Parenting inside and out

Engaging with vulnerable parents can be hard, and parents affected by imprisonment are among the most difficult to reach. This is not because they don't care or don't want help; rather, they may be reluctant to take up support because of the shame and stigma which imprisonment inevitably brings.  As one parent said, 'I feel like everyone thinks I have done something wrong, too.'  Many of the parents who contact the Families Outside helpline also tell us that they don't know what support is available or, in some cases, that they don't trust some of the statutory services. 'Things happen to us', they say, 'and nobody asks us our opinion.'

These issues present an enormous challenge to parenting practitioners and remind me of a woman I met whose son is in prison. Things had started going wrong in this young man's life when his father was sentenced to a short prison sentence. 'I told my kids not to tell the school,' his mother told me, 'because I thought it'd make things worse.' What follows is a familiar story: her son's behaviour at school deteriorated, his grades suffered, and ultimately he disengaged entirely from the education system, leaving school with two police charges in place of qualifications. 'I wish I had asked for help sooner,' she said.

It is this fear of judgement that often stops people getting support. Add to that an enormous sense of grief at losing someone, and other problems including housing and financial difficulties; health issues resulting from stress and anxiety; and prison-based difficulties such as arranging visits (sometimes over great distances which call for overnight stays), and it becomes clear why these families are among the most vulnerable, yet overlooked, in society.

So, how do we engage positively with parents whose partners are in prison? And what about parents who are in prison themselves, who have been identified by the National Parenting Strategy as being in need of particular support? The most important thing is to reach out sensitively and non-judgementally. The families of those in prison have done nothing wrong and need reminded that they are not alone - that there are people who want to help them. Parents in prison are still parents, and in the majority of cases, can play an important role in their children's lives. Indeed, the new chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has prioritised engaging with families because strong family ties reduce reoffending (up to six times) and tackle inter-generational offending. Organisations which produce parenting materials should be aware that parents in prison cannot get online support and that making phone calls is difficult. There is no reason, however, why leaflets and posters cannot be sent into the prison.

Families Outside works in close partnership with the SPS to help engage and support parents both in and out of prison. We can also offer training to statutory and voluntary organisations to help them understand the issues facing families affected by imprisonment, and have a national helpline for families and professionals. If we really listen, with an assurance that help is available, perhaps parents will be more likely to ask for help. And it might even prevent a young person going to prison.

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Families Outside helpline is open Monday to Friday 9am-5pm on 0500 83 93 83