an easy place to come and talk about difficult and personal issues should be an integral part of the training and development of the staff in these venues.
Providing information about access to support through prominently displayed posters and leaflets is a basic and effective way of supporting families. One of the best places to give information about issues which many people are reluctant to show an interest in publicly is on the inside of toilet doors, from where details can be quickly transferred to a mobile phone.
A list of agencies offering different forms of support can be found in our Resources section.
Having a room where things can be discussed in private also encourages people to discuss difficult matters. Poor literacy and lack of English will discourage people from picking up leaflets, but if they wish to talk to someone they need to be confident that they can have a conversation in private.
Where a professional working with children suspects, or knows, because it has been all over the local media, that a child they know has had a family member sent to prison, this places them in a difficult position and they should consider whether:
- the carer told the child - if not, is this to protect the child?
- the child told the carer of difficulties that have arisen - if not, is this to protect the carer?
- the child has siblings - if so, they need to be treated as individuals with separate needs.
Ormiston Families' Breaking Barriers service
Ormiston's Breaking Barriers outreach service provides one-to-one support, at home, school and in the community, for children and young people (aged 5-16) affected by the imprisonment of a family member. Our practitioners can also provide presentations and training for professionals around the impact of familial imprisonment.
Visit our main website to find out more, or make a referral, or watch a short film about Breaking Barriers:
Handling sensitive information
Anyone working with children affected by the imprisonment of a family member may have to work within a variety of scenarios, eg:
- You know the family circumstances, the parent has told them, the child knows you know.
- You know from a variety of sources and from the child, but not from the home.
- You know from the parent/carer, but the child hasn't been told.
- You know about the imprisonment, but no one from the family has said anything.
Or, the scenario that affects everyone working with children and families:
- You have no idea which of the many families you work with may be affected by familial imprisonment.
A group of teachers has suggested the following guiding principles:
- Treat each child as an individual, even when you are working with siblings.
- Be non-judgemental - the child has not committed the crime.
- Avoid treating the child as a victim or being over-protective.
- Listen to the child and acknowledge their own preferences.
- Don''t ask about the crime.
Diversity and cultural issues
Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (formerly National Offender Management Service - NOMS) published a Prison Service Instruction in 2011 which covers all forms of equality, including equality for the disabled. It defines discrimination, harassment and victimisation and lists the duties of the Prison Service and staff in relation to these.
Prison Service Instruction 2011-032 - Ensuring Equality
NOMS [now HMPPS] is committed to fairness for all. We treat our staff properly and ensure equality of opportunity. We deliver our services fairly and respond to individual needs. We insist on respectful and decent behaviour from staff, offenders and others with whom we work. We recognise that discrimination, harassment and bullying can nevertheless occur and we take prompt and appropriate action whenever we discover them.
Cultural differences in attitude to crime and punishment
Any professional working with families is aware of the spectrum of cultures and beliefs in UK society. Here are some questions to consider before any support plan can be put in place. This will help to ensure that support will be presented in a way that is seen as sympathetic and practical:
- What are the attitudes to crime and punishment in the child's family and within the community?
- If someone from the child's community is sent to prison, how important is it to keep this information within the family?
- Are there different attitudes to different types of crime within the community?
- Who is most likely to have overall care of the children if a parent is sent to prison?
- What kind of support is most acceptable and helpful to a child with a family member in prison?
The arrest and sentencing of any member of the Traveller community is talked about quite openly within the community, where it is impossible to keep it a secret. However, with very few exceptions, this information would not be given to anyone outside the community.
(Traveller parent, Suffolk)
Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) prisoners
Families and partners of LGBT prisoners are often very concerned about their safety and wellbeing. There are sources of information online that may help them face the time of separation. A search of the blog prisonuk.blogspot.com will find at least one contribution about one man's experience.
The Bent Bars Project is a letter-writing project for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, gender-variant, intersex, and queer prisoners in Britain. The project was founded in 2009, responding to a clear need to develop stronger connections and build solidarity between LGBTQ communities inside and outside prison walls.
Prisoners' children with special needs
Prisoners and their partners are particularly concerned that their children with special educational needs, who already may be a target for bullying, may become more vulnerable if the news of a parent's imprisonment becomes known in their community and school.
She's dyslexic, and got bullied when she went to secondary school. Then with her dad away... she's at a different school now and getting help with reading. I haven't told the new school about her dad.
(Mother, partner of prisoner)
Parents may also be reluctant to bring children on visits if they find strange surroundings stressful. Many children on the autistic spectrum find search procedures intolerable, other children may have a phobia of dogs.
My 4-year-old has just been diagnosed with significant hearing loss. This explains why he has been so naughty on visits - because he can't hear what we are saying to him over all the other noise in the visits hall.
Most children experience confusion, shame and anger if a parent is sent to prison. A child who has difficulties in asking questions, accessing and absorbing information, or reading for themselves is likely to be even more upset and confused.
It is important that any such issues are understood by the prison when visits are booked. It is likely the prison staff will be able to make the visit easier, but only if they are aware of the situation. Other agencies such as the staff in visits centres may be able to offer support, including special children's or family visits, which are more relaxed and child-focused.
Prison chaplains are available to talk to prisoners of all faiths and none. Families need to be made aware that their family member in prison has access to someone to whom they can talk, and who can make referrals if there are mental health concerns.
Chaplains can also ensure access to religious books, help with dietary restrictions, provide discussion forums within prison education departments as well as providing worship sessions. At times of family crisis such as serious illness, or the death of a prisoner or close family member, the chaplaincy can provide support to the whole family.
Extract from a report by the Cardiff Centre for Chaplaincy Studies on behalf of the National Offender Management Service
- A diverse cross-section of the prison population of various faiths, and indeed of no faith, values the presence and contribution of prison chaplaincy to the
modern English and Welsh penal system.
- The role of the prison chaplain is not confined to the provision of religious services; extending to a central role in the provision of support services for prisoners, and in some cases staff, especially for those in crisis.
Professionals working with a family may have access to the chaplaincy team if they request this from the prison. It is possible then to speak directly to a chaplain or to leave a message on a secure voicemail system.
Crimes which are hard to talk about: murder, rape and sexual crimes
The community and the media, with their interest in crimes such as murder, rape and paedophilia can add to the distress of a child who has a parent convicted of one of these offences. Rumour and speculation are intense. There can be heightened local tension and reaction as the story unfolds from arrest, to court, to sentence. The offender's family are left vulnerable whenever they have to face their local community, where reaction to the offence may be hostile and even violent.
There is nowhere to hide: at school everyone knows and social media follows the child home. These are also the most difficult offences for a child to talk about, both at home and to any outside support agency.
He has been in many fights at school, been excluded and moved schools quite a few times. The other children are taunting him saying 'your dad's a murderer'. Consequently he is sticking up for his dad.
(Class teacher, secondary school)
After the trial, family members have to make hard personal choices about their future relationship with the offender. It may be necessary to relocate to another area, which means a change of school and loss of friends for the children. The sentence may be a long one, creating permanent rifts between family members.
My daughter knows I'm here - she comes on visits. She knows everything that is suitable for a 6-year-old. She has no idea about what the length of my sentence means.
(Prisoner mother, serving life sentence for murder)
If the offence is murder or manslaughter it is usually possible for the family to remain in contact and for the children to visit the offender. Exceptions can be where the murder is within the family.
My family have told my sons that I am dead, so they have lost both parents.
(Female prisoner serving life sentence for murder of her abusive partner)
Supporting children after a serious crime
How can we as a school support these two children whose father has just been found guilty of abusing their friend?
(Class teacher, primary school)
My daughter is having to go to school after the whole school saw her father on Crimewatch.
(Mother, partner a suspect in several rape cases)
Anyone working with children and families in this situation needs to consider:
- the wishes of the family as to how information is handled and how many agencies will be involved
- the ages of the children in the family involved. Children old enough to understand may display a range of difficult behaviours, anger being the most common, and may refuse support. Younger children who do not know details will be sad and upset at the loss of their parent
- how much the children have been told. Older children may know, but their family may think they don't
- that children of a convicted sex offender may not have been abused themselves but have to grow up with the knowledge of their parent's offence. This may have long-term consequences for their mental health and emotional wellbeing
- some cases resurface many times in the media over months and years. Reports, including photographs of people and places are a constant reminder to families who, even if they have moved and changed their names, find it hard to put the trauma behind them.
Ormiston Families recommends involved professionals observe these practical points:
- Take a considered and consistent approach. All agencies involved need to be in communication wherever possible. There needs to be support for all affected by the crime, including the family of the offender
- Be very firm in stating that the offender's children are not guilty of the crime
- Ensure that everyone involved is listened to and that the confidentiality and privacy of all parties is respected. In a small community that has been shocked by a crime this can be really difficult. Schools, nurseries, health centres have to be clear that they have policies in place to protect everyone they work with
- Show awareness by creating opportunities to access support. It will be easier for children if there is an identified person to talk to, or somewhere to go for a bit of personal space
- Be prepared to say you do not understand why a crime has been committed
- Have a list of agencies/sources of help to pass on to families. There is an abundance of relevant information on the internet.
My teenage son is so angry he won't even stay in the room if his father is mentioned. His younger sister is desperate to see her dad and can't understand why this can't happen
(Mother of two children, partner remanded for online grooming of underage girls)
Where there has been domestic abuse, this is usually a pattern which can have been building up over a period of time. The absence of an abusive parent in prison may result in children growing in confidence, improving school performance and becoming more sociable and outgoing.
Problems may arise with the child as the time for the parent's release approaches, particularly if the parent is being released to their home address. Support for families should be well publicised by all agencies so they can get help if needed.
Main national agencies:
- www.refuge.org.uk (24-hour helpline 0808 2000 247)
- www.womensaid.org.uk (support for women and children)
- www.supportline.org.uk (support for women, men and children)