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Burnham calls for support for the children of prisoners

by
20 September 2013

By Paul Donovan

SHUTTERSTOCK

CHILDREN are innocent victims of crime when their parents are imprisoned, leaving them to be cared for by relatives, or to be taken into care by social services

A parliamentary meeting chaired by the Labour MP Andy Burnham, and organised by the prisons charity Pact and Grandparents Plus, heard how children had been taken away from their parents with no concern for their well-being.

Annie, a grandmother, told of her shock when her daughter was sentenced, leaving her two daughters with nowhere to go. "It was a shock; no one believed she'd be sentenced. We thought she'd come home to the children so there was nothing prepared. We had to go home and tell the children that Mum was not coming back," Annie said. "There were tears, and there still are tears, four years later. I don't think they will ever recover."

Annie described her two granddaughters as "victims of a system that doesn't care. . . It's not just the courts, there's social services - there is no one there to help."

She said that no one mentioned the children in court. "I phoned social services, and they said they'd provide £50. If I hadn't taken the role, they would have been taken into care."

In another case, Cassie had to look after her sister's three children. "There was no support on the criminal side. I don't think the court was aware of the children," Cassie said. "When we asked for support, we never got it. The children's services failed to provide anything. We were the family of the perpetrator, not the victims, yet the kids had done nothing wrong."

The case involving her sister received a great deal of media coverage. "At one point, we had to move 200 miles away from the media. We were sworn at and spat at on the street. The kids were bullied in school. We couldn't deal with it on a daily basis. We preferred to go somewhere where we were not known and could make a fresh start," Cassie said. Her own two children, she says, were "caught in the crossfire".

There are about 160,000 children each year with a parent in prison. More than 60 per cent of women prisoners are mothers, and 45 per cent had children living with them at the time of imprisonment. Twenty-five per cent of men in young offenders institutions are, or are shortly to become, fathers.

The director of Pact, Andy Keen-Downs, told how the organisation first came across the prob- lem when running its programme "First Night in Custody" at Holloway Prison. "We found that when the mother was in prison, it was the grandparents, sisters, and friends rather than partners caring for the children," Mr Keen-Downs said. "Half the women who had chil- dren were not saying they did [have children]."

Of those who did declare that they had children, 34 per cent were being cared for by grandparents, 27 per cent by the father, and ten per cent by social services.

"There is a lack of a joined-up system to record whether there are children," Mr Keen- Downs said. "There is no statutory duty on the courts to check if children or vulnerable adults are involved, and if there are, whether care needs to be provided."

Sarah Wellard, of Grandparents Plus, said: "All too often, grandparents, aunts, and other family members are left to pick up the pieces on their own. It is vital that children's services treat these children as 'in need', and help their carers to access support."

Alan Lowe, a magistrate in Wigan and Leigh, has been campaigning on this issue for nine years, after the then RC Archbishop of Liverpool, the Most Revd Patrick Kelly, asked him to look into the matter for him. Archbishop Kelly had noticed the children without parents at the school gates when making pastoral visits around the diocese. Mr Lowe is a constituent of Mr Burnham's.

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