Education and Skills Committee Inquiry into Vulnerable Children during the COVID-19 pandemic
Families Outside is a national independent charity that works solely on behalf of children and families affected by imprisonment in Scotland. We do this through provision of a national freephone helpline for families and for the professionals who work with them, as well as through development of policy and practice, delivery of training, and face-to-face support.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, Families Outside is following Government guidelines ensuring that all staff work from home. Our Helpline is still fully operational, while our Regional Family Support Coordinators continue to provide much needed support and advice via telephone, email, and video.
The Scottish Government estimates that 20,000 – 27,000 children in Scotland experience a parent’s imprisonment each year. Families Outside believes that this figure underestimates the number of children and young people affected by imprisonment. Information from the Glasgow Community Justice Outcomes Improvement Plan (CJOIP) states that an estimated 12,000 children and young people experience a parent’s imprisonment each year. In addition, the Glasgow CJOIP states that 1 in every 5 people imprisoned in Scotland is from Glasgow. This would suggest that closer to 60,000 children and young people in Scotland are affected by parental imprisonment annually.
Section 107 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016 makes provision for a person to be asked after receiving a custodial sentence if they have children and for the details of those children to be provided. This is also a requirement of Rule 7 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules) 2015. Section 107 of the 2016 Act has yet to be implemented, so we are unaware of the exact number.
Imprisonment of a household member is one of the ten Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) proven to increase risk to the long-term development and wellbeing of children and young people. This particular ACE also increases the likelihood of exposure to other ACEs by five times (Turney 2018). Given that anywhere between 20,000 and 60,000 children and young people are affected by imprisonment every year, Families Outside believes it is essential for the Committee to consider the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and young people who are affected by parental imprisonment.
Families who are affected by imprisonment are already at risk of stigmatisation and isolation within their communities. A number of children and families we work with require support to re-integrate into their local community. While we fully welcome this Inquiry, we are concerned that defining families and children as “vulnerable” may discourage families from seeking the help they are entitled to. As children and families who are affected by imprisonment already face stigma and isolation, we are fearful that they are less likely to access support. This may be partly because they don’t feel they are entitled as they don’t consider themselves to be vulnerable and/or because they fear further stigmatisation.
To ensure that children and families seek out and receive the support they are entitled to, Families Outside believes that the Scottish Government and local authorities should refrain from using the term “vulnerable” wherever possible.
Families Outside continues to work with families remotely to ensure they receive the advice and support they need over this difficult time. This is largely carried out by telephone. A number of the families that we support do not have access to a digital device such as a laptop or tablet to access school work, and even where they do, they can’t always afford a data package or WiFi connection.
We welcome all measures that are being put in place across Scotland to fix this digital divide. Across local authorities and charities, a number of funds have become available in addition to the flexibility provided by the Scottish Government through the Pupil Equity Fund to provide devices and connectivity. The levels of support vary across Scotland, but we understand that this is a new area for everybody, and it will take time to ensure 100% coverage.
Families Outside believes that, on a national level, a commitment should be made to ensure that all children are able to connect digitally to access education and basic emotional support. We are concerned that due to supply chain delays, any new equipment ordered by local authorities may take weeks or even months to arrive. If this is the case, it could be mid-June before some pupils are digitally connected. To ensure there are no unnecessary delays, Families Outside would recommend that local authorities and the Scottish Government work together to consider where current devices could be redeployed, such as laptops and iPads already used in schools. This would then allow focus on providing WiFi connection and/or data allowance where required.
Early return to school
Families Outside notes the evidence already given by the Deputy First Minister on the possibility of some children and young people deemed as more vulnerable than others returning to school early. This would be a welcome step. To reiterate our earlier point, we would ask that the Scottish Government and local authorities carefully consider the messaging around this.
Children and families affected by imprisonment are likely to face significant pressure in their everyday lives. Imprisonment of a family member results in a loss of income to the family home, creating instability for the family. One of the biggest issues raised by families with our Helpline and Regional Family Support Coordinators is the concern they have about their loved one in prison. The current COVID-19 pandemic and the required changes within the prison regime such as suspension of prison visits have added to these concerns. These concerns take a considerable toll on a family’s mental wellbeing. Allowing children affected by imprisonment to return to school early would take pressure off those families by allowing single parents and carers a break, providing basic emotional support to children, and ensuring no child falls behind in their learning.
During this time, some people are still entering the criminal justice system. Families Outside has recently been contacted by a Head Teacher for advice, as the Head Teacher noticed a change in the child and that the child wasn’t engaging in the learning tasks. The Head Teacher discovered that the child’s father had been remanded in custody, which had caused uncertainty and anxiety for those remaining at home. The positive impact of school and learning, which remains one of the only senses of normality for children, cannot be emphasised enough for families affected by imprisonment. Additional support to continue learning, and a friendly voice, even at the other end of a phone call, can make a huge difference in supporting the child and wider family at what is a traumatic time. Allowing children affected by imprisonment to return to school early would not only support learning but also provide basic vital emotional support.
Families Outside welcomes the steps taken by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service to manage and contain COVID-19 within the Scottish prison estate. One of these measures was to use the powers in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 to allow the emergency release of some people from prison. Families Outside believes this is a positive step.
However, we acknowledge in a very small minority of cases, the return of a person from prison isn’t always a positive experience for the rest of the family. In some cases where this has happened, the family has ‘flown under the radar’, remaining invisible to identification for support. Had the situation been identified earlier, help and support being made available earlier could have made a huge difference. Families Outside supports the steps that have been taken to support the release of prisoners in these circumstances. Public sector agencies have been working together to ensure that the needs of people are met on release; even very simple tasks such as ensuring a person is registered with a GP makes a huge difference in supporting the person being released from prison and their family and can lead to positive outcomes such as reintegration into their community and wider society and reduce the chances of reoffending.
As public sector bodies are sharing information on the people who are being released from prison and carrying out a number of activities to ensure that everybody is supported during this current pandemic, we feel that these activities could be extended to further support families. For example, a local authority could also phone the household in which a person being released from prison is residing to ensure that they have everything they require in line with the action being taken to support a number of people across society. During this time there has been greater information sharing by agencies in preparation for people being released from prison under Emergency Release. Local authorities have also been provided with shielding lists so that they can contact affected persons to ensure they have the support and essentials they require at this time Taking these actions would ensure that families are supported at this difficult time.
Families Outside are currently working on a piece of research regarding information sharing. Early analysis of the research shows that families are open to their information being shared if it aimed to help them in a non-judgemental way. The above suggestion would align with that view that has been expressed by families.
We must stress at this point the importance of ensuring that all children and young people are digitally connected, and the need to ensure that provisions are put in place so that children and young people have the means to connect digitally with their school and teacher.
An issue we would like to raise with the Committee concerns the impact of media coverage of COVID-19 related stories and the criminal justice system. Earlier in our response, we highlighted that a number of families we work with contact us with concerns for their relative and/or loved one in prison. The concerns have increased during the pandemic (calls to our Helpline have increased by 126% compared to this time last year), reflecting the stress and anxiety for the families involved. We are grateful to the Scottish Prison Service for starting to release figures on the number of people in the prison estate who are self-isolating and who have tested positive, as well as a fact sheet on what the changes to the prison regime during this time mean for their family member inside.
There have been a few occasions over the last two months where stories have broken in the press. Two, in particular, included the leak that mobile phones would be available for in-cell use and the conditions of the prison regime at present. It is absolutely right that the press report on the criminal justice system, but these stories increase the concern, stress, and anxiety that families have for their family members inside. As mentioned earlier, this can take a toll on a family’s mental wellbeing, which can have a knock-on effect for the wider family. This adds considerable pressure onto the remaining parent / carer and wider family, resulting in a child falling behind in their learning, suffering from trauma and stress, and disengaging from school work and other activities.
Coronavirus (No. 2) (Scotland) Bill
Families Outside acknowledges that a range of measures will need to be taken to support public services and the judiciary over the coming months. The Coronavirus (No.2) (Scotland) Bill that has been laid in Parliament contains a number of measures which will extend the statutory deadlines for proceedings in the criminal justice system. Families Outside does not oppose these measures, as they are required to assist the Courts in considering business at this time. We would like to highlight, however, that extending the statutory deadlines will increase the uncertainty and stress on families.
The deadlines that are currently in place give families certainty as to the time length before proceedings begin or progress. For example, families know that the maximum length of time their family member can be held on remand is 120 days. By extending the statutory deadlines, the uncertainty and stress for families will be increased and could have knock-on effects for the children left behind. Families Outside would welcome reasonable measures being put in place to ensure that all support possible is put in place for children, young people, and families who are affected by the criminal justice system and imprisonment.
Families Outside is grateful for the opportunity to response the Committee’s inquiry into vulnerable children and young people during this COVID-19 pandemic. More information on the Committee’s Inquiry can be found here.