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Safeguarding children when sentencing mothers

January 30, 2018

It is estimated that 17,000 children every year are affected by maternal imprisonment in England and Wales. 95 per cent (16,000) of these children are forced to leave their homes as their mother's imprisonment leaves them without an adult to take care of them.

Despite this, no government agency has responsibility for ensuring the welfare of these children is safeguarded and their rights are protected.

Dr Shona Minson, a Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University has conducted research on the implications of maternal imprisonment for children. The study explored the lived experience of children whose mothers were in prison at the time of interview. It is thought to be the largest study of its kind that has been conducted in England and Wales. Members of 27 family groups took part in the research, including 14 children and 22 adults who were taking care of children during their mother's imprisonment.

The research findings show that the experience of having a mother in prison not only negatively impacts a child's relationship with their mother, but can affect every area of their lives including their education, health, and wellbeing. The knock-on effects of stigmatisation may also lead to social isolation and discrimination. The work highlights the importance of considering child dependents and understanding the profound impact that maternal imprisonment can have on children who themselves have done nothing wrong. In the past week research from 2 other countries has been published indicating that parental imprisonment in childhood also contributes to premature death as an adult.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and supported by the Prison Reform Trust Transforming Lives programme Dr Minson's research findings have been used to create information resources for all criminal justice professionals involved in adult sentencing decisions, to support understanding of the impacts of maternal imprisonment on children.

Launching nationwide on 24 January, the resource includes short films and briefing papers, which will be used across the legal profession including by the Judicial College, Magistrates Association, Law Society, Criminal Bar Association and Probation services.

Dr Minson said: 'My research found that children whose mothers are sent to prison are not afforded any of the same protections or support which are applied to children separated from their parents within the family courts as a result of care proceedings. Children of imprisoned mothers face extremely challenging circumstances which impact not only upon their immediate situations but also their future life chances.'

It is hoped that these resources will ensure that all professionals involved in sentencing, have a more comprehensive understanding of the potential impacts on children if their mother is imprisoned, and this will enable children's welfare to be effectively safeguarded.

Welcoming the new resources, Jenny Earle of the Prison Reform Trust said 'Most of the solutions to women's offending lie in the community - and it is especially important where children are impacted that their best interests be considered and their voices be heard.'
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Notes to editors:

Film clips can be viewed at https://youtu.be/L18nFBXzHlI

Dr Shona Minson

Dr Shona Minson practiced as a barrister in family and criminal law and her professional experience led to her research interest in the intersection between families and the criminal law. Based at the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, her work analysed the place of children in maternal sentencing decisions in England and Wales, and explored the lived experience of children whose mothers are imprisoned, and the impact of imprisonment on the adults who step in to care for these children.

Funded by an Impact Acceleration Award from the Economic and Social Research Council, through the University of Oxford, and with the support of the Prison Reform Trust under the Transforming Lives Programme, she has built on the findings of her research to provide information films to all legal professionals involved in adult criminal sentencing decisions, on the impacts on children of maternal imprisonment. It is hoped that this will promote the safeguarding of children within criminal sentencing proceedings.

The Prison Reform Trust

The Prison Reform Trust is an independent UK charity working to create a just, humane and effective prison system. We have a longstanding interest in improving criminal justice outcomes for women and our strategy to reduce the unnecessary imprisonment of women in the UK is supported by the Big Lottery Fund.

The Transforming Lives programme: reducing women's imprisonment

About 13,000 women are sent to prison in the UK every year, twice as many as twenty years ago, many on remand or to serve short sentences for non-violent offences, often for a first offence. Thousands of children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment every year. Yet most of the solutions to women's offending lie in the community. The Prison Reform Trust is working with other national and local organisations to promote more effective responses to women in contact with the criminal justice system. It is a specific objective of the Transforming Lives programme to reduce the numbers of women in prison who are affected by domestic abuse. The Big Lottery Fund invested £1,194,952 into The Transforming Lives programme. For further information see http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/women

University of Oxford

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