The rights and status of children of prisoners in Scotland - Nico Juetten

Child care and protection research
Published on 15 Mar 2012

Nico Juetten, Parliamentary Officer for Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People discusses the findings of work undertaken to explore the rights and status of the children of prisoners in Scotland. Not seen, not heard, not guilty: Review 2011 reports on a review of progress since a previous research report was published in 2008. Drawing on desk-based research and a collation of information from relevant agencies and organisations with a perspective on the effects of parental imprisonment, the more recent review grouped the original 28 recommendations into four themes - the rights of children in criminal justice debates; the rights and status of children in decision-making about parents who offend; support for children of prisoners; and contact and visiting during parental imprisonment - which Nico talks about briefly here.

Substantial progress has been made since 2008 but it is variable and patchy. It is widely recognised parental imprisonment and its impact on children is a legitimate and valid issue to take into account. However, the review also found that there remain considerable challenges in changing practice and organisational cultures, and that while every organisation and institution addressed in this review can, and must make progress for the children of offenders, it is clear that coordinated work needs to be undertaken as no one agency can tackle the multi-faceted issues facing this sizeable and often vulnerable group. Nico outlines aspects of policy, procedure and practice that could be changed to improve the experiences of children and young people whose parents are involved with the criminal justice system, such as considering the 'best interests of the child' when sentencing options are being considered and the importance of prioritising 'bonding' visits as the right of a child rather than considering them a privilege of prisoner.

Find out more about the research

Further resources

  • Nico mentions the 'Angiolini Commission'. Find out more: Improving outcomes for female offenders
  • Families Outside is a national charity in Scotland that works solely to support the families of people involved in the criminal justice system. Their website also hosts resources that may be useful for practice with children and their families.
Date of recording
Audio transcript

Child care and protection research collection

Transcript of a talk by Nico Juetten, recorded 6th January 2012

NJ The role of the (... unclear) Office is to promote and safeguard the rights of children and young people, with particular regard to the United Nation's Convention on Rights of the Child or UNCRC for short. The UK ratified the UNCRC in 1991 and so committed itself to bring in all laws, policies and practices in line with the Convention, and the Office's remit covers children up to the age of 18 or 21 if they have been in the care system at any point. And the project I am going to talk about for the report is Not Seen, Not Heard, Not Guilty - the Rights and Status of the Children of Prisoners in Scotland. There was a report published by the Commissioner's predecessor in 2008 by that name, and that report concluded that the children of prisoners are the invisible victims of crime and the penal system - they have done no wrong, yet they suffer the stigma of criminality. Their rights to nurture are affected both by the criminal action of their parent and for the state's response to it in the name of justice. The 2011 Review, which is the piece of work I would specifically want to talk about was undertaken to chart the progress that has been made against the recommendations of that report in 2008 ... 3 years, or just over 3 years on - and like the original report, it is a fairly wide ranging piece of work because it is a wide spectrum of policy areas including criminal justice, courts and criminal procedure, social work including children and families social work and criminal justice social work, education and others. And that makes it quite general, but also perhaps that is part of the attraction of a project like this, because it really looks at how the experience of a prisoner parent affects children and the many different levers, different influences that they are that should make the situation better for them. We try to deal with this broad range of issues in the review in 2011 by grouping the many recommendations of the original report - 28 from under 4 themes, and I will speak very briefly about that later. In terms of methodology, it's not research in the classic academic sense I suppose, but it certainly involved gathering information from the addressees of the original report's recommendations including the Scottish government, the Scottish Prison Service, local authorities, the Association of Police Officers and community justice authorities, and also seeking the views and experiences of organisations that work in the field, particularly with prisoners and their families, especially children - also other practitioners in the field and statutory agencies like social workers and others, and we supplemented that with desk research and visits to prisons and other establishments. And in terms of the findings, I am first going to say maybe a few words about the generals of high level findings of the review and then speak in a little bit more detail on some of the implications for policy and practice under those 4 fields that I mentioned.

I'd say the headline finding of the 2011 review is that there has been substantial progress against the original report's recommendations, which is very positive, but that progress has been quite variable and patchy in places and there is still quite a distance to go if we want to make sure that all children of prisoners in Scotland have their rights respected and their wellbeing protected and promoted. One of the high level findings is that it is now widely recognised that it is a legitimate and valid relevant consideration to raise the rights and status of children of prisoners in wider debates on criminal justice and penal policy. That is one of the successes of this work over the years. But what is also clear is that more and more coordinated work has to be undertaken by all agencies involved across the spectrum that I mentioned to ensure that the children's right perspective on criminal justice and the penal system features more prominently and consistently across all the policy and practice that affects children of prisoners - and also, I think that certainly one of the important aspects of that, I would say, is it tends to be the Commissioner's Office and other partners who are of the same persuasion on the issue who raise those issues. What we need to happen is that criminal justice agencies themselves like the Prison Service and the government when considering criminal justice policy and many others proactively take the children's rights perspective into account from the start, rather than this being raised by, I suppose, the legal suspects. Crucially, there has not yet, we hope, been a culture change in the Scottish Prison Service and the wider criminal justice system as a whole whereby the rights and wellbeing of the children of prisoners are listed as to be the key aspect of its purpose, or even its core business as it were. Briefly on that, I would say that for me there is a very important and fascinating issue really, because it touches on a very wide range of rights that children hold under the UNCRC in relation to the right to be heard, best interest principle, the rights to health, education and a good standard of living, and I could go on. It really highlights how pervasive to a child's life the imprisonment of a parent is or can be. And secondly, I think it is a really good illustration of what children's rights are about, I think, because criminal justice isn't traditionally seen as a children's issue, but the point of children's rights is, I would argue, that these rights have to be respected, protected and fulfilled in relation to all aspects of policy and practice that affect the child's life. They cut across all areas of policy and practice. Now for the implications for policy and practice of the report's findings - again as I already mentioned, we addressed the original recommendations under 4 headings. The first thing is the rights of children in criminal justice debates - and there we looked at a wide variety of issues in mainstream politically (... unclear) on criminal justice and penal policy. And to take one example, the massive increase of the prison population in Scotland over the last decade or so affects prison overcrowding being one major effect of that, and that affects children in various different ways, directly and indirectly. It is particularly pronounced in relation to the female prison population which has more than double in the same time frame. Children's views and experiences therefore have to feature in the debate around the use of imprisonment and the alternatives that there may be. So there is a wider penal policy issue where the children's rights perspective is key, we would argue. At a basic level it's because more prisoners means more children of prisoners, simple as that. We estimate that around 16,500 children are affected by the imprisonment of a parent in Scotland each year, but we can't say for sure because no one is counting, so we don't know. That in itself is an issue which I'll speak a bit later in terms of supporting children. The second theme is the rights and status of children in decision making about parents who offend - it's about decision making about individual parents in the courts and other places. And one of the general principles of the UNCRC is that the child's best interests shall be a primary consideration in any decision that affects the child's life, and imprisonment of parent plainly is a decision that is going to have a huge impact on a child's rights and wellbeing. But there is actually no mechanism by which the child's best interests are considered in the key decisions made in the criminal justice system such as the decisions about bail or remand, sentencing and also release - including temporary release and home detention curfew. Nor is there actually duty on the courts to take this into account in sentencing or any other decisions. This is not to say that it never happens - it does, but it is very patchy and there is no guarantee that this happens with very real results for the children and the other end, the receiving end of those decisions. The third theme is support for children of prisoners, and under this heading we looked at the support mechanisms in place for children affected by parental imprisonment and identified what we see as the challenge for those support structures, and that is to provide early, appropriate and non-stigmatising support for those children of prisoners who need it. I already mentioned identification in relation to data of numbers and so on. Support services often simply do not know who the children of prisoners are, not even how many there are in their area. We were told that children of prisoners are an invisible group at school and that there is a tendency, generally, to see supporting them as someone else's business. And if getting it right for every child and the additional support for learning framework are to secure adequate and timely support for those children, then there needs to be early, appropriate and proportionate information sharing between adult and children's services, which is a longstanding problem which has been recognised by Ministers in relation to implementation of getting the welfare of a child, for example. However, having said that about information sharing, practitioners must be very careful to avoid stigmatising children and exposing them to bullying and to disconnection - that is a very real fear among children of prisoners themselves and their families. The fourth and final theme is contact and visiting during parental imprisonment. And in response to the 2008 report, the original report, the Scottish Prison Service put in place Good Practice Guidelines for working with children and families of prisoners, and that has been a very welcome step, and what the review felt was that there was somewhat patchy implementation on this action from prison level - it's one of the key findings from that section. And the SPS is now reviewing the operation of the guidelines with a view to strengthening them further, which is very welcome of course. There are a number of issues under that that relate to visiting parents in prison - things like provision of information to children and families and about the support available is lacking, and that is despite the actually very laudable work of Family Contact Officers in place across the prison sector, which is one of the more positive stories of the review. Long distances to prisons cause real problems for children, real practical problems of getting there for a visit, and especially to be able to go and visit a prison parent out of school hours if there are hours and hours of travel time, which can often be the case, especially with national facilities like the women's prison at Corntonvale and the Young Offenders Institution at Polmont. There is some support available, but there is not a lot of it and it is badly advertised I would say. Much more can be done to improve that. And before I conclude, just one more issue under this fourth heading, which I think is also something that sums up the whole report, or thread that runs through it, rather well - and I would very much like to mention it. It also sums up the magnitude of the challenge that the report poses - there are now child focussed or bonding visits available at every prison, which is basically longer, somewhat more private visits specifically for an imprisoned parent and their child or children, and it goes without saying that this is obviously very welcome if implemented properly. What our report found is that these are still seen across the Scottish Prison Service, or certainly by many within it, as a privilege of the prisoner rather than the right of the child - and that means that such visits can be tied in with a disciplinary regime at the prison and can be withdrawn as a punishment. And for me this really very clearly illustrates that children's rights have not yet permeated the work of the Scottish Prison Service, and it's also reflected elsewhere across the criminal justice system that the culture change across the system that would really move on the rights and status of the children of prisoners is yet to really pick up pace. And we hope that our report, along with reports ... well it's a series of three by now - along with some other current developments such as the Angelini Commission on women offenders, but also a report from a recent United Nations event on this issue will re-energise the issue in Scotland and secure more progress for the children of prisoners.

Int Thank you.