If there is one thing that has always defined Barnardo's, it is that our purpose as a charity is to help the most vulnerable children and young people in UK society. We speak up for those who have no voice; those who society has forgotten and those who were simply never known about in the first place. We help them to break away from the cycles of poverty, abuse or criminality that can swirl like phantoms from generation to generation.
Many of the children we support don't know where to turn and by the time the authorities reach them the damage has all too often been done. Children affected by parental imprisonment are one such group. Young people who, through no fault of their own, can feel that they too are serving a sentence-the innocent victims of their parent's crime.
My previous experience at Victim Support and the London Serious Youth Violence board has taught me much about the impact of offending and not just on the victims of crime.
When a parent is imprisoned they leave a life behind on the outside; a life that includes a spouse and children; a family that has to try and rebuild, often shorn of their main breadwinner or primary carer, not to mention the love and support of a mum or dad.
Currently the life chances of the estimated 200,000 children in England and Wales affected by parental imprisonment are woeful. These children have done nothing wrong but they are left stigmatised and alone. Often haunted by memories of their parent's arrest, they can retreat within themselves and develop anxiety, depression or begin demonstrating behavioural problems.
Fear of social stigma, bullying and a lack of official recognition mean that all too often the needs of these children go unnoticed by health and social services as well as their school. Educational attainment falls away, and at the moment two thirds of boys with a father in prison go on to offend themselves.
At Barnardo's we see this disruption daily. As one mother told us, her six year old son was experiencing such shock and grief that at 3am he would be in the toilet, rocking back and forth saying "I want my daddy, I want my daddy."
Barnardo's is fighting to turn the tide and is working in communities and with prisons to ensure children's life chances aren't damaged by having a parent locked up. We currently have 13 specialist services in communities across England and Wales. By having joined-up support across services from schools to GPs, having a parent in prison need not be a life sentence for a child.
Research suggests that when offenders maintain family ties, the likelihood of re-offending can be reduced by 39 per cent. Barnardo's work to make visits easier for children and parents, helping families maintain crucial contact to break the cycle of offending and improve children's life chances.
Identifying these children is crucial, which is why we are calling for there to be a statutory duty on courts to ask whether individuals remanded or sentenced to prison in England or Wales have children. And, if so, whether the immediate care arrangements put in place for these children are satisfactory.
On top of this we want to see the Justice Secretary appoint a lead minister to champion these children and work on their behalf. Cross-departmental cooperation on this issue is vital and so a National Action Plan is essential to ensure the sharing of expertise and an integrated response.
We want to work with the government to support this vulnerable section of our society. It's only through cooperation that we can halt the cycle of intergenerational offending and improve the future for these children.
This is an issue that has been cast into the shadows for too long. It's time we brought it into the light.