Irish Penal Reform Trust

Opportunities to improve outcomes for children with a parent in prison are being missed – IPRT

15th July 2021

Opportunities to improve outcomes for children with a parent in prison are being missed – IPRT

Ahead of the launch of a new IPRT report, Ombudsman for Children reminds State and Society of the need to support these children


Gaps in policy and service provision mean that opportunities to safeguard the rights and support the needs of children and families with a family member in prison are continually being missed. This is at the core of a new report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) which is being launched today (Thursday 15 July 2021) by the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon.

Entitled ‘Piecing It Together: Supporting Children and Families with a Family Member in Prison in Ireland’, the 56-page report by IPRT assesses progress since 2012 on a series of recommendations made to Government, the Courts and Courts Service, the Irish Prison Service, the Department of Education, and media, among others.

While the report details some pockets of good practice in Ireland, it highlights a number of significant gaps, including: limited national recognition of the rights of children with a family member in prison; the continued lack of any national support services for these children; visiting conditions that are not child-friendly; limited data and research; and stigmatisation of these children and their families.

Ahead of the launch of the new IPRT report, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon commented:

“Children with parents in prison are often the forgotten victims of crime and it is important for me, as Ombudsman for Children, to remind our State and our Society that they need to be supported.

“Having a parent in prison comes with a massive stigma and the necessity for secrecy for many children. Unfortunately, in Ireland, we know all too well the huge price children pay when they are forced to keep secrets.

“Prisoner’s children are the invisible victims of crime and, while they have done nothing wrong, the emotional, practical and psychological impact of having a mother or father in prison can be profound. We need to look at what we can do to make both the justice system and the prison system more child centred.”

Irish research based on data from the longitudinal Growing up in Ireland study shows that children who had a parent in prison reported higher levels of anxiety at the age of nine and lower levels of happiness at the age of 13, with higher levels of emotional difficulties for the children also reported by their primary caregiver.

In response, the ‘Piecing It Together’ report identifies a clear need for inter-agency working, and recommends that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth take a lead role in the development of a specific policy and delivery of services for these children. It urges that all government departments, and in particular children, education and health, recognise children with a family member in prison as a specific cohort in all relevant policies.

Speaking on this need for inter-agency working, IPRT Executive Director, Fíona Ní Chinnéide commented:

“When society, through the Courts, puts a parent in prison, this has a massive impact on their family. It can have negative impacts on a child’s health, education, and wellbeing. We need departments and their agencies to step up and join the dots to stop these children from falling through the cracks. We can no longer continue with the mindset that these children are ‘someone else’s responsibility’.

“For some of these children, the imprisonment of a parent is just one of the multiple adversities they are facing in their lives. Imprisonment of a parent is associated with a fivefold increase in exposure to other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). We have to do much more to support these children and their families when their parent is in prison. We also have to ensure that imprisonment, particularly of expectant mothers and mothers of small children, is a sanction of last resort.

“Despite recommendations since 2012 for more data and research, we still don’t have an accurate picture of the number of children around Ireland who have a parent in prison. Without this data, we cannot ensure they are able to access the specific supports they deserve. Collection and publication of accurate data is crucial to inform service delivery nationwide and ensure the rights of these children are being met, while still respecting their rights to privacy.”

Commenting on the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on children and families with a family member in prison, Fíona continued:

“All children have the right under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to maintain contact with their mothers or fathers, and this cannot be taken away because of the actions of their parent. In normal times, separation from an imprisoned parent is an identified trauma experienced by children and the last year has seen this trauma multiplied. Many of these children have not had any physical contact at all with their parent since early March 2020. Families are telling us that they are losing hope and connection.

“While vaccinations offer hope, it is likely that prisons will continue to adopt some form of restrictions to minimise the spread of Covid-19. A proportionate response to risk and meaningful consideration of the long-term impact on children and families must be central to decision-making by the Irish Prison Service on re-opening of prison visits. In particular, the current limit of just one child for a 15-minute screened visit every fortnight must be revisited.

“We need to see recognition of the additional layer of difficulty and trauma these children have faced as part of the broader response to Covid-19.”

Estimates suggest that around 10,000 children a year experience the imprisonment of a parent in Ireland. Prison fails to address and often deepens many of the underlying causes of crime such as poverty, mental health, addiction, and homelessness. Families affected by imprisonment are overwhelmingly located in areas with the highest levels of deprivation, with the harmful effects of prison exacerbating disadvantage and discrimination.

For all media enquires or to arrange interview with an IPRT spokesperson, contact Pamela: +353 (0) 86 043 3060 or communications@iprt.ie


NOTE TO EDITORS

  1. *New report* Piecing it Together: Supporting Children and Families with a Family Member in Prison in Ireland
    This new report from the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is a follow-up to a 2012 report by IPRT. The report examines the policy and legislative developments for these children and families since then. An embargoed (until 10:00 15.07.2021) copy of Piecing it Together is available here.
    Details of the launch and speakers are available here. Registration closes at 1pm. Media welcome.
    This project was kindly supported by the Katharine Howard Foundation and St Stephen’s Green Trust.
     
  2. Data on children with a parent in prison in Ireland
    Currently, there are no regularly published data on the number of children who have a parent in prison in Ireland. The most recent available data, based on self-declared information by prisoners, found that 5,150 children had a parent in prison on one day in April this year. This suggests approximately 10,000 children experience parental imprisonment over the course of a year.
     
  3. Covid-19 restrictions on family visits
    Aside from the brief easing of restrictions in late summer and Christmas 2020, family visits to Irish prisons have been suspended since March 2020.
    Visits are recommencing in two of the country’s male prisons this week. There have been no specific details published about the return of visits in either female prison. Visits continue to be limited to no more than one child per visit per prisoner. IPRT has previously called for this disproportionate blanket limit on the number of children who can visit to be removed.
     
  4. The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy. www.iprt.ie
     
  5. The Action for Children and Families of Prisoners Network is a new network that focuses on bringing about positive sustained change for children and families with a family member in prison. The experiences and knowledge of network members has directly fed into this report. www.actionforfamilies.ie/
     
  6. The Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) is an independent human rights institution that promotes the rights and welfare of young people under 18 years of age living in Ireland. www.oco.ie

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