16th July 2006

The Children Act 2004 introduced the UK Government’s “Every Child Matters” program of reform. A conference organized by Action for Prisoners’ Families in London in October explored if this was indeed true for meeting the needs of children affected by imprisonment within their families. It also looked at possible measures to tackle the problems faced by this vulnerable group. Keynote speakers included Kathleen Marshall , Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, and Maria Miller, MP, Shadow Minister for Education and the Family. The afternoon panel featured Martin Narey, Chief Executive of Barnardo’s and former Director General of the Prison Service, journalist Mary Riddell and Guinevere Tufnell, a leading consultant child and adolescent psychologist. Tufnell underscored the lack of available psychological treatment for children coping with the imprisonment of a parent. She cited the example of three young children she had assessed who had witnessed the killing of the mother by the father. Tufnell had recommended further treatment for the children, but none was provided. The chair for the afternoon was Dr. Andrew Coyle, Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies and a former prison governor. The overall messages from this vibrant and stimulating conference were the lack of short-term government funding of projects meant that support for prisoners’ families was often temporary, the lack of long-term vision and sustainability as well as the lack of government help to support the goal of rendering high quality services. Heartwarming testimony about her imprisonment and separation from her children was given by a young female offender representing the Clean Break Theatre Company, a new theater, education and writing company that works with women affected by the criminal justice system.

Making Children Visible 
Scottish Commissioner for Children Kathleen Marshall has commissioned research to assess the rights of children with prisoner parents and is in discussion with the Scottish Prison about how the findings can be taken forward. She highlighted these developments during a talk given at “Does Every Child Matter?”, a conference organized by Action for Prisoners’ Families in London in October (see previous news brief). Her starting point was the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child and that if we give children rights we promise them something. Marshall has a particular interest in prisoner’s children because it is her duty to focus on groups who do not have adequate means to make their views heard. The research concluded that there was already sufficient research, but not clear evidence of the implementation of recommendations from earlier reports, and that children of prisoners are largely invisible in the process and system of sentencing and imprisonment

In addition to the European Charter fro Human Rights, article 8, which is concerned with a right to family life, her focus was on the relevant articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Initially to ascertain what children thought: in addition to other research she examined the analysis of calls to Childline (a telephone helpline for children). The main issues were around visiting, release, drugs, shame and stigma, money and bullying. Mrs. Marshall’s concern was that in Scotland policies focused on children as an aid to rehabilitation rather than as’ ‘visible’ people with their own rights, and that many good initiatives are local and stop when a particular individual moves on.

Her concluding suggestion was to make children more visible through:

  • Information gathering
  • Making sure their rights are integral to law, policy and practice
  • Child impact assessments on sentencing
  • Getting their perspective – sensitively.

Her ideas for possible next steps were to:

  • Audit rights compliance at level of law/ policy
  • Focus on implementing previous recommendations rather than creating too many new ones, and provide child-friendly information for children and a website for children. Links need to be made between agencies, and in Scotland the new Community Justice Authorities provide an opportunity for this.

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Author: rmchristen