24th July 2013

This month, the Final Report for the recently completed EU-funded FP7 Framework research study Children of Prisoners: Interventions and Mitigations to Strengthen Mental Health (COPING) was launched.

The research represents a milestone for children of prisoners.

Engaging over 1,500 children, care-givers, imprisoned parents and stakeholders across four focus countries (Germany, Romania, Sweden, UK) as active research participants, the study provides scientific, robust data on a scale not seen before in the field. Based on extensive interviews, statistical analysis, stakeholder discussions and mapping of current services, COPING is a great quantitative and qualitative leap forward and strengthens advocacy work for those in the field. COPING also provides us with a new conceptual lens based on its “positive psychology approach”, while recognizing that children with imprisoned parents as a group are at a significantly greater risk of suffering mental health difficulties than children who do not have parents in prison. The study goes beyond seeing the children as being or having problems, and documenting adverse mental health outcomes; instead it explores how children cope with the experience of their parent’s imprisonment and the protective factors and support schemes which may enable children to be more resilient. This approach broadens the scope of current research and can have a crucial bearing on designing future interventions and support schemes.

Carried out by a pan-European consortium of twinned research institutions and NGOs*, COPING had as a primary focus the investigation of the mental health needs of children affected by parental incarceration, examining some of the more subtle dimensions of parental imprisonment, including the meanings that children attribute to the event, the experience of stigma and social isolation that may follow, the family dynamics before, during and after parental imprisonment and any impact these factors may have upon the child’s psychological health and well-being. COPING evidence clearly identifies stable and consistent support from a parent/caregiver as the key factor promoting children’s resilience and well-being while their parent is in prison. In all four focus countries, children’s resilience was enhanced by supportive relationships with grandparents and siblings. COPING research has also identified the importance of children sustaining and maintaining relationships with imprisoned parents, both mothers and fathers, as a crucial factor relating to children’s resilience. Positive environments are needed for children’s visits to prisons. COPING found restrictions on physical contact between the imprisoned parent and visitors to be one of the main causes of dissatisfaction for children and families and this was particularly difficult for younger children to understand.

The study recommends that imprisoned parents need to have their awareness raised about the importance of their role, the difficulties their children may face and the various positive coping strategies that the family can develop. Just as carers need support on the outside, the imprisoned parent should be offered support on parenting from within the prison through the provision of parenting groups and classes—as well as opportunities to execute their parenting role through quality contact with their child.

In addition, COPING found that children’s resilience is closely related to sharing information with them openly and honestly about what has happened and the reasons for their parent’s imprisonment, consistent with their age and maturity. Study findings also identified the importance of sharing information about the parent’s imprisonment with professionals, notably teachers. The research highlighted the potential for schools to contribute to the emotional well-being of children of prisoners, particularly by supporting the child and helping reduce bullying and stigma. While COPING found that a range of services and interventions exist in focus countries, these are not often targeted towards the needs of children of prisoners; services are patchy, uncoordinated and accessible by only a relatively small number of children. Nevertheless COPING found examples of good practice supporting children of prisoners and their families developed by NGOs across the four countries. COPING underscores the need for better information about services, however: evidence demonstrated that some families of prisoners were unaware of organizations specifically designed to support them. These families reported that they would have welcomed the opportunity to receive support, particularly regarding what to expect when visiting prison.

COPING formulated clear recommendations based on the data, from making criminal justice systems from arrest to imprisonment take account of the needs of the children affected, to increasing public awareness (including the role of the media) and policy recognition of children coping with parental incarceration. It stresses the need for campaigners and researchers to be aware of possible negative repercussions of their efforts to raise the public profile of children of prisoners: a careful balance is needed between emphasising their needs and preventing further stigmatization.

These are just highlights of the findings from the COPING study. Click here to read the full report

* Led by Professor Adele Jones at the University of Huddersfield, COPING was carried out by a consortium comprising six non-governmental organisations and four research institutions from, France (European Network for Children of Imprisoned Parents, Eurochips), Germany (Technische Universitaet, Dresden and Treffpunkt e.V.), Romania (Universitatea Alexandru Ioan Cuza and Asociatia Alternative Sociale), Sweden (the Karolinska Institutet and Bryggan), Switzerland (Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva) and the UK (the University of Huddersfield (project lead) and Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group).

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Author: rmchristen