We spoke with Sarah Beresford, Prison Reform Trust Associate and Churchill Fellow, about piloting a new assessment framework for supporting children who have a mother in the criminal justice system.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to developing an assessment framework that focuses on supporting children whose caregivers are involved in the justice system?
My background is in education originally and, while in that role, I supported three children whose mum was sentenced to life in prison. At that time, I thought I knew and understood all sorts of issues that children could face, but I had never thought about the issue of imprisonment, far less considered the impact on children. I was shocked that, as a teacher, the only information I got was from a newspaper article. As part of my role in pastoral care, I visited her in prison and it was this experience that changed my life, as I began to think about how many other families were dealing with such a difficult situation.
I left teaching, did some research into how schools can better support families affected by imprisonment and started working for Families Outside in Scotland, managing their family support team. In that role, I joined the conversation about Child Impact Assessments and how to make sure the voice of the child is listened to at each stage of the justice system. Assessments on the impact of having a parent in the justice system on a child have been long called for by a number of different groups. More recently in 2018, the Council of Europe endorsed this concept, and it is also underpinned by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In 2016, I started working with the Prison Reform Trust, focusing on women in the criminal justice system, and this reminded me how deeply children with a primary carer in the system are impacted by imprisonment. In addition to the grief, shame and stigma commonly experienced by children impacted by imprisonment, when it’s a primary carer, they often lose their home and school as well. This work, and especially my involvement in the report, ‘What about me?’, looking at the impact of maternal imprisonment on children, refocused my attention on the issue of how to take the needs of children into consideration. Through this project, I did a lot of work here in Merseyside with children with lived experience of having a mum in the justice system. Out of that work, we created this tool, the Child Impact Assessment, based around a set of very simple questions which asks children how they are feeling, how are they coping, what questions they have, what support they need, and who might be best placed to offer that support. I then received funding from the Churchill Fellowship to pilot the assessment at each stage of the justice system (arrest, court and sentencing, community sentence, imprisonment and release), to test it out and evaluate how it could be best used to support all children with a primary carer in the criminal justice system.
Can you explain more about the framework and who can use it?
The questions are designed to be open and not leading. There’s an opportunity for children to draw how they are feeling, rather than talk, if they prefer. And there’s an action plan where children can note what they want to happen, who should take the action, and by when. Alongside the questions are accompanying notes for anyone filling in the Child Impact Assessment with children. The notes provide background information and some suggested actions of what children might need at each stage. The key thing about this assessment is that it’s very child-led. It’s important that it’s about how the children feel and what they want to happen; that they’re not just being told what decisions have been made about them, they are part of the decision-making process. It’s not a prescriptive tool, and there’s no rule that the assessment must be carried out by a particular professional such as a social worker or a probation officer. Anyone can use the assessment tool, and we should allow the children to tell us who the adults are that they know and trust.
To give an example of this from my time at Families Outside, my colleague was working with a 7-year-old boy whose father was in prison. He was struggling to open up, and my colleague suggested that we ask him who he would like to speak with, and he chose the school dinner lady. Following a discussion with those involved, and providing the necessary support to the dinner lady, we arranged this. The boy was delighted and opened up, and it’s a really good example of a child choosing who their trusted adult is. It’s not about the form or assessment, it’s about the relationship and trust and what can come from that. Going through the criminal justice process is so stressful, and full of stigma and shame, so relationships of trust are really important and that’s where change can happen.
I developed the assessment with children aged 5 to 19, and one of the key questions I have is how to use this tool with younger children who have limited language or children with any learning difficulties. I’ve been in contact with organisations such as Birth Companions about the idea of how to assess the needs of an unborn child. I don’t yet have the answers but it’s important to have those conversations. Ideally, it could be used with a child of any age as long as there is an adult who can put themselves in the shoes of that child. A vital element of this work is understanding who is best placed to represent the views of children who may not be able to speak for themselves. Crucial to me in this project are organisations, usually from the voluntary sector, that work with families affected by imprisonment; organisations like Pact, POPS, NIACRO, Time Matters-UK, Families Outside, Nepacs, and Out There that do this work and have those relationships with families.
Have you encountered any challenges in developing this project?
There are so many different contexts in which the assessment can be used. That’s one of the huge opportunities of this project, but also one of the big challenges to get the project off the ground. I’ve had quite a few positive responses from people saying that they will try the tool in their different contexts. This approach is about listening to each individual person in a family unit about what is right for them, and that can be difficult because it’s not one single process or system. It’s about putting people before processes. While this can be challenging, it also offers an amazing opportunity to re-imagine how we do things. At the heart of systems and processes must be people. I want it to be a tool that supports already existing relationships and work. My hope is that it will support staff in their roles and not be an additional task for them to do.
What are the next steps following the initial pilot?
The next step is to start using the assessment on the ground and have people feed back to me using an evaluation form. At the same time, I’m coordinating some roundtable discussions with policymakers, people involved in decision-making processes, to have discussions about where and how the framework fits in the wider context, and I want to involve people with lived experience in that. Too often, policymakers and people with lived experience don’t get the chance to meet. But when there’s an opportunity to hear each other’s stories, then that’s a really exciting and dynamic relationship. People’s lived stories can inform policymakers and decision makers, and I think that’s really important.
I want to keep sharing the assessment framework far and wide, speaking to people and giving them visions of how they might use it in their contexts. This tool is by no means the definitive answer to this issue, but it’s a way of offering something to the sector that we can then build on, and help us to start to think about what might work. There have been a number of reports released on this subject, which are really worthwhile, but following each report we need to ask what we should do. This is my attempt to answer that question – it’s something concrete, tangible, and doable that we can try. It’s not the definitive answer, but it’s a start. If we don’t try and do something, we will be sitting here in 20 years’ time with 20 more reports saying the same thing.
If you are interested in learning more or if you would like to be involved in Sarah’s project, please get in contact with her at Sarah.Beresford@prisonreformtrust.org.uk