02/04/2012 18:30 BST | Updated 02/06/2012 06:12 BST

Children of Prisoners Might as Well Be Invisible

There are more children of prisoners in the UK than children in care. Does that surprise you? It's a statistic most people are completely unaware of, and that's reflective of the fact that these children might as well be invisible.

Time and time again our services have told me that there is a shocking lack of awareness amongst mainstream services and consequently a huge gap in systemic support for children who have a dad or mum in prison. Their needs are real and important, and a lack of interventions or support can have devastating, life-long consequences. The majority of sons of prisoners - a shocking two thirds of them - will become offenders themselves. This needs to change.

I've made this one of my priorities as all children deserve a stable childhood and the chance to thrive regardless of who their parents are and what they have done.

And let me be clear, this is not an insignificant number of children we are talking about. Children of prisoners are one of the biggest groups of children in need in the country. There are more children of prisoners than those with child protection plans and Barnardo's has been working in prisons and the community with these children and their families for more than 10 years.

When a parent goes to prison, the children left behind are not only affected by seeing mum or dad struggling with life as a single parent, the stigma of what has happened and the financial hardship caused by the loss of a wage or changes to benefits. They are also facing their own challenges - supporting their parent, managing their own emotions and sometimes coping with bullying.

The Kelly family are just one of many that Barnardo's services is supporting. Dad is in prison serving a three year sentence. Mum is left at home with the three children and is struggling with their behaviour. James, aged 12, used to be good at school, now he is disruptive, verbally abuses teachers and torments other children. Daniel, aged 11, has been diagnosed with ADHD. He swears, he's mouthy and he's violent. He blames his dad for everything and doesn't want to see him. Mum describes seven-year-old Katie as a 'little miss'. She cries for dad periodically and asks why he doesn't come home.

Like many of the parents left behind, mum has shown extreme resilience and strength as she adapts to life as both mum and dad for her children, but she and her children have specific needs resulting from dad's imprisonment. We gave her the support she needed through this time, but so many others are left to slip through the net and this failure to act has devastating consequences not only for the quality of these children's lives now, but also for their life chances in the future.

I've worked in children's services all my life but it still makes me so angry to think how so many innocent children's lives are determined by the mistakes their parents make. This is why Barnardo's is calling for some vital changes to be made to break this chronic cycle.

We are there for the parent at home when they need us, when their children are playing up, when they need help accessing financial support to help with the costs of prison visits and when they are having a tough day and need someone to talk to. But we can't reach all the families that need us and central government and local authorities should drive support for them.

Improving the systems for identifying children of prisoners is where they need to start. I find it outrageous that the parental status of prisoners is not routinely monitored in the UK. We have no way of knowing who and where these children are. We all must play our part. Children and adult services, other statutory agencies, private and voluntary organisations need to work more closely together. We must continue to push all services from prison and probation to children's centres and schools to look beyond the prisoner - to the partners and children that are left behind.

The statistics would tell us that the writing is on the wall for these children, but the children that we work with show us every day that it does not have to be that way.

We will not be able to take away the pain of having a parent in prison but by working together we can lessen the impact of it.