November 23 2023

What about me? Listening to the stories of children with a mother in prison

What about me? Listening to the stories of children with a mother in prison

Writing home at HMP Styal. Pic by Andy Aitchison

What about me? Listening to the stories of children with a mother in prison

‘It was a horrible time,’ 13-year old Aliyah says, ‘I was sad a lot of the time and didn’t want to explain to my friends what had happened.’ These are the opening words of a new Prison Reform Trust report, What about me?, published this week, which shines a light on the systematic neglect of some of the UK’s most vulnerable children – those with a mother in prison.

Aliyah is one of an estimated 17,240 children affected by maternal imprisonment each year in England and Wales. As was the case for all the young people whose stories informed the report, losing her mother in this way was a devastating experience. Aliyah, like 95% of children affected, had to leave her family home when her mother went to prison. Staying with her grandmother meant more change in the form of a new school and further loss, as Aliyah’s brothers went to another family member.

As her family life disintegrated, Aliyah felt a profound sense of grief, but this is not the kind of loss that brings support and care; time and again children like Aliyah spoke of being bullied at school, shunned by friends, and intimidated on social media. At best, children with a mother in prison are ignored within the very systems and structures that should protect them; at worst, they experience shame and stigmatisation and a sense that they too are ‘tarred with the same brush’.

As this report emphasises, when children are left to suffer alone without any support, they are at increased risk of mental health issues, anxiety, and marginalisation. Recent research has found a correlation between parental imprisonment and premature death.

Children affected by maternal imprisonment are rarely considered in criminal justice proceedings; instead, most are strategically silenced. Decisions are made about important issues like contact with their mother without listening to how the children themselves feel and without recognising that feelings change over time. Aliyah felt angry with her mum at first and did not want to visit the prison but later changed her mind. Sadly, she was not given the opportunity to revisit her decision, making it much harder to rebuild a relationship with her mother post-release.

Many of the young people who informed this report showed extraordinary resilience in the face of adversity, largely due to the support of voluntary sector organisations offering peer support, mentoring, and simply an opportunity to be listened to. Knowing they are not alone, and having someone who believes in their potential, rather than seeing them as another problem, makes all the difference.

Several children recognised that their mothers needed support long before they got to prison. Last week’s publication of the Female Offender Strategy provides a welcome recognition of the importance of appropriate community support to address women’s mental health issues, addictions, and experiences of domestic and sexual abuse. Prison is simply not the answer for women and is hugely damaging to children, as this report makes clear.

While we know that diverting women from custody has better outcomes than a prison sentence, the lack of funding over recent years has meant that many community services are struggling to continue to provide essential support. It is regrettable that the new Female Offender Strategy does not go far enough in its commitment to fund effective community services.

Aliyah is given the closing words of this report: ‘It was heart-breaking when mum went to prison. I wish I’d had more support.’  One of the report’s key recommendations is for child impact assessments to be carried out as soon as a parent enters the criminal justice system to ensure that a child’s needs are identified and addressed. This will go a long way to ensuring Aliyah’s plea is both heard and addressed. And it will mean that fewer children like her are left asking, ‘What about me?’

Published July 9, 2018


July 2018