IT might be unbelievable for some but more than 2,000 children in Oxfordshire have a parent in prison.

Of those, statistics show that 65 per cent of boys will go on to commit crimes.

After seeing those figures, whilst working for the youth rehabilitation team in the county, Sarah Burrows was desperate to refer vulnerable youngsters on to some sort of programme in a bid to slash the statistics and cut out crime.

But it turns out that there was absolutely nothing in place to help them and thousands of children have been slipping through the system – often being singled out or bullied at school for their parents’ actions without any support and sometimes without the school even knowing what’s happening behind closed doors.

That is because there is no database with names of children who have parents in prison.

Despite schools, authorities, and sometimes police being alerted to pupils with parents in the armed forces – children with parents in prison were left to ‘pick up the pieces’ themselves.

Ms Burrows started the charity Children Heard and Seen from her kitchen table about six years ago to be the missing link in the chain.

Before the charity was registered she was the manager at the youth offending team in Oxford and had become interested in people with parents in prison.

She said: “A lot of prisons are working with prisoners and families are secondary to that.

“But our focus is not on the prisoners - it is children focused.”

The charity uses mentoring and activities to support children and young people with parents in prison as well as partners struggling with their relationships.

Some of the activities that the children work on together are things like photobooks to send to their parents in prison of their day-to-day life, or songs expressing how they feel.

Sometimes, just being in a group of children who are in the same boat can help, Ms Burrows explained.

She said: “Parents in prison think it has been difficult for them, because they’re stuck inside, but there is also a family outside struggling.

Read more:

“The child is sometimes the one that is picking up the pieces and having people being unkind to them.

“There’s a lot of isolation, stigma, shame that they have to deal with at school just because of their parents’ actions. They may or may not have a relationship with their parent but in the group work everybody is dealing with the same thing.”

As it is, the charity has about 170 families who they work with but those have mainly come from self-referrals and word of mouth.

She said: “It is working in Oxfordshire because of the word of mouth. Previously it was referrals from schools, the social care workers, and then police – but now families are self-referring.

“The biggest challenge has been identifying who the children and families are because there is no Government database that these children are on.

“There is a database and you can look at who the military families are so they can access the help they need but you can’t do that with families affected by parental imprisonment.

“That’s been the trickiest bit.”

Another challenge has been supporting families during the coronavirus lockdown.

Typically, the charity worked from their base in Oxford and travelled to other areas to put on the activities and groups. Ms Burrows said: “Normally we would offer mentoring sessions, group work, one-to-one support, music therapy and draw and talk classes but since the lockdown we’ve made the decision to put these classes online.

“We’re now running about 15 to 20 groups a week and have opened up to families outside of our geographical location – we’ve had loads more families on board this week.

“We still put on the group sessions and send out the group work and art materials beforehand so that when the children are making something, they are still doing it as part of a group, even online.

“There’s also furniture painting groups for the parents and more serious sessions about what it is like having a partner in prison too and how to carry on that relationship.

“One of the group said their partner had been locked up for 72 hours because of the lockdown – it’s really scary times for some of them. Even if they’re not with their partners anymore but they have children together the children are saying ‘but what about my dad’.

“However, we’ve realised that some of the families don’t have any laptops and things they access the groups on.”

The charity recently appealed for old laptops which could be donated to families who want to be part of the group sessions but don’t have the means. As of last week, 20 laptops were put to good use – but they still need more.

She said: “For some families at the moment there has been a huge challenge.

“We have three staff working at the moment and somebody doing admin work sending out the art packs ahead of the group sessions.

“I am always busy. It is really enjoyable and exhilarating being able to do something to help out but also working all the hours at the same time

“The thing is that through Covid-19 we want to support the families.

“We always want to go to a different area, we have gone to Milton Keynes but again identifying who needs help is the issue.”

She explained that the laptops are needed to help bring together people from outside Oxfordshire – who might not be getting the help they need but could be through online sessions.