Sarah Roberts, Families Outside - Women's Penal Policy

Sarah Roberts, Families Outside - Women's Penal Policy

Women offenders: ‘From where I stand…’

This blog is part of a series considering developments two years on from the publication of the report by the Commission on Women Offenders. Sarah Roberts, Child and Family Support Manager at Families Outside, offers her perspective:

When Helen (not her real name) was remanded into custody, a Criminal Justice Social Work (CJSW) report was written - standard procedure for a first-time offender. However, whilst the report mentioned that Helen was the sole carer of three young children, no questions were asked about care arrangements or the impact that her inevitable prison sentence would have on them or about the wider family members who became their guardians. Rather, the report merely stated that “it is assumed that the remaining family [would] take on the care of the children.” Helen received a life sentence, and three children faced life without a mother with no assessment of their needs and no support package in place.

Despite the thirty-seven recommendations in the Angiolini report, the Commission stated that Child Impact Assessments were not necessary as a distinct recommendation because that is included in the role of the CJSW report. However, CJSW reports are not required in the majority of cases, nor do they provide detailed information regarding family circumstances or the impact on children, as is evident in Helen’s case.

An assessment highlighting the needs of Helen’s children, and the family members left caring for them, would have made an enormous difference to everyone and to their subsequent access to support. I know this because I was the children’s teacher. I knew about the crime from newspaper reports, but not once did any of those papers comment on the impact of what had happened on Helen’s children. They didn’t mention the trauma the children had experienced; the shame they felt; the bullying they received; the mental health problems that two of them subsequently developed. They didn’t tell of the pressure and strain on the family members now caring for three extra children. Because no one asked the family how this might impact them, because there was no conversation about support available, the family struggled on, isolated. And because as a school we didn’t understand the impact of imprisonment on children, we struggled on, too – no one really talking about the main issue; no support package that met the actual needs of the children.

What’s important here is that a Child Impact Assessment would not have made a difference to the sentence; Helen would have received a lengthy custodial sentence anyway. Child Impact Assessments are not about reducing or avoiding sentences; rather, they are about focusing on the circumstances of those who will be affected by the sentence - the innocent who are punished alongside their family member. They are about asking, ‘How can we minimise negative impact here?’

I was so concerned about the lack of a Child Impact Assessment for Helen’s children that I left my teaching job and undertook research in the US and Australia, looking at the role of schools in supporting families affected by imprisonment. My research findings are a whole other blog (available on the Families Outside website), but I can summarise all the conversations with imprisoned parents, their children and carers in a few words. When I asked them all what it is they want, they said this: ‘I want someone to ask how I am doing; I want to be listened to; I want to be involved in decisions that are made about me; I want to be connected and included.’ That sounds to me exactly like the purpose of a Child Impact Assessment. We need to stop doing things to people and start doing things with people. We need to take the wider view and focus not solely on the sentence in relation to the offence but on those affected by the sentence.

Perhaps if there had been a Child and Family Impact Assessment for Helen’s children, there could have been support put in place for the family members who were left caring for them; perhaps they would have felt more confident in sharing information with the school; perhaps teachers at my school would have had a greater understanding of how to reach out to families affected by imprisonment; perhaps we could have prevented two children developing mental health issues. With some exceptions, the fact is that CJSW reports do not yet go far enough when it comes to our most vulnerable children and families. Women in the criminal justice system are particularly vulnerable, and we need to keep asking the questions that the Angiolini report raised within its recommendations. What the impact of imprisonment is on the remaining children and families, and how best to support them through this, seems like a good place to start.

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