Working with families in different settings




When working with families, please bear in mind that many of them may be affected by imprisonment, and that:

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:

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:

Or, the scenario that affects everyone working with children and families:

A group of teachers has suggested the following guiding principles:

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:

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 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.

(Prisoner father)

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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:

Ormiston Families recommends involved professionals observe these practical points:

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)

Domestic abuse

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:

Falling wall