The COPING project research is entering its final stage, so comment upon the impacts of it at this point is still premature. However, throughout the four nations in which the research is conducted, five main themes have been emerging from the in-depth child-centred interviews. These themes were highlighted last October and all of them have strengthened as the data continues to be processed.
Firstly, the role of schools is emerging as very important for most families. They are mentioned more frequently during the interviews than any other agency as being well placed to support both children and parents. The majority of parents and carers recognise a child’s right to know information about the imprisoned parent. Many of them have looked to school staff, including class teachers-for support on this topic. Conversations and interviews with teachers (i.e. the Huddersfield School-Day Event on children with imprisoned parents) have indicated a desire on the school end to be made aware of parental incarceration in order to be better equipped to provide support to these children. School staff who frequently engage with students include not only teachers, but also administrative staff and janitors.
Secondly, some parents-particularly mothers in prison appear to keep very regular-in some cases almost daily-contact with their children. Telephone contact is crucial, as are letters and visits. Family days and visits seem to work well, and provide a higher quality of contact than normal visits. Children who were given cell phone access to their incarcerated parent proved less anxious and fearful of the conditions in which their parent was living. Frequent communication appears to calm the children.
Thirdly, the length of the prison sentence is emerging as a key variable in the child’s ability to cope. Where parents are in prison for shorter periods, children and parents often seem able to think about the future. In two instances where mothers are serving very long sentences; their children find the prospect of family re-unification distant and unattainable. In the instance of shorter sentences, a child can frequently grasp a time ahead when their parent will be reunited with the family and can set it as a deadline for reuniting the family. In longer sentences, the role of the incarcerated parent becomes distant and confusing for a child because they cannot imagine that parent as an active member of the family, nor see a time when that parent will return as an authoritative figure.
Fourthly, it seems grandparents have played a key role as care-givers. They often step in where the relationship between the parents is strained, or has broken down.
Lastly, some children seem to cope optimally with a parent being in prison. This seems likely to be related to the quality of care they receive from their carer; it may also be linked to the quality of the communication between the imprisoned parent and the caretaker parent. For other children having a parent in prison has a profound impact, even where they can manage to keep their family and school life going well. It appears that children’s age will probably be an important variable in this respect. There is also significant evidence to suggest that children benefit from being told the truth about the imprisonment in an age-appropriate way. Parents interviewed who did not tell their children regretted it and found that trust was eroded. Children who are told lies or incomplete truths can develop fantasies..
As future findings are verified, they will be released via policy briefings at an early stage as part of the project’s dissemination strategy.
COPING aims to enhance existing information, recommendations, knowledge and good practice for children with imprisoned parents throughout Europe. Impacts of the COPING research are expected o include improvements in information about children of imprisoned parents, step changes in Government and public awareness about their plight, potential new legislation, and improvements in prison regimes to enable effective contact and visits for children to imprisoned parents. It is hoped that trans-European alliances will be built for the improvement of policy and support interventions to help children of prisoners. The COPING data and research will also be made available for further future research in this area.
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