The extreme disadvantage experienced by young people with parents in prison is little recognised in any country, despite the fact that the number of children affected by parental incarceration is estimated to be approximately 800,000 in the EU. In the UK this number exceeds 160 000, higher than those affected by divorce.
Gathering evidence on the mental health problems of children of imprisoned parents and seeking policy solution to the hardships faced by these children was one of the goals of the multiannual COPING FP7 research project which covered four EU countries (UK, Germany, Sweden and Romania). Children with a parent or carer in prison (especially those older than 11 years) were found to have a significantly greater risk of mental health problems than children in the general population. Strengthening children’s resilience in order to improve coping capacity is seen as a key path to empowering these children and their families, and improving the chances of a healthy, productive adult life.
While services are available in many prisons, stigma remains a barrier to accessing interventions and services and to functioning optimally in the school environment. The recommendations of the projects stressed the need for policy reforms that provide additional support to these children, by making criminal justice systems more child friendly, for example by creating Childrens’ Ombudspersons tasked with securing support for the children in need or by involving children’s perspective in the process. For instance, criminal justice workers could: identify if children are likely to be present before a home is searched and a parent arrested; where possible, plan to limit the use of force and the handcuffing of parents when making an arrest; explain to the child what is happening when the house is being searched and an arrest is being made and what will happen next, and allow the child to say goodbye. Finally, the project calls for support for measures that ensure an ongoing contact of the child with the imprisoned parent and offering support to both the parent or carer in prison and the one taking care of the child, leveraging the ole of both NGOs and schools in filling these roles.