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Children Visiting Custodial Settings

Scope of this chapter

This chapter sets out the procedures for managing risks and safeguarding the wellbeing of children and young people, who may be visiting or having contact with adults or other young people who are in a custodial setting.

Clear and timely communications are essential to ensure that inter agency co-operation takes place and all regulations are implemented in the best interests of the child.

Prisons are required by Prison Service Rules to actively encourage prisoners to maintain meaningful family ties while they are in custody. This includes the provision, where applicable, of regular and good quality contact time with children.

Prison Governors also have duties under s.11 Children Act 1989 to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and, in a prison context, this will include balancing a child's right to on-going contact with parents who are held in custody with the need to ensure any such on going contact is safe and in the child's best interests.

HM's Prison and Probation Service has in place a range of measures to reduce the risks that certain prisoners, especially those convicted of, or charged with, offences against children may present to children whilst in custody.

Prison staff and those working in visitor's centres should receive training, briefing or guidance as appropriate in safeguarding and child protection. This training should be relevant and proportionate to their likely level of contact with children and families, so they can take appropriate action if concerns are raised during a visit. The establishment - or the service provider - should arrange specific safeguarding and child protection training - rather than safeguarding awareness training - for Family Support Workers, Play Supervisors and Visitor Centre staff who supervise activities for children.

National Offender Management Service (‘NOMS’) Instruction (PSI 16/2011) Providing Visits and Services to Visitors (NOMS) provides general guidance on prison visits, including by children.

Practice guidance Children Visiting Prisons: Sharing Good Practice (Kids VIP) provides practical guidance to assist prisons in facilitating family visits, including:

  • The benefits of good visits and maintaining family ties to both prisoners and families;
  • Examples of how some prisons have provided well for children; and
  • Guidance on how to replicate good practice in prisons and provide quality visits for children.

The Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties Policy Framework provides rules and guidance for prison staff on supporting the maintenance and development of prisoners’ relationships with family, significant others and friends.

The overriding factor in allowing any child to visit is whether contact with the prisoner is in that child’s best interests. (A child is defined as any young person under the age of 18).

If a prisoner wishes to apply to have child contact, the prison must provide an application form for the prisoner to complete. A separate request must be made for contact with each individual child.

It is possible that a request for contact could be made by a parent or from the child directly. If such a request is received the prisoner must be informed and asked if they wish to submit a request for contact.

In general, prisoners identified as Persons Posing a Risk to Children may only apply for contact with children in their immediate family. This includes biological children, step-children, foster children, adopted children and the children of the prisoner’s partner provided they were living together as partners in an enduring family relationship before imprisonment. Applications can also be made for grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews. Contact with a child outside these relationships should only be allowed in exceptional cases.

See also: Statutory Guidance - Public Protection Manual, Chapter 5 – Child Contact Procedures, which provides information and statutory guidance relating to the assessment of the level of contact between children and prisoners.

Establishments are required to identify prisoners who have:

  • Been convicted or are charged with a sexual offence against a child;
  • A previous conviction for a sexual offence against a child;
  • A conviction or charge of murder or assault against a child;
  • A charge or conviction involving domestic violence or abuse where a child was involved;
  • A charge or conviction where emotional abuse or neglect of a child was involved;
  • Displayed any behaviour whilst in custody indicating the prisoner presents a risk to a child;
  • Information has been received from other agencies about the risk that the prisoner presents.

All prisoners who have been identified as presenting a possible risk of harm to children must be approached and asked if they intend to request child contact. If a prisoner indicates that he/she does not intend to make an application for child contact, both at the time of asking or at a later date, that response will be recorded, and the prisoner must sign a form to that effect. If the prisoner refuses to sign, the enquiring officer must make a note to that effect.

Establishments must complete a multi agency risk assessment to determine what, if any, contact the prisoner is allowed with a child. Where information is received or the behaviour of the prisoner is seen to indicate a potential risk of harm to a child, then a fully comprehensive risk assessment must be undertaken to determine whether the prisoner should be allowed contact with a child and the extent of such contact.

Risk identification and management must be undertaken in a manner that is proportionate to the individual concerned. Decisions to prevent or restrict contact need to take into account the risk presented by the offender, the needs and best interests of the child, balanced against the prisoner’s right to a family life. In all cases decisions will be based on what is best for the child. The rights of a child to be safeguarded and protected from harm must take priority over an offender’s right to family life as set out in the 1998 Human Rights Act if the offender’s right would mean that contact could place a child at risk.

The over-riding principle is that the child’s welfare is paramount - and that any contact must be in the child’s best interests.

The prison must ask the parent/primary carer of the child whether they support contact or not and at what level. The application cannot proceed unless the primary carer supports contact.

In cases where the parent/primary carer does not support contact, the prison establishment must inform Children’s Social Care Services.

When a prison establishment contacts Children’s Social Care Services as part of the multi agency assessment and the child is Looked After, the local authority’s view about the appropriateness of contact must be obtained in writing. The test is always whether contact is in the child’s best interest.

Whether or not the local authority share Parental Responsibility, the views of the parent must also be included.

The following agencies must be contacted to gather information before an assessment of risk can be made and a level of contact agreed that would be in the best interests of the child:

  1. The police in the child’s home authority must be contacted with details of the prisoner and the child including a photograph;
  2. The prison establishment’s probation officer should be provided with the details of the prisoner’s application and where a prisoner will be subject to licence supervision on release or has been recalled for breach of licence for the current offence the home probation area must be contacted and asked for information and comments. In addition if the prisoner is a young offender and is supervised, Children’s Social Care Services in the child’s home authority must be contacted;
  3. Where appropriate the NSPCC may be contacted for additional information as some prison establishments have developed a partnership with the NSPCC who will search their database for information relating to the risk of harm to a child;
  4. Children’s Services for the area in which the child lives, asking them to carry out an assessment of the best interests of the child and provide a written report in line with the assessment framework in Working Together to Safeguard Children. The photograph of the child should be attached to the referral form for the social worker to verify the identity of the child and return to the prison. Prison staff should complete the referral with information about the prisoner’s risk and the specifics of the prison environment that will assist the social worker to complete their best interests assessment. The primary carer response form should be sent with the referral. As part of the assessment process, Children’s Services should undertake a home visit, during which the views of the child and the primary carer should be ascertained. If a child is able to make an informed choice, their views must be considered. The written report should:
    • Outline the child’s circumstances and views;
    • Confirm that the photograph supplied by the primary carer is of the child;
    • Contain recommendations on what level of contact, if any, Children’s Services consider to be appropriate for the child to have with the prisoner; and
    • Identify an appropriate adult(s) who will accompany the child when visiting the prisoner.

Within one working day of receiving a referral, Children’s Services should make a decision about the type of response that is required and advise the referrer on the next course of action.

The Governor (or senior manager with suitable delegated authority) is ultimately responsible for making an assessment of what, if any, level of contact should be permitted. If the report received from Children’s Services does not address the above bullet points, the Governor should refer the matter back to Children’s Services with an express request for this information, unless it is available from other material before them.

Once the multi-agency assessment process is completed, the Governor or a senior manager with suitable delegated authority should make a decision about the appropriate level of contact suitable between the prisoner and the child. This process should not be completed in isolation and should be supported by members of the prison’s safeguarding risk panel or equivalent.

The risk presented should be managed proportionately, taking into account the existing safeguards available in custody. In all cases decisions must be based on what is in the best interests of the child and must be properly reasoned and fully recorded on file.

In addition to the information provided by partner agencies (which should include an assessment of the child’s needs, wishes and feelings and the capacity of the primary carer to protect the child from potential harm), the assessment should also take into account:

The over-riding principle is that the child’s welfare is paramount and any contact must be in the best interests of that child. This may not always correspond with the wishes of the child or of the primary carer. Where there is a conflict between the needs of the child and the carer, decisions should be made in the child’s best interests.

The primary carer and any agencies that have contributed to the assessment should be informed of the outcome.

There are four possible contact levels for a prisoner who is assessed as posing a risk of harm to children. The choice of level must be made with the over-riding principle that the child’s welfare is paramount and any contact permitted should be in the best interests of that child.

Each assessment is specific to a particular child and cannot be used to determine contact levels with other children. This means that prisoners must apply separately in respect of each child with whom they want to have contact, including siblings living in the same household, and a separate risk assessment must be completed for each child. This can result in a prisoner being allowed different contact levels in respect of different children (including no contact at all).

  • Level one: Full restrictions apply. No contact with any child is permitted;
  • Level two: Contact permitted with named child only via written correspondence. No telephone calls or visits;
  • Level three: Contact permitted with named child only via written correspondence and telephone. No visits;
  • Level four: No restrictions necessary, contact permitted with named child only via correspondence, telephone calls and visits.

An initial period of monitoring of all correspondence and telephone calls of prisoners presenting a risk to children must be completed. Monitoring may then continue, subject to the interception risk assessment process being carried out and regularly reviewed.

Staff monitoring calls and correspondence should be particularly alert to any attempts to groom or manipulate a child or carer. They should also be aware of references made about children in general correspondence. Staff should be aware of any references that suggest a child may be at risk of abuse other than of a sexual nature, including female genital mutilation and abuse linked to faith and belief.

It is necessary to take steps to prevent a child being substituted with another possibly more vulnerable child where visits take place. Prison staff monitoring calls, correspondence and visiting areas need to be vigilant and prevent any inappropriate contact where identified.

Four passport style photographs will be required of each child and these should be updated annually or earlier if there is a significant change in a child’s appearance.

All contact decisions should be reviewed at least annually, or earlier if there is reason to believe that circumstances have changed or where there has been an increase / decrease in risk. A prison transfer will not automatically trigger a review; the reason for the prisoner’s transfer should be taken into account when deciding whether a review is deemed necessary.

Reviews must be based on updated information from all agencies involved in the original multi-agency risk assessment, and decision-making must be supported by the prison safeguarding risk panel or equivalent. Prisoners must be informed of any change in contact restrictions following a review.

All prison establishments have procedures for prisoners who wish to appeal a decision to restrict contact or not to permit any contact at all with a child.

In principle, all information taken into account, and the reasons for the decision, should be disclosed to the prisoner, although the prison can determine the form in which it should be shared. There are three options:

  • Full disclosure - providing the information as it stands;
  • Redacted version of the information - this is suitable where sensitive details are omitted while still providing the prisoner with the information that they need to know;
  • A gist or summary of information - this applies where a redacted version does not meet the need for withholding the information.

If any part of the information considered for disclosure has been provided by another agency, the prison must, in writing, inform them of the possibility of disclosure. The prison is not seeking permission to share the information; instead, it is asking the agency whether there are any barriers to or concerns about disclosing (any part of) the information to the prisoner. Reasonable attempts should be made to contact the agency and it should be provided with a deadline for a response.

The passport-style photograph provided at primary carer support stage should be used by visits staff to check the identity of the child attending the visit. Staff should be alert to possibility that an “approved” child could be substituted with another, possibly more vulnerable child.

Where prisoners have been granted child contact, staff should observe:

  • The child’s appearance, including the appropriateness of their dress;
  • The interaction between the child and the prisoner, including the child’s body language; and
  • Any change in behaviour of the child and/or interaction with the prisoner should the accompanying adult absent themselves from the visiting table.

Any signs of neglect, abuse or distress must be reported using the security incident reporting process. The manager with public protection policy or equivalent should be provided with a copy of the report. An immediate referral should be made to Children’s Services if there is concern for the safety or welfare of a child.

Last Updated: January 8, 2024