'This is me': how child impact assessments can help children with a parent in prison

Carly (age 12) came back to an empty house and knew something was wrong, as her mum was always there when she got home from school. When the phone rang, it was her younger sister Leah’s school asking why no one had come to collect her. Carly thought her mum had died. ‘I get panic attacks all the time now,’ Carly says. ‘It was ages before we knew where mum was. It’s the worst thing that’s happened to us.’ Their mum had been arrested, but no one had thought about informing the children, far less about their emotional wellbeing.

Carly and Leah’s story is all too familiar. Despite numerous calls over the years to consider the needs of children with a parent in the criminal justice system, especially when that parent is the primary carer, there has been little action. Children remain at best ignored, and are often further stigmatised within the very systems that should protect them.

To address this, the Prison Reform Trust has recently published This is me a toolkit of resources. This explains the importance of child impact assessments, and how they might be used at every stage as a parent goes through the criminal justice system (arrest, court, imprisonment or community sentence, and before release) to ensure children like Carly get the support they need at the earliest opportunity. The toolkit includes a call to urgent action for stakeholders.

The toolkit is the result of a 15-month consultation. It is informed by the views and experiences of 28 children and young people with lived experience of a mother in the criminal justice system, as well as 20 mothers in prison and 18 who have been recently released. The most compelling endorsement for the use of child impact assessments is from the children and young people who contributed to the consultation. For example, Ellie (age 19) says, ‘If I’d had set questions like these to ask me how I was feeling and how I was doing, it would’ve been a lot better for me... It would’ve really helped me.’ A regional family support co-ordinator from Families Outside, the only national charity that works solely on behalf of families in Scotland affected by imprisonment, said, ‘The child impact assessment is a great way for young people to feel like their views are being sought and voices heard. It allows them to share their feelings and to ask any questions they may have.’

Rather than more research and additional recommendations, the time has come for action to improve outcomes for children affected by parental imprisonment. Reports have been published; lip service has been paid to recommendations; Ministers and policymakers have come and gone; yet still children like Carly remain unheard.

Thankfully, children and young people themselves, often with the help and support of dedicated practitioners who long for change, are speaking out about what they want. All the children and young people who took part in the consultation for the toolkit said they want to be listened to. They want to be supported, not judged, and they want to be included in decision-making about that support. This is me offers the resources and mechanisms to turn their aspirations into action. The time for that action is now.

For more about This is me contact: sarah.beresford@prisonreformtrust.org.uk

Also in this issue

Other articles published in the Winter 2023 newsletter