Inclusion: Parents in Prison - Locked away

Gabriella Jozwiak
Tuesday, May 31, 2022

What can early years settings do to support children whose primary caregivers have been arrested and sentenced to time in prison? Gabriella Jozwiak reports

Seeing a caregiver being arrested and experiencing them being in prison can be traumatic for children
Seeing a caregiver being arrested and experiencing them being in prison can be traumatic for children

There was shouting and screaming, and they pepper-sprayed my dad. The pepper spray went everywhere… So all of us kids had it on our hands and in our eyes… They tasered him at the same time. They then arrested him. And all of that took place in front of us kids.’

This is how one girl, Rebecca, described to the charity Children Heard and Seen how her father was arrested in her family home when she was aged about 11. The quote is included in a report by the Centre for Social Justice from March 2022, which states that up to 80,000 children experience a home raid by police each year.

About 312,000 children are separated from their parents by parental imprisonment annually in England and Wales, according to criminal justice consultancy Crest Advisory. But there is no nationally recorded or published data on the number of people who pass through the criminal justice system with dependent children. Nor is there any statutory requirement for anyone to report such children to authorities.

‘There is no support available for these children – they often go into nursery or school the very next day [after an arrest],’ says Ross Hextall, funding and research co-ordinator at Children Heard and Seen. ‘Arrests often happen at night, meaning children are awoken to commotion, shouting and the sight of their parent, sometimes violently being taken away in handcuffs.’

As well as the initial trauma, Hextall says the long-term impacts of parental imprisonment on early years children can be ‘huge’. ‘Not only are children being separated from a parent, who they may have relied on as a figure of support and care, but they also face an increased risk of bullying, social exclusion and mental health difficulties,’ he says.


Imprisonment of a household member during childhood is known to have a significant impact on future health and wellbeing. It has been recognised as one of the ten Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), alongside mental illness, maternal violence, substance abuse and divorce. Research suggests the more ACEs a child suffers, the more likely they are to experience negative outcomes in the future.

A 2016 study by the University of California of more than 50,000 children aged from birth to 17 found that children of incarcerated parents are exposed to nearly five times as many other ACEs as their counterparts without this factor.

Having a parent in prison affects children differently depending on many things, including age. Scottish charity Families Outside’s chief executive, Nancy Loucks, says younger children are unlikely to understand what is happening and may not receive the explanations they need. ‘They will benefit less from letters and phone calls [from the imprisoned parent], risking a loss of attachment especially if they cannot visit in person,’ she says. ‘Even very short periods of custody disrupt the family, but a longer sentence potentially has longer-term consequences when a stranger returns home to take on a parental role both parent and child have never known.’

When caring for children of incarcerated parents, Families Outside recommends practitioners bear in mind three principles:

  • Family members are not guilty.
  • Every family is unique.
  • Multi-agency working is key.


How early years practitioners can support children with parents in prison will depend upon that child’s individual situation. Early Years Alliance quality and standards manager Melanie Pilcher says practitioners should establish from the outset how a parent’s absence has been explained to the child, and maintain a consistent approach. ‘Has the child just been told that mummy or daddy has “gone away for a time”, or that “mummy was a bad person”? It may be that the family decide not to talk about the absent parent at all,’ she says. ‘The practitioner must agree with the main carer how they will respond to any questions. The emphasis should be to respond sensitively, honestly and in an age-appropriate way.’

Practitioners should also check which staff the carer is happy to share information with.

Pilcher says practitioners need to look out for changes in the child’s emotional wellbeing or behaviour, and be aware of what services are involved with the child’s family.

She also says they need to appreciate the wider impact of parental imprisonment (see box), and signpost the family to relevant support services if necessary. The child may benefit from additional resources or activities to help them manage anxiety or stress, Pilcher adds; Early Years Pupil Premium funding could be spent on these.


Partners of Prisoners communications and training co-ordinator Rebecca Cheung delivers training to professionals working with children of incarcerated parents. She suggests early years settings could help prepare children for prison visits. ‘Pre-pandemic, sentenced prisoners were entitled to up to two visits a month,’ she explains. ‘But the pandemic had a massive impact – some children didn’t see their loved one for two years.’

During the pandemic, prisons began to adopt video visit systems, which are still being used. However, prisons are beginning to open their doors again for real-life visits.

‘There are various things [during a visit] that could be intimidating or scary for a young child,’ Cheung explains, including security and dog searches. In the 11 prisons in North West Yorkshire supported by Partners of Prisoners, the charity has placed images of a character called Popsicle the Penguin along the entry route to make it less daunting.

Cheung says other prisons are trying similar approaches, and recommends settings contact the family services provider for the prison housing their parent to see what support they offer. These can be looked up on the NICCO website (see Further information). ‘There will be other leaflets and schemes that agencies similar to ourselves operate in the prisons where they work,’ she says. There are also generic leaflets on the website.

Cheung says sometimes children have a warped idea of what prisons are. She recommends practitioners show the child some images of what prisons really look like to help relieve any concerns.

‘Having that child’s perspective and not assuming that we know what they’re thinking is really important,’ she says.

Broader impact of parental imprisonment, according to Families Outside

  • Finance and benefits: Often the main wage earner is imprisoned. Their imprisonment may lead to the family’s benefits being reduced, or the family being left responsible to pay for debts.
  • Housing: Housing may be unstable if a tenancy is in the name of the person in prison. The family may no longer be able to afford to stay, or the nature of the offence may make them vulnerable to eviction.
  • Care arrangements: If the main carer goes to prison, children will need to be placed in alternative care. This can result in frequent moves, separation of siblings, or formal care arrangements.
  • Travel and transport: Almost half of families spend between five and 12 hours travelling on a return journey to a prison visit. Travel with babies or toddlers will be especially onerous. The cost of travel may also be prohibitive.
  • Victimisation: Families may be targeted by neighbours and others, especially where an offence is highly publicised. Families’ addresses are often published in the press, resulting in their homes being vandalised and distress.
  • Stigma: Having a family member in prison prevents people from accessing support. Children are often not told truthfully what is happening, or are made to keep it a secret. This prevents children from asking questions, and from knowing that their parent in prison is safe.
  • Physical and mental health: Early years children will pick up on the stress experienced by their remaining carer and are more likely to suffer from serious mental ill health than other children.
  • Lack of information: Families are not directly involved in any criminal justice processes unless they are the direct victims or witnesses. They are not consulted on the care of the person in prison even when decisions have a direct impact on the family, for example, where they can live on release, or restrictions on contact.



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