Prisons Week and Prisoners’ Sunday focus attention on those given custodial sentences. This year, the aim is also to highlight the plight of the children of those in custody – children whose welfare is often neglected by the courts
When Desmond dropped off his young son at primary school one morning he had no idea that he would be behind bars before the day was out. He was confident he would be released on bail when he appeared in court that morning on a charge of theft and so would be able to pick up his son from school. In the event, he was remanded in custody and did not tell the police, court or prison staff that he was the boy’s sole carer.
The child’s mother was already in prison for an earlier unrelated offence. By the time Desmond found himself in prison, it was 3 p.m. His son was due to leave school at 3.30 p.m. and would be expecting to see his father at the gate. Desmond had become increasingly agitated and prison staff were attempting to calm him down.
Church prisons charity Pact contacted the school and informed the staff of the situation, and managed to contact Desmond’s sister who agreed to look after the boy for a couple of days while something longer term was arranged. Eventually, the local authority’s children’s social care team got involved, providing support for the child and the family to avoid the need for the boy to be taken into care.
The case of Desmond’s son is just one of many in which children become the innocent victims of crime when their parents are imprisoned. All too often a parent is sentenced with no provision being made for the children left behind.
In another case, Annie, a grandmother, told of the shock she experienced when her daughter was sent to prison four years ago, leaving her two children with nowhere to go. Annie has been looking after her granddaughters ever since.
“No one believed she’d be sentenced. We thought she’d come home to the children so there was nothing prepared. We had to go home and tell the children that mum was not coming back,” said Annie. “There were tears and there still are tears, four years later. I don’t think they will ever recover.”
Annie says no one mentioned the two girls in court and describes them as “victims of a system that doesn’t care”, adding: “It’s not just the courts, there’s social services – there is no one there to help. I phoned social services and they said they’d provide £50. If I hadn’t taken the role they would have been taken into care.”
Cassie told of a similar experience when she ended up looking after her sister’s three children after she was imprisoned, saying: “There was no support on the criminal side. I don’t think the court was aware of the children. When we asked for support, we never got it. The children’s services failed to provide anything.”
Cassie explained that her sister’s case had been very high profile and that media interest in the family was intense. “At one point, we had to move 200 miles to get away from the media. We were sworn at and spat at on the street. The kids were bullied in school. We couldn’t deal with it on a daily basis. We preferred to go somewhere where we were not known and could make a fresh start,” she said, adding that she also had to care for her own two children and that these, too, were “caught in the crossfire”.
In 2012, the parents of 160,000 children were sent to prison. More than 60 per cent of women prisoners are mothers and nearly half (45 per cent) had children living with them at the time of imprisonment. A quarter of men in young offenders’ institutions are already or about to become fathers.
Pact came across the problem when running its First Night in Custody programme at Holloway Prison.
“We found that when the mother was in prison, it was the grandparents, sisters and friends rather than partners caring for the children,” said Pact chief executive Andy Keen-Downs, who added that half the women who had children did not make this known. Of those who did, 34 per cent of their children were being cared for by grandparents, 27 per cent by the father and 10 per cent by social services.
Alan Lowe, a magistrate in Wigan and Leigh, Greater Manchester, has been campaigning on this issue for nine years, after the Archbishop of Liverpool, Patrick Kelly, asked him to look into it for him. Archbishop Kelly had noticed the children without parents at the school gates when making pastoral visits around the diocese.
Mr Lowe told me that the concern he expresses in court about the children of those facing custodial sentences is not always appreciated. “On one occasion I recall being told ‘You’re not a social worker, it’s your job to sentence’,” he said, adding that recently a head teacher was left with a child at 10 p.m., trying to find out where the mother was.
“Things have got to change. Health, education and local government have got to come together and cooperate,” said Mr Lowe, who believes providing the necessary support will spare children trauma that would otherwise blight their lives. He has raised the issue with his local MP, Andy Burnham, the shadow Health Secretary, who has worked with the campaigning group Families Left Behind, which is a coalition that includes Pact, Caritas Social Action Network, the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Grandparents Plus.
Families Left Behind is seeking an all-party approach to impose a duty on the courts to ensure that any children are taken into account at the time of sentencing. It is hoping to do this via an amendment to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. The amendment would put a duty on a court passing a custodial sentence to ask what the arrangements are for the care of any children of the offender and/or any vulnerable adult who is dependent on the offender while the offender is in custody. If the court determines that these arrangements are unsatisfactory, it “must make a referral to the relevant local authority social-care team”.
Campaigners also want to see an amendment to the Bail Act 1976 to ensure that similar considerations are taken into account when bail is denied to a defendant who is responsible for a child or vulnerable adult.
“For too long, these vulnerable children and adults have not been protected sufficiently by the law. They are rarely identified by statutory agencies before they reach crisis point and are suffering from poor outcomes, which could have been avoided. Supporting the amendment to create a statutory duty on courts to identify whether individuals remanded or sentenced to prison have children or vulnerable adults dependent on them will help to ensure that this situation is addressed,” said Keen-Downs, who quotes a number of disturbing instances when provision has not been made in the past. These include children being left with individuals who misuse alcohol and drugs, and children left with friends who pass them on to other friends.
The proposed amendment to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill has been introduced in the House of Lords where the bill began its committee stage on Tuesday this week. It remains to be seen whether the all-party support being sought by the Families Left Behind coalition materialises. Failure to do so will see the children of prisoners continuing to be punished for the crimes of their parents. It is an approach that is storing up problems for the individuals themselves and society as a whole in the long term.