The importance of youth participation for supporting families affected by imprisonment

At Families Outside, we recognise the importance of including children and young people in our work.

Scottish Government figures estimate that 20,000-27,000 children in Scotland have a parent in prison each year – more than those affected by divorce. The imprisonment of a household member is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), which can mean that children and young people affected are more likely to develop serious mental and physical ill health and social well-being later in life, if they do not have access to the proper support.

Although the impact of imprisonment is widespread, this can have a particular effect during childhood. Children are more likely to be overlooked in decisions that affect them, like when a family member is remanded or sentenced to custody. When a mother goes to prison, only 5% of children stay in the family home which can have a huge impact. This is why it is vital that these relationships are considered in sentencing.

The Scottish Government’s Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) principal places the child/young person and their family at the heart of any work to support them, promoting choice and full participation in decisions affecting them. Soon, this will be further legally enforced – with the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots law this summer. Article 12 of the UNCRC states that every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. It is decision-makers’ legal responsibility to ask children for their opinions so they can act in their best interests. Since a child’s first decision is not final, there should be multiple opportunities for a child to give their views. It’s important that we ask, and ask again.

Image from the Child Impact Assessment toolkit, with kind permission from Time-Matters UK

In 2022, the “This is Me”: A Child Impact Assessment toolkit was co-created by the Prison Reform Trust alongside children and young people with lived experience of a parent in the criminal justice system. It aims to ensure children’s voices are heard so they get the support they need at the earliest opportunity by providing a framework through which practitioners can understand and support the unique circumstances of each individual. When children and young people are included in work and decisions affecting them, the detrimental impact of ACEs on their health and well-being are likely reduced.

On top of this, it is vital children and young people be included in wider work undertaken to influence change in society. At Families Outside, the families we support are experts in their own lives, at any age and stage of their journey, and we are better placed to support them when we know their wants and needs. This is something we never assume as families affected by imprisonment face different – and unique – challenges. Therefore, we are continually improving and growing our engagement model to include family members of all ages.

This summer, we are hosting a family event which has prioritised family involvement from the beginning. The planning process began with a survey to gather feedback and provide family members an opportunity to express interest in further involvement with planning. It’s important to us that children and young people are also included in this planning as we expect that their wants will not be the same as adults’. Children and young people have a right to be heard and it is important that this is upheld by voluntary and statutory organisations alike.

While it’s vital that children and young people affected by imprisonment participate in our work, it’s also important that other young people get involved with us. At Families Outside, we work to influence wider social change, alongside our direct support. We cannot do this without the support of those who may not be affected by imprisonment. Young people can find it challenging to navigate life when faced with the added pressures of financial concerns and housing instability. This is only compounded by the stigma associated with a family member’s imprisonment, making it difficult to talk about their situation and reach out for help. This stigma cannot be eliminated if those who are not affected by imprisonment do not also take steps to tackle it.

Pupils from Lenzie Academy with East Dunbartonshire Council Provost Gillian Renwick

Pupils at Lenzie Academy in East Dunbartonshire chose to highlight the work of Families Outside as part of their Youth Philanthropy Initiative project, despite not being affected by imprisonment themselves. Since the final of the Initiative where they presented their video, we’ve been collaborating with the pupils to launch the video at an event in East Dunbartonshire. It is projects like these – where we work together united – that help combat stigma for families affected by imprisonment for good.


This article was originally featured by Children in Scotland. Read it here.

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