The children's charity, which facilitates prison visits for families, says that while 200,000 children have a parent in jail, contact between prisoners with young children and their families can be impeded by restrictive rules about visiting.
Key items such as prams, nappies and milk bottles are often not allowed at visits.
Barnardo’s assistant director of policy and research Neera Sharma said, ‘In some prisons young children and even babies are subject to intrusive searches. We also know that, while many prisons have good family-friendly practice, there is also a culture of mistrust towards families and their children in some prisons. With these issues remaining, an estimated 45% of families lose contact with family members in prison.’
She adds, ‘A loss of contact with parents is a key indicator of poor outcomes for these children.’
Research shows that 51 per cent of the 18,000 women in prison have at least one pre-school age child, meaning at least 9,000 children aged under five have a mother in prison.
As the prison population is weighted towards younger adults, it is likely that there is a higher proportion of younger children with a parent in prison.
In a report ‘On the Outside: identifying and supporting children with a parent in prison’, which was launched this week, Barnardo’s also says the stigma of prison means many families feel unable to tell those educating their children what has happened.
It says ‘most’ schools, children’s centres and other support services will be working with several of these children at any time ‘without realising their needs.’
Barnardo’s highlights the fact that while children who go into care have considerable contact with professionals and a range of procedures designed to protect them, no official record is made of children whose parents have gone into prison, meaning many are simply forgotten by the authorities.
The report says, ‘These events can take place abruptly meaning that parents sometimes have no time to prepare their children for separation or arrange alternative childcare. Some children are left at immediate risk of inappropriate care arrangements.’
Barnardo’s is calling for the Government to appoint a lead minister for children of prisoners with the role of identifying these children, and to ensure that statutory services know who these children are.
The charity is also calling for courts in England and Wales to be statutorily obliged to ask about the children of people sent to prison and ensure that adequate child care arrangements are in place.