Thousands of children have not seen parents for a year: hidden impact of COVID on prisoners’ families

Thousands of children have not seen parents for a year: hidden impact of COVID on prisoners’ families

Much has been heard about the devastating impact of COVID-19 on families, torn apart by lockdown restrictions. But Oxford research today has found thousands of children in the UK, have not seen their parents for a year.

It is estimated that each year 300,000 children in England and Wales have a parent in prison and, the research finds, many have not had any face-to-face contact with those parents since 13 March 2020, when visits were stopped across the prison estate. While some institutions allowed visiting in the summer, others did not – leaving many thousands of children without seeing a parent for a full year.

Based on research between April and June, the report from Law researcher, Shona Minson, reveals that prior to the pandemic, only 4% of children had no contact with imprisoned parents. More than half had at least one visit each week and daily calls. But, even telephone calls in prison have been restricted because of the pandemic. And the report concludes, ‘This loss of contact has negatively impacted children’s relationships with their imprisoned parents and their mental health and well-being. Children may not understand why contact has stopped and may blame themselves.’

‘This amounts to an interference with children’s right to family life,’ says the report. ‘Many  of  these children  enjoyed  regular  and  positive  contact  with  their  parent  prior  to  prison lockdown.... The effects of this loss of contact and disruption to family relationships are likely to be long term and will affect family reunification and resettlement after imprisonment.’

Other jurisdictions have managed to provide alternative options for children. But, while the world has become accustomed to online and virtual meetings, there has been little provision of video calls for children of prisoners to compensate for the lack of contact.

‘It wasn’t until 28 January 2021 that the Ministry of Justice announced that all prisons in England and Wales have the ability to provide video calls,’ says the study, which also reveals, there was an average of just over one video phone call in 10 months for prisoners across much of the country – although Northern Ireland arranged fortnightly video calls.

Younger children, in particular, have been seriously affected. The report states, ‘Phone calls are of limited use with young or non-verbal children due to their lack of speech.’

It continues, ‘Without the re-enforcement of face to face visits, young children did not seem to recognise or know  their  parent’s  voice  when  they  heard them speaking on  the  telephone. There was concern amongst all caregivers of babies and toddlers that the children were forgetting their parents and had lost any attachment they had formed.’

But it was not just the youngest children who have suffered. According to the report, ‘Almost all participants [care-givers] reported that the children were experiencing sadness and grief related to the loss of contact with their parent.’

Children were found to be suffering from depression and anxiety and there were incidences of self-harm and the onset of eating disorders. Almost all participants were concerned about the difficulties families would face when the parent was released, as particularly for young children, the parent was a virtual stranger.

The report calls for the Government to ‘provide a clear and publicly communicated roadmap for the re-establishment of prison visits, and the lifting of restrictions’. And it concludes, in future:

  • Children of prisoners should have the same status as looked-after children, so they attend school, if appropriate;
  • Video calls should be made available once a week and there should be no restriction on the number of children on the call;
  • Prisoners should be given access to secured mobile phones, to enable frequent contact with children;
  • Prisons should communicate with families about the options for visiting; and
  • Consideration should be given to early release on license for parents.

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