Interview with Families Outside

Nancy Loucks, CEO of Families Outside, talks about how the families Families Outside work with have been affected by the pandemic

  1. What have been the specific issues for the families you work with during the pandemic?

Lockdown restrictions meant that prison visits were suspended. This, combined with understandable anxieties about the health and wellbeing of people in prison, has been the main focus for families. Video visits took four months to implement, which meant separation for families for considerable periods. This was particularly difficult for families with very young children, who cannot make meaningful use of letters or phone calls for family relationships, and for children and young people with conditions such as autism, who depend on routine and face-to-face contact. For example, we supported one mum whose 14-year old son was autistic and had become suicidal when he was unable to visit his dad.

The more ‘usual’ Coronavirus issues have also caused problems for the families we support, e.g. loss of income, inability to shield due to the need to earn an income, lack of childcare, lack of space and increased risk of abuse in lockdown conditions, closure of support services, etc.

  1. How have your services adapted and responded?

All of our staff have been working from home, but support has continued remotely. We prepared families for this in advance. Referrals to our regional teams have been slower due to the lack of contact with families from services that normally refer to us (prisons, prison visitor centres, schools). However, 97% of families supported through our regional teams have had Covid-related concerns. When restrictions were relaxed, our staff made use of options such as outdoor visits, cafes, and ‘walk and talk’ visits to link with families, with one member of staff engaging in a local gardening project as a way of connecting with a young person she was supporting. Staff have learned to be very creative!

Meanwhile, calls to the Helpline increased dramatically, up to a peak of a 247% rise when video visits were introduced in June. We currently have a dedicated volunteer specifically to help families set up video visits. We are also now linked with SCVO’s Connecting Scotland, a project to ensure families are digitally included – a new area of work for us. GDPR has been an issue in terms of identifying families who need digital help and passing on that information. We are also working closely with the Scottish Prison Service and Scottish Government to assist them in developing policy and practice in relation to video visits and the resumption of in-person visits, providing direct input from families throughout.

  1. What are the issues arising for families that you work with now?

The issues remain the same, particularly in terms of uncertainty about the future and the fragility of family contact. We struggle to identify families who need support with digital connection and families still have reservations both about using technology for their visits and about visiting in-person when some restrictions remain in place.

  1. What needs to happen to help families that you work with now?

Consistency in prison visiting would be great. Efforts to keep schools open are a huge help. Supporting families with digital inclusion – and in particular, identifying families who may be struggling with this – would be enormously helpful. For us, that includes grandparents and parents of adults as well as parents with children. With winter coming, continued support for the cost of utilities will be increasingly important. Ready access to local avenues of support that families can depend upon makes a world of difference – to our staff as well, who need to know what supports are available.