Children are the innocent victims of 'criminal justice'
"He's been there for me and brought me up"; "Dad used to support me at football matches"; "He's not there when I wake up in the morning"; "I used to swim with dad every week"; "When he first went to prison I really missed him and used to cry a lot in bed at night. I didn't want my mum to know I cried because that would have just upset her, too."
These voices demonstrate movingly the profound sense of loss that children experience when a parent is taken to prison. Some try physically to prevent arresting officers taking away their cherished mum or dad, but they can do nothing about it.
Scotland has one of the highest incarceration rates in the EU, in proportion to its population, and falls far down the EU league table for child well-being - an association which may be meaningful.
Estimates vary for the numbers of children experiencing the harrowing impact of parental incarceration. Families Outside, a non-governmental organisation, estimates that 16,500 children are affected every year in Scotland, many of whom may not even have been told about the jailing. My own Freedom of Information request to the Scottish government revealed a much higher figure of about 27,000 children. Either is significantly larger than the figure for children affected by divorce.
Cornton Vale, Scotland's notorious female jail, has seen its numbers double in recent years. About 70 per cent of jailed women are mothers. The children of female prisoners are more likely to be taken into care - itself a risk factor for later criminality - than the children of male prisoners. Male partners tend to avoid taking over responsibility.
Given these statistics, many school rolls will contain children with parents in jail. As yet there is apparently no official mechanism for informing schools at the point a parent is sentenced to custody. This must be rectified so that proactive steps can be taken to support the children and families affected. It is a big assumption that the children know - for reasons that are understandable.
The following quotations from three children demonstrate the surrounding reality:
- "I've just talked to one person about it because she is good at keeping secrets." Child A;
- "Only one friend knows. I don't tell anyone. I keep it quiet, but sometimes talk to mum." Child B;
- "I don't talk to people at school, don't talk to teachers. I don't want anybody to get me into trouble." Child C.
A social worker remarked: "Children of imprisoned parents become introvert, they seek acceptance from their peers and others, but often experience emotional difficulties ., start displaying nervousness . Such children often feel lost and become an easy target, start having problems at school and at home. They lose the feeling of safety and security, begin to display aggressive behaviour. In cases where the mother is imprisoned, children often lose contact with her and family ties dissolve. They are stigmatised."
The impact on the children is severe. More than 50 per cent of this group will underachieve and be aggressive, and at secondary school many will be excluded. This reflects the past school experience of many current prisoners in the recent HM 2011 report on prisons.
Often children may take on a burdensome caring role at home and suffer trauma. Listening to the child and being non-judgemental and offering reassurance is invaluable. Building positive bonds with the families and sharing events with the prisoner about the child's progress is positive, so that they feel able to share with the school how they are coping. Some teachers accompany the child to the prison and support the family in that way.
A number of the children are bullied, as this quotation from a research paper shows: "Some children take the mick. They say, `Your dad is never going to come out'. They bully me. Say nasty things. I don't let them know I care, but I sometimes cry on the way home. The teachers don't know my dad's in prison and I don't want to tell them."
Activities such as school nurture groups will be especially helpful for these children, who may experience many emotions, some conflicting: anxiety that other loved ones may be removed; shame that their mum is in jail; anger towards authorities as they took his dear parent; sadness that family dynamics have changed; guilt about how their own behaviour may have contributed, and reduced self-esteem leading to mental health problems.
Careful choices of topics and other curricular activities may help the child to feel less burdened by stigma and a sense of disengagement from the social life around them. If all staff are made aware of the issues facing such children, a consistent whole-school approach can be developed.
If schools are aware of the prison visiting calendar, the stress that can develop before and after for the child may be attenuated. Children can seem confused and silent or sometimes aggressive due to the emotional impact of visiting a prison and seeing their parent in jail, then not coming with them as they leave. Some young children leave prisons in tears after visiting their mothers.
It is remarkable that the government has not funded research into this vulnerable group of children and families in our communities, whose lives we all have a moral duty to help improve. The charity Families Outside offers support, advice and literature for organisations including schools, and is a valuable contact for those tasked with supporting these children.
Chris Holligan is a professor in the faculty of education, health and social science, University of the West of Scotland.