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Child with a Parent in Prison

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Having a parent in prison can be really difficult for a child. They will be dealing with lots of different emotions and it is important that they get the right support to help them through the journey.

The Scottish Government states that about 20,000 children experience a parent's imprisonment in Scotland each year. Barnardo's Scotland estimates that 30,000 children face parental imprisonment every year in Scotland.


How do I talk to a child about their parent being in prison? 

It can be difficult to talk to a child about having a parent in prison. There is advice and guidance around this from Families Outside and also from Barnardo’s. You may also find it helpful to speak with your child’s GP, health visitor or teacher.

You may find the Child Impact Assessment framework helpful. This was created with young people who have a parent in the justice system as a way of helping children say how theyare feeling and what support they need.

 

The framework was originally designed for professionals who are supporting children, but families have said they find it helpful too. The Child Impact Assessment itself can be used to support conversations between children and their parents (including those who are in prison). The accompanying notes can help parents understand how children might be feeling and what support may help.  There are versions for children with mothers and fathers in the justice system:

 

·      Child Impact Assessment for children with a father in the justice system

·      Accompanying notes for practitioners supporting children with a father in the justice system

·      Child Impact Assessment for children with a mother in the justice system

·      Accompanying notes for practitioners supporting children with a mother in the justice system

 

Families can use these resources in whatever way is helpful. This can include (but is not limited to):

 

-       Using one section of the Child Impact Assessment with a child to understand how they are feeling at a particular time (for example, following the arrest of their parent or before a parent is released from prison) and what support they would like;

-       Using the sections on prison and release as part of a family prison visit (organisations like Families Outside can support this if helpful);

-       Reading through the Accompanying Notes together as a family;

-       Sending a link to the Child Impact Assessment and Accompanying Notes to a child’s teacher (or other professional) to help them better support a child; and

-       Posting a hard copy of the Accompanying Notes to someone in prison to help them understand how their child might be feeling.

 

For children and young people, having a relative in jail or prison can lead to: 

  • Poor physical and mental health  
  • Breakdown/lack of support networks (because of the parent going to prison and being removed from their life, and family breakdown if relatives are no longer in contact with the child, for example)
  • Significant trauma if they witnessed the arrest and/ or elements of the criminal activity
  • Feelings of loss or rejection  
  • Internalised shame
  • Fear of being judged by the parent’s ‘prisoner’ label 
  • Additional care responsibilities placed on the child, for example if they have to help look after younger siblings  
  • An effect on school (an absence from education and/or lower school grades)
  • Poverty (loss of household income, loss of parental opportunity)

A table with examples of appropriate language use

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

The imprisonment of a household member is one of many adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) known to have an impact on long-term health and well-being. 

Other ACEs include:

  • Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Community violence
  • Homelessness
  • Growing up in a household where adults are experiencing mental health issues or harmful alcohol or drug use

The imprisonment of a household member is associated with a fivefold increase in exposure to other ACEs. The more ACEs a child suffers, the more likely this is to impact negatively on outcomes in terms of health, school attainment and later life experiences. 

What does this mean for children with a parent in prison?

Recent research has highlighted that those with a higher exposure to adverse childhood experiences are more likely to go on to develop health-harming and antisocial behaviours, such as binge drinking, smoking and drug use. 

Poor health and social behaviour can lead to a more rapid development of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and mental illness. 

These children are at a significantly greater risk of suffering mental health difficulties than children who do not have parents in prison. 

Children with a parent in prison may experience low self-esteem, depression, disturbed sleeping patterns and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Primary health teams, with positive relationships with children and their families, can help children by seeing the potential they have, rather than the problems they face.

If children and young people are given a vision of hope, and feel that they have potential to change, it can make all the difference. 

Having a parent in prison is one of life’s most challenging experiences, but it does not have to define a child’s life. 

Source: BMJ Paediatrics Open: The Health Impact on Children Affected by Parental Imprisonment

This is why it is vital that children with a parent in prison receive timely and evidence-based support, in order to ensure that they have the best chances in life.

 

How do I know if a child is affected by their parent being in prison?

You might notice:  

  • Changes in behaviour, such as becoming quieter than usual/  wanting to spend more time on their own, or perhaps not wanting to be alone.
  • Changes in their mental health and wellbeing and mood. They might not be able to control their emotions and may become more angry, or become upset by things that would not usually bother them.
  • Difficulties paying attention at school, losing interest in school or missing school. 
  • A child might not express anything differently, and might seem to be coping- but this could be because they might not want to place more burden on the adults around them who are also struggling, and therefore don’t feel able to share their feelings.


It’s important for a child to understand that they are not alone, and that they have someone to talk to.

This could be:

  • A teacher, a family member, or a friend. Schools often have counsellors available and have experience of supporting children in many different kinds of situations so it is worth asking your child’s school what support they can provide.
  • A charity or other voluntary organisation. There is specialist support available for children with parents in prison. These organisations can provide a safe space to talk about your experiences and, in some circumstances, to meet other children who are going through the same thing. For example, the charity Families Outside offers one-to-one support for children and young people.
  • A GP might be able to refer a child for counselling.

If a child wishes to have contact with a parent in prison (and it is safe and appropriate for them to do so), it is vital that they are given support to keep in contact, whether that is through emails, by phone calls, or through visits. If a child does not wish to have contact with their parent in prison, it is important that their wishes are respected, and that they are offered appropriate support.

The experience of visiting a relative could cause many conflicting emotions to arise, so it is important to consider how the child is supported before and after a visit. 

In some instances a parent may not want a child to visit them in prison. If this is the case, it is important that the decision is explained to the child in a way that makes it clear that it is not because the parent does not love them or want to see them.


A table showing the notification periods for the various sentence types. Prison sentence of 30 months or more (including life), Indefinite. Order for lifelong restriction, Indefinite. Admission to a hospital subject to a restriction order, Indefinite. Prison sentence of more than 6 months but less than 30 months, 10 years. Prison sentence of 6 months or less, 7 years. Admission to a hospital without a restriction order, 7 years. Community payback order with an offender supervision requirement, The length of the offender supervision requirement. Any other sentence (e.g. a fine or admonition), 5 years.

How can a child keep in touch with a parent in prison?

If there are no public protection restrictions, then a child who wishes to should be able to have contact with their parent in a variety of ways.

These include:

  • Letters
  • Virtual visits
  • Prison Voicemail
  • Mobile phones
  • Email a prisoner (EMAP)
  • In-person visits

Children’s Visits Policy

The Scottish Prison Service has a children’s visits policy. Children’s visits are available in addition to the person in prison’s statutory visiting rights. Each prison must take steps to help maintain family ties, where positive relationships exist (or where it is possible to build them).

Remember, the below factors are to be used as a guide only and each application will be considered depending on the situation.

 Children’s Visits Criteria

  • Any parent who is allowed to have access to their child will normally be able to apply for a Children’s Visit;
  • The child must be aged 17 or under;
  • The person in prison requesting the visit must be the parent, step-parent, kinship carer of the child or have, or have had, the responsibility for the care and custody of the child. Head of Operations may ask for evidence to support statements made in the application regarding the person in prison's relationship to the child. Applications may be considered where such a relationship has not been established. However there should be compelling grounds for allowing such visits; and
  • Confirmation that there are no child protection/welfare concerns or issues.

The Scottish Prison Service also has policy statements relating to:

Why might the prison (or another agency such as social work) decide that a child is not allowed to have any contact with a parent in prison?

If a child’s parent in prison has committed an offence which might mean that the parent poses a risk to a child, the parent might face what is known as public protection restrictions. 

What can I expect when I take a child to a prison to visit their parent?

Families Outside have advice around how to prepare a child for a prison visit, and what to expect on the visit.

The Scottish Prison Service also provides more information on their website about what to expect when you visit a prison.

Scottish Prison Service

If you need help from The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) you should contact the prison and ask for the Family Contact Officer (FCO). All prisons in Scotland have a FCO who can give advice and practical help to relatives.

Family Contact Officers

In each prison, there is a Family Contact Officer (FCO).This is someone whose job it is to help families to maintain links with their loved one in prison. The role of the Family Contact Officer is to offer support and advice to relatives who may have questions or concerns about their loved one.

The Family Contact officer can also signpost relatives to partner agencies who are able to offer support and understanding.

If you would like help and support, you should ask to speak to the Family Contact Officer at the prison you are visiting. You can also speak with the Family Contact Officer by telephone. 

For a list of telephone numbers, please visit the Scottish Prison Service website.

Visitors’ Centres

The majority of prisons in Scotland now have a Visitors’ Centre service for family members visiting the prison.  Visitors’ Centres are a vital service that:

  • Improves the visit experience for people visiting their family member or loved one in prison by providing facilities and refreshments.
  • Provides families access to independent and impartial advice, information and support.
  • Voices the needs of families affected by imprisonment to the Prison Service.

Source: Families Outside - for more information about visitors’ centres, please visit Families Outside.

Last updated:
July 4, 2024

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