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Guidance for Working with Children who have a Parent (or Significant Family Member) in Prison

Scope of this chapter

This protocol has been developed by the Greater Manchester Safeguarding in partnership with Barnados. It has been written to assist all professionals who work with children who have a parent or significant family member in prison and to encourage a strategic approach to meeting the needs of this potentially vulnerable group.

The current guidance builds on work already undertaken by Bolton Safeguarding Children Partnership in 2013 to develop guidelines for use by professionals in their locality. [2]

[1] Throughout this policy the word ‘parent’ is not restricted to biological family members and can equally refer to a principal carer or person with an influential role for children within the family such as siblings, step parents, grandparents etc.

  • To raise awareness of the needs of children and young people who have a parent or significant family member in prison amongst all professionals working with children – especially amongst staff in schools and children’s centres who will unknowingly already be in contact with many of these families;
  • To improve the knowledge and skills of professionals working with children of prisoners in order to help them address the needs of these children and to know what support is available for them;
  • To encourage 'open channels of communication' [3] between professionals and children with a parent in prison, giving young people a voice in their situation;
  • To ensure children and their families are able to access support in a timely manner by increasing multi-agency working in this area and recognition within policies and procedures;
  • To promote social inclusion and secure positive outcomes for children and young people impacted by parental imprisonment in line with Every Child Matters;
  • To support a consistent approach and good practice across Greater Manchester.

[3] The COPING Project; Interventions and Mitigations to Strengthen Mental Health 2012

An estimated 200,000 children in England and Wales experience the imprisonment of a parent each year.[4] This is far greater than the number of Looked After Children. Using the national estimate and population figures for 0 – 19 year olds across Greater Manchester from Public Health England's 2014 Child Health Profile [5] it is possible to estimate that around 10,700 children across Greater Manchester are affected. [6] However in reality nobody really knows how many children are actually affected as this data is not routinely collected therefore there is no way of ensuring their needs are met.

[4] Ministry of Justice (2012) Prisoners’ childhood and family backgrounds, London: Ministry of Justice

[5] Public Health England’s 2014 Child Health Profile (Archived)

[6] It must be noted that this estimate is potentially problematic. This figure does not consider any particular characteristics of the Greater Manchester area which may have implications for the number of people involved in the criminal justice system. If using this figure it is advisable to do so cautiously, and to present it with a statement about how it has been calculated and its limitations.

The impact of having a parent in prison is wide-ranging with potential implications for a child's residential and care arrangements, their mental, emotional and physical health, financial circumstances and educational achievement. For the most part these children remain unnoticed and unsupported despite research which increasingly shows the negative outcomes associated with having a parent in prison. For many families the stigma of having a family member in prison leads them to become isolated, afraid of the repercussions and reactions that may result from disclosure. There is a duty of care and a duty to provide these children with the same opportunities for success as everyone else. Laying a foundation of awareness amongst professionals as to the issues facing prisoners families is the first step in building an 'offer' for families in this position and in creating a safe space in which families and children feel able to disclose their circumstances and seek support.

Research conducted by Barnardo's (2009) [7], the COPING project (2013) [8] and a number of other studies have identified a number of themes relevant to children and young people:

  • An Invisible Group There is no standard collection of information about who these children are, who is looking after them, what their needs are and what support they require. It is estimated that 7% of children experience the imprisonment of their father during their school years;[9]
  • Experience Stigma Parental imprisonment can lead to a child experiencing stigma or bullying. Stigma can be perceived or actual and can lead to a child becoming isolated and vulnerable;
  • Experience Disadvantage A family member in prison increases the likelihood of the child experiencing poverty [10] as their family may become vulnerable to financial instability, debt and housing disruption. A child is likely to experience more stress at home and may experience unstable care arrangements;
  • Have Adverse Outcomes Parental imprisonment might cause a range of adverse outcomes, including aggressive behaviour, depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, eating problems, running away and delinquency. Children may on some occasions be exposed to substance misuse, violence or other illegal activities by family members and associates;
  • Higher Risk of Mental Health Issues Children of prisoners are twice as likely to suffer from mental health issues. [11] The sudden removal of a parent from the family can create feelings of separation and loss similar to bereavement that may affect the emotional health of the child. Children may be anxious that their other parent might also be taken away or about the welfare of their imprisoned family member. Anxiety may result from loss of contact with the imprisoned parent or, where contact remains, from missing school to comply with prison visiting hours;
  • Fail to achieve Children with a parent in prison have been demonstrated to be at risk of poorer academic achievement and poorer attendance at school (including exclusion).[12] The average distance travelled by families to visit a male prison is 50 miles [13] so a visit can often require a whole day and may lead to unauthorised absences in their school record. Children may experience stigma, bullying and teasing as well as unwelcome attention from the media;
  • Are more likely to offend themselves Children of prisoners have 3 times the risk of anti-social behaviour compared to their peers. [14] 65% of boys with a convicted parent go on to offend. [15]

[7] Jane Glover, Every night you cry, Barnardos, 2009
[8] The COPING Project; Interventions and Mitigations to Strengthen Mental Health 2012
[9] Department for Education and Skills, Every Child Matters, London: The Stationery Office, 2003
[10] Rowntree Smith R, Grimshaw R, Romeo R, Knapp M, Poverty and disadvantage among prisoner's families, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2007
[11] SCIE (Social Care Institute for Excellence). Guide 22 Children of Prisoners; Maintaining Family Ties, 2008
[12] Naomi Clewett and Jane Glover, Supporting Prisoners' Families, Barnardo's, 2009
[13] Prison Reform Trust, 2013
[14] SCIE. Children's and families resource guide 11: Children of prisoners – maintaining family ties. 2008
[15] Joseph Murray, David P. Farrington, Ivana Sekol, Rikke F. Olsen, Effects of parental imprisonment on child antisocial behaviour and mental health: a systematic review, Campbell Systematic Reviews 2009:4, 2009

In view of these increased vulnerabilities it is likely that children who have a parent in prison will need additional support and provision from statutory services. These experiences may bring about changes in children's behaviours. If professionals lack an understanding they may respond negatively to them rather than offering the encouragement and support that the child may need.

The kind of help needed by children of prisoners is mirrored by the support needs of other children suffering from significant loss or trauma e.g. children experiencing parental divorce, bereavement or domestic violence. Around half of the children of prisoners interviewed by COPING [16] in the UK needed some level of emotional support from school, or other agencies, and half of this group suffered more serious anxiety or trauma which resulted in a need for more specialised counselling.

Schools have been identified as well placed to provide support to children with a parent in prison (SCIE 2008; Morgan et al 2011). The COPING study underlined findings from previous research which demonstrated that children value trusting and caring relationships with teachers, being able to receive sensitive and confidential support, and staff understanding what it is like to be a child coping with a parent in prison (Morgan et al 2011). Schools can also play an important role in protecting children from stigma or bullying and in supporting them academically.

The COPING study found that children were at particular risk of internalising difficulties. In addition to examining the impact of parental imprisonment the research also explored factors which promote resilience. The study found that as well as children's innate qualities and the importance of family stability, children's resilience is 'closely linked to open communications systems and that children need opportunities to discuss their experiences'.

[16] The COPING Project; Interventions and Mitigations to Strengthen Mental Health 2012

Although a child may confide in any trusted adult, evidence from the COPING study found that children and carers mainly communicated their concerns with classroom teachers rather than school social workers or counsellors. However children and their parents often express reluctance to share their circumstances with professionals, fearing who the information will be shared with and the stigma which could result should the wider community become aware.

Maintaining appropriate confidentiality in these circumstances is therefore paramount. Guidelines on the sharing of confidential information should be laid down in existing policies and communicated clearly to the parent and/or child. Only those who need to know should be told and all information received and passed on should be treated as confidential. There are particular issues surrounding confidentiality for a prisoner’s child that may need to be taken into account. [17]

Be aware:

  • The communication and relationship between home and school is vital in order to effectively discuss what has been shared with the children and what the parent/carer is comfortable sharing with the school;
  • Within the Criminal Justice Systems, some people’s names and addresses are saleable commodities and prisoner’s families are vulnerable to intimidation, threats and pressures from inside as well as outside prison;
  • Some prisoner’s children will be the subject of Child Protection Measures made by a court which stipulate that the child should not be named.

[17] Sharon Evans. Oxfordshire County Council. Guidelines for Working with Children who have a 'Family' Member in prison, 2009

Whilst it is important that we have robust processes for identifying children and young people affected by parental imprisonment, the wider issue of stigma and discrimination mean that the starting point for supporting these children must always be to build a foundation of awareness amongst professionals; both of the wide-range of issues facing families and of the support that exists to address their needs. Developing a strategic multi-agency approach should then follow ensuring all agencies in contact with children and families of prisoners have a shared approach which places the user voice at the heart of any policies or procedures. From there a commitment to ongoing training and workforce development across a locality ensures that any identification procedures result in effective and timely support for each individual child and their family. The guidance below expands on these four key areas:

  1. Raising Awareness;
  2. Strategic Development (integration of user voice);
  3. Workforce Development and Training;
  4. Identification and Support.

In order for children of prisoners to be better supported professionals must first be aware of the issues facing families of prisoners, the particular challenges at different stages of the criminal justice system and the specific impact of stigma and discrimination. As awareness grows amongst professionals so the opportunities to identify and support these children at an earlier stage in their journey also increase. A wealth of resources and support services already exist across the UK. Raising awareness of these resources and services ensures professionals are better equipped to respond in a timely and effective manner to the needs of children of prisoners.


NICCO (National Information Centre on Children of Offenders) (formerly i-HOP) is a national one stop information and advice service for all professionals working with children and families of offenders.

A sustained approach to the needs of children and families of prisoners, with appropriate resourcing, will only be achieved in the long-term through recognition at the strategic level within national and local authority policies and protocols. Whilst the guidance above has a strong focus on schools it must be stressed that the most effective approaches involve agencies from across a variety of sectors including education, health and criminal justice. Multi-agency forums such as the Local Safeguarding Board, Wellbeing Boards and Children Trusts can play a key role in providing training, agreeing information-sharing protocols and in steering the direction of a local response.

It is essential when developing local policy and procedure that the voice and experience of parents and children are reflected in the discussions. The imprisonment of a family member can leave families feeling powerless, caught in a system which does not recognise the contribution they could make and which is unsympathetic to their needs. Hearing directly from families is crucial if policies are to be effective. Voluntary sector organisations working directly with prisoners’ families often have the expertise and relationships to facilitate this vital input, as well as offering localised, targeted support services.

Equipping professionals and front-line practitioners with the skills to support children affected by imprisonment acts as an early intervention and may help minimise some of the negative outcomes for children and young people with a parent in prison. Training also helps to challenge ingrained attitudes within individuals or teams which may in some cases perpetuate stigma or unconscious discrimination. The information below summarises relevant training available across Greater Manchester.

Hidden Sentence

Hidden Sentence (Providing Support to Families of Offenders) is a training course for all professionals whose work brings them into contact with prisoners’ families including Children’s Centre workers, school staff, school nurses, play workers, health visitors and family intervention teams. The course gives an overview of the issues that affect prisoners’ families and provides a range of strategies and resources to help professionals support them.

Providers of Hidden Sentence Training in Greater Manchester:

  • Ask your local LSCP whether they provide 'Hidden Sentence' training;
  • POPS (Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group) is available to deliver Hidden Sentence Training to prison and community-based professionals throughout the North West. Please contact POPS Head Office for further information.

[T] 0161 702 1000 [W] [E] [Tw] @POPSFamilies

Out There also provide Hidden Sentence training across Greater Manchester

[T] 0161 232 8986 [W] [E]

Key points to consider if a child discloses their parent (or significant family member) is in prison:

If a child raises issues concerning imprisonment of a ‘family’ member, the following responses are helpful:

  • Allow the child to express him or herself, listen carefully, acknowledge what is said and provide reassurance;
  • Establish with the child any support needs they may have and explain what is available;
  • Be clear with them about who needs to be told in order to support them. If there are no safeguarding concerns which would trigger an information-sharing protocol or referral then the child may wish this circle to be small. Prisoners' children and their carers consistently stress that confidentiality is a key issue for them to avoid stigma and discrimination;
  • A response that can combine practical assistance (around prison visiting, financial advice etc.) with work around feelings and relationships is particularly valued;
  • A prompt response (that is, at the point of imprisonment) to the family affected;
  • Talking directly to children about prison, what's happened and its impact on them is crucial;
  • Help and support for parents/carers to talk to their children about imprisonment;
  • Parents at home may struggle with separating their own needs from their children's in terms of the relationships with the imprisoned parent;
  • Not all crimes are the same in terms of the impact of parental imprisonment. Sex and serious violent crimes add layers of complexity and additional stigma;
  • Workers may need to engage with wider family networks, particularly grandparents;
  • It will often be necessary to liaise closely with a range of agencies to support the child affected by parental imprisonment;
  • Arrangements and suitability of the child attending prison visits. See Appendix 1: Additional Guidance for Schools;
  • Sharing Information. It is important to remember that this is a sensitive area for children and their family. Any information shared about the family's circumstances in relation to a family member in prison should be done in most cases with the child and family's consent and in a proportionate way.

Professionals working with a child, young person or family who they suspect may be impacted by a parent or significant family member in prison should consider the following:

  • Completing an EHA (or equivalent assessment for your local area) with the family and take the opportunity to explore the issues and its impact on the child/ren in the family;
  • The professional should be aware of the different stages of a prisoner’s sentence such as pre-arrest, arrest, sentencing, custody, review, pre-release and resettlement which can all bring up different challenges for the family;
  • Professionals should be aware of the challenges that families face (see Section 3, Impact of Parental Imprisonment on a Child) and aware of what services are available to support them;
  • Professionals should know how to find out about what services are available so they can combine the offer of practical assistance (around prison visiting, financial and housing advice etc) with support around feelings of confusion, anger, anxiety, shock, denial, guilt and depression which the child may experience.

Appendices adapted from: Guidelines for working with children who have a 'family' member in prison. Oxfordshire County Council 2009

Children who have a parent in prison are at high risk of poor school attendance and having poor academic success. The more aware school staff can be of the issues involved for the child, the more chances that child has of continuing to achieve and thrive at school. If you are a teacher or work in a school, here are some basic principles:

Be aware of the issues facing prisoners’ families The Greater Manchester guidance on children who have a parent in prison has been developed to highlight the key issues so that staff can be better informed and therefore sensitive to the individual needs of such children. A caring and understanding staff group can help to provide the stability and continuity that children in this situation really need. Be mindful that disruptive behaviour or poor attendance could be an indicator of a problem at home.

Listen Make yourself available if a child has chosen to talk to you. Be non-judgemental (the child has not committed a crime) and do not ask about the crime itself unless this is an aspect they particularly want to discuss. Respect confidentiality where appropriate but follow your school’s information sharing protocols and safeguarding procedures.

Help the child talk through their feelings There are many resources to help you do this including children’s books, magazines and worksheets. See the child as an individual and acknowledge the child’s own preferences.

Practical arrangements Know when to complete an EHA or get in touch with other services so the full impact on the family can be assessed and practical support can be offered around prison visits, housing, finance, caring arrangements etc. As part of a multi-agency Team Around the Child you may be able to put the family in contact with the prison’s family liaison officer in order to coordinate support for the whole family, including the prisoner.

Authorised Absence Children visiting a family member in prison should be granted an authorised absence.

Keep the prisoner informed The prisoner is a parent too. Where appropriate, routinely send information such as reports etc to the prisoner.

Whole School Approach All staff including governors should be aware of the issues and ideally a named staff member should be responsible for keeping up-to-date resources and information. It is a good idea to prominently display posters and leaflets so families can get support even if they do not wish to disclose to the school. Consider sensitively incorporating issues around prison, crime and blame into subjects such as PSHE.

Identification of children with a parent in prison Children with parents in prison have been described as an ‘invisible group’ as there is no formal procedure for the courts or other agencies to inform schools or children’s services when a parent is sentenced to a term of imprisonment unless there are safeguarding issues. For a young child, the teacher is often the most important person in their life outside home and children will often confide sensitive, personal details about their family life to the class teacher. Older pupils may be less likely to confide in a teacher spontaneously. For a teacher, ‘knowing’ that a child is affected by imprisonment may be a question of educated guesswork or hearsay from other staff, pupils or parents. The child themselves may not know and may instead have been told that their parent is working away, is in hospital, or is visiting extended family overseas. Children who know what has happened may be told not to tell anyone or may feel too ashamed to talk about it. In some situations, everyone in the community will know that a child’s parent is in prison if the court case received a high media profile. In other cases, a pupil may confide in a teacher or drop hints and clues through school work or in conversation. In many cases, a classroom teacher may not know that they are working with the child of a prisoner at the time. ‘Knowing’ does not necessarily mean that the teacher needs to let the child know that they know. It may be that the family merely wish the child’s performance and behaviour to be monitored for any change.

Classroom Management For any child experiencing difficulty in his or her home life a teacher in the classroom offers a stable, secure and consistent environment. They have a vital role in ensuring the child is supported within school. Maintaining the usual classroom routines is helpful although the teachers should also be sensitive to events likely to have a significant effect on a pupil's ability to cope. Teachers report that changes in behaviour and performance become more acute around the time of a prison visit, special events involving their imprisoned family member for example their birthday, father's day, release etc. Be aware that for some children the removal of a family member to prison may be beneficial and both behaviour and performance may actually improve.

Role of a Designated Teacher or Member of Staff It may be helpful for the designated teacher or member of staff who is the named person for safeguarding issues to be responsible for children of prisoners too as there may be issues that overlap. The designated person should have received training in dealing with sensitive issues and liaising with other agencies. The designated member of staff should have access to supervision and debriefing support. The level of input and support given to a child may be determined by whether or not a family chooses to tell the school that someone is in prison. The designated person would:

  • Keep the Head Teacher fully informed;
  • Liaise with other relevant staff on a need to know basis;
  • Liaise with the family and other statutory/ voluntary agencies as appropriate to establish the needs of the child;
  • Monitor the academic progress of the child and arrange additional support if needed;
  • Promote the use of the Early Help Assessment (EHA) unless a Single Assessment has been undertaken. Convene the multi-agency meeting to identify the lead worker if an EHA is being completed;
  • Act as an advocate for the child, particularly if they are also a Looked After Child as this group has poor levels of visiting a parent in prison;
  • Ensure that the child has a member of staff to whom they can talk;
  • Attend any relevant training;
  • Act as an advisor for other staff/governors on issues relevant to the education of the children;
  • Consider the purchase of books and resources on the subject of prisons and prisoners;
  • Keep appropriate, up-to-date records.

School Records and who to inform

  • Be careful about what is committed to writing and in what context;
  • Be non-judgemental, record only facts that all potential readers need to know. It may be helpful to state that the parent is no longer at home, however, staff do not necessarily need to know that the parent is in prison. This is a matter of professional judgement;
  • If a child confides in a teacher it is important to acknowledge their situation and to be clear with them about who needs to be told in order to support them. The teacher should try to negotiate and agree with the child what steps may need to be taken depending on the child’s needs, the carer’s wishes (where appropriate) and school policy;
  • The parent in prison has a statutory right to receive copies of all information sent out about their child.

This appendix considers the key stages of the criminal justice system and provides pertinent information concerning processes and how they may impact upon a child.


  • Children may be present at the point of arrest, specifically if the arrest has taken place in the family home, in the community, a public place etc. This may lead to the child feeling further stigmatised;
  • Home-based arrests often take place early in the morning and can involve forced entry, resistance to arrest, the presence of dogs and/or fire arms. With or without these additional elements a home-based arrest can be particularly distressing for a child witnessing events;
  • The school (and other agencies) are unlikely to be informed if a parent has been arrested or imprisoned;
  • If the child is away from the family home at point of arrest they may be unaware of what has taken place and potentially receive no explanation of the parent’s absence;
  • The family home may be searched including belongings of the child.

Custodial Sentence

  • Un-convicted prisoners (on remand) are entitled to at least three visits a week. Once convicted prisoners are entitled to a minimum of one visit every two weeks including at least one weekend visit every four weeks, additional visits can be earned through the Incentive and Earned Privilege Scheme (IEP). There is always great pressure on visiting facilities at weekends. This means that some visits will be booked for weekdays resulting in absence from school;
  • Making bookings for visits is often very difficult, particularly if there are language problems. A child may have to stay at home to support this process for example making phone calls or assisting with the online based booking system;
  • Prisons do not allow visitors to take personal possessions in with them. Children’s drawings and school reports can be sent in by post but collages and models are not allowed, even if posted;
  • Children are searched entering prisons including a rub down search and they have to pass a dog trained to detect drugs. This may be frightening for some children;
  • Visits usually last between one and two hours. Sitting across a table in the prison visiting room for the duration of a visit can be difficult for all involved;
  • Teachers report that the performance and behaviour of children of prisoners frequently become more erratic around the time of a prison visit;
  • Time off or children to visit a prison can be a difficult request for parents to make. Staff need to be sensitive and take care not to allow pressure of school attendance issues to compromise a relationship of trust;
  • Prison visits should be recorded as authorised absence;
  • If a pupil who has previously shown few attendance problems suddenly begins to miss school or a pattern of regular absences begin, it is possible that the child is at court, supporting a parent or sibling or has found school too difficult for emotional reasons or bullying;
  • The school may wish to involve the Education Welfare Service who has a statutory responsibility to ensure regular attendance, in order to organise support for pupils who are having difficulties with school attendance. It is important that parents are aware of the law relating to regular school attendance;
  • A sympathetic approach is appropriate, but care should be taken to ensure that pupils do not becomes disadvantaged twice; at home through the loss of the family member and at school through the loss of education. Every effort should be made to enable the child to achieve at school and if school is missed action taken to prevent any loss of opportunity;
  • The Assisted Prison Visit Unit deals with claims for travel expenses for people visiting relatives in prison;
  • Many prisons have extensive websites providing detailed information about visiting a prison, including virtual tours, contact details for the Family Liaison Service and information regarding Special Family Visits.


  • All adult prisoners released from custodial sentences are subject to either supervision or licence periods (dependent on the length of sentence) for a period after release. During this period the offender is likely to have to report to a probation officer and adhere to a range of conditions relevant to their offence. Any major concerns about the re-adjustment process after release may be referred to the local probation office by the school. However, if the school has any doubts about the safety of the child, the child protection procedure should be implemented;
  • Offenders may not be able to return to the family home upon release (under licence conditions) which may further impact on the relationship with their child;
  • The release of an offender may be a daunting prospect for the wider family and may add wider instability to the household (unemployment, domestic violence, estrangement).

Last Updated: January 8, 2024