Sarah Burrows, the founder of Children Heard and Seen, talks to us about the lack of support for children with parents in prison.

The number of children who have a parent in prison is not officially recorded.

Crest’s Children of Prisoners’ Report (2019) estimated that there are 312,000 incidents a year of losing a parent to custody.

They will not be offered any specific governmental support. Children impacted by parental imprisonment are a vulnerable group through no wrongdoing of their own; by the age of 48 boys with a parent in prison are three times more likely to have a history of drug abuse, unemployment, heavy alcohol abuse, anxiety or depression and broken relationships (cited in Social Care Institute for Excellence 2008), and 65 per cent of boys with a parent in prison go on to commit an offence themselves (MOJ 2008).

If the behavioural and emotional toll inflicted on the children of prisoners is not enough, it is estimated that every £1 invested in supporting prisoners’ families could save the taxpayer £11 (PACT 2012).

When I read these shocking statistics, I could not understand why the Government and local authorities are not doing anything to combat this and therefore decided it was important to set something up to try and change outcomes for these children.

In 2014 I set up a charity specifically for children and families impacted by parental imprisonment – Children Heard and Seen.

I did this initially in my spare time, whilst juggling a full-time job at Oxfordshire County Council in the Youth Justice team.

Whilst I was in the team I saw the number of children entering the criminal justice system who had one or both of their parents in prison and thought, ‘this needs to be prevented, not only for children but for communities not to be victims of crime’.

Since starting it at my kitchen table six years ago, it’s come a long way – the charity now has four full-time employees and over 50 incredible volunteers having supported over 400 children.

I still find it hard to believe that no one knows who these children are, that there is no Government database. They are hidden and invisible children facing complex and challenging issues.

They must deal with the sudden loss of a parent – a parent who has made a mistake but that they love unconditionally.

They have to face the shame, embarrassment and stigma of having a parent in prison. Although it is the parent who has done wrong it is often the whole family who are tarnished. It can mean the loss of an income, often the main earner. Sometimes it is the main carer and so childcare is an issue, or the main carer has to find a job to support the family and has to juggle work and childcare.

It can mean huge changes within their family and to their lives, both emotionally and financially.

Children of prisoners are isolated, often play dates stop or being invited to other children’s parties. They are punished even though they haven’t done anything wrong. There may be whispers and gossip or even bullying. The huge impact on their lives can affect them emotionally.

At Children Heard and Seen we ensure that the support and intervention for the children and their families is tailored to their individual needs and offer a wide range of support including group work activities across Oxfordshire. As 48 per cent have never told anyone outside the family home that their parent is prison, our groups reduce shame and isolation. We offer volunteer mentors, 1-2-1 support on a weekly basis over approximately a year, focusing on positive activities and positive role modelling. The relationship between the mentor and young person is open ended, they have somewhere that they can talk about their feelings – mentoring legitimises their emotions.

I find it hard to believe that we are the only charity in the country that directly supports children impacted by parental imprisonment in their own communities.

My wish for the future is that children impacted by parental imprisonment are all supported.