This week the Prison Reform Trust published ‘What about me?’; a report outlining the experiences of children in England and Wales whose mothers are in prison. It called on a variety of statutory agencies to include these children in their provision for vulnerable children. It explains the awful situations children find themselves in when all adult help and support is withdrawn from their lives.
The ITV show ‘Loose Women’ featured the Prison Reform Trust report on its lunchtime programme this week, with discussion around the idea of punishing mothers in the community rather than in prison.
The programme included a recorded interview with 17-year-old Bethany who spoke in heartbreaking terms about the impact her mother’s imprisonment had on her aged eight.
The immediate reaction of one of the panellists, Saira Khan, was to say that the video of Bethany made her ‘angry’. She was angry at Bethany’s mother and it made her even more convinced that women should be punished in prison. With the exception of Janet Street Porter, the panellists and viewers seemed unable to see beyond the mother’s wrongdoing. A selection of tweets on the show’s twitter feed gave a flavour of the opinions shared:
‘They’ve done the crime, they do the time.’ ‘If they were that bothered about their kids they wouldn’t have broken the law in the first place!!’ ‘Yes the children suffer but that is the fault of whoever committed the crime not the system.’
Again, through no fault of their own, the children became invisible - even in a space which was set up to allow a conversation about their needs. The panel’s personal judgement of the parents as ‘criminals’ overshadowed the welfare of the children at the heart of the discussion. The child’s needs were forgotten in a discussion which condemned mothers who have broken the law, without recognising the circumstances that may lend to offending, the broader societal consequences of imprisoning people and leaving children unsupported.
So do children whose parents commit crime somehow forfeit any right to be cared for?
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, The Human Rights Act 1998, and by and large most people’s own moral code, tell us that all children are equal and should be treated with the same care and concern. No matter what the people around them have done.
The Government last week published the ‘Female Offenders’ Strategy’. Noting the body of national and international research on the issues of parental imprisonment it demonstrates an awareness that children are severely impacted by their mothers’ imprisonment. It suggests there should be fewer short sentences of imprisonment and commends the work that I’ve been doing to help sentencing professionals think through both the legal obligations to consider the rights of children in adult sentencing decisions, and the consequences for children of losing their mother to imprisonment.
This is to be welcomed, but it is not just the Government who need to think differently. I’ve spent the past 6 years investigating this type of separation, and I have concluded that the only reason these children are treated differently to others separated from their parents, is because as a society we do not like what their parents have done. When a parent is found guilty of a criminal offence, their children are stigmatised by association.
Perhaps it is helpful to think about this in a new way.
You are caring for two children from different families (Child A and Child B).
You send both children to school, one with packed lunch and one without – knowing that school dinners are not provided, and Child B will go hungry that day. However, you do not like Child B’s parents, so are not as concerned about his welfare as Child A’s. Other adults will also notice that Child B has no lunch, but they share your feelings about the parents, so will turn a blind eye and let the child go without lunch. Not exactly fair is it?
This is analogous to the way we treat children whose parents are in prison.
When children are separated from their parents by the Family Courts in England and Wales because of their parents abuse or neglect, the state steps in to protect the child. Their welfare is ‘the paramount consideration of the court’ (Children Act 1989, section 1(1)). The child is represented by lawyers and a Guardian ad Litem. If the child is removed from the care of their parent the state places them with foster carers who are both trained and paid by the state. They are known as a ‘looked after’ child which ensures that they are given a school place as a priority and the doors are open to other funding. They are Child A. We know they have needs and we make sure they are met.
By comparison, when a child is separated from their parent(s) by the Criminal Courts in England and Wales because their parent has been found guilty of a criminal offence and is sentenced to a period of imprisonment, the state does not step in to protect the child. If the parent is the child’s primary carer (and in the case of mothers they are likely to also be the child’s sole carer) that child no longer has an adult who will care for them. Yet the state do not find out who will look after the child in the parent’s absence. The state do not make any financial provision or support for whoever takes that child in. The state do not check to see if that child is being properly cared for. Similarly, if the child has to move from their home to live with their new carer they do not have an automatic right to a school place. They are not ‘looked after’ in the same way. They are Child B.
Until the public see the children of prisoners as children who merit all the same care and protection that we give to our own children, we will make little progress in giving these children their proper place in our society.
We need to have a public conversation that humanises this issue. Not only recognising that punishing parents through imprisonment has the potential to wreck the lives of their children too, but that through social indifference to the issue we are punishing these children for their parents’ behaviours. We need to reach a place where we agree that as a society we should not be party to this neglect.
My hope is that by talking about these children more and more, recognising them as rights holders who have done no wrong, we will break through the noise about their parents’ offending to reach a place where we can see our individual responsibilities towards them as fellow citizens, and stop placing the sins of the fathers (and mothers) on the children.
Shona Minson is a research associate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford