Assessing the impact of maternal imprisonment on children

Assessing the impact of maternal imprisonment on children

It was back in 2002 when I first thought about the impact of maternal imprisonment on children. I was a fairly new teacher at the time, responsible for the care and wellbeing of secondary pupils. When a mother to three of the children under my care was sentenced to life in prison, there was no coordinated care plan, no interagency collaboration, just an extremely unhelpful newspaper article. I knew things should, and could, be better and became passionate about the role of schools in supporting families affected by imprisonment. This became the focus of my original Churchill Fellowship in 2012.

Assessing the impact of maternal imprisonment on children
"The most powerful advocates for the Child Impact Assessment are children and young people themselves." - Sarah Beresford, Fellow

Fast forward almost 20 years, and, depressingly, very little has changed. Despite the call for many years now to take children into consideration when a primary carer is in the criminal justice system, there are still children ending up in unsuitable or dangerous care arrangements following the imprisonment of their mother. It is in this context that I have co-created, with children with lived experience of having a care-giver in the criminal justice system, a Child Impact Assessment. Its purpose is to do exactly as it says – assess the impact on children in and of their own right at key stages of their mother’s journey in the criminal justice system. This includes when the arrest takes place, attending court hearings and sentencing, prison or community sentence and release. It has been written with, for, and by children and is based around a set of simple questions to help children identify their own needs.

An excerpt from the introduction gives a flavour: “By filling in this form, you will be helping the people whose job it is to help children in your situation do it better. Most importantly, you will have an opportunity to talk about your feelings, ask any questions, raise any worries you have, and get the help and support you feel you need at the time that you need it. It is something that you can come back to again and again, as your thoughts and feelings may change over time. You may prefer to draw a picture to describe how you feel, rather than use words – the important thing is that this is about you and what’s right for you!”

Thanks to the Activate Fund, and in close collaboration with the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), I am testing out the Child Impact Assessment to see how a tool like this might be embedded into existing systems and processes whilst crucially remaining child-centred. Over and over, children have told me that they want to be included in decisions made about them, particularly around contact with their mother in prison. Some children may choose not to have contact for a limited (or longer) time; others may want regular visits and phone calls. What is key is that each child feels they are listened to and that they have opportunities to revisit decisions and change their minds.

My Activate project has a two-pronged approach. Firstly, I am collating feedback on the usefulness of the Child Impact Assessment from children throughout the UK (although the jurisdictions differ, the issues remain the same) who have experience of a mother in the criminal justice system. I’ll also be collecting the experience of the staff who support them, as well as mothers in the criminal justice system and those who support them. Secondly, I am hoping to influence thinking and development across sectors, including criminal justice, social work, education, health, the police and judiciary. I hope this will increase awareness of the concept of the Child Impact Assessment and of why it is important to consider the welfare of children at each and every stage of the criminal justice system. This means engaging with people and groups locally, regionally, and nationally – demonstrated in a day recently when I met with a Bristol Children’s Centre, the North Lanarkshire Community Justice Partnership, and the Ministry of Justice in Westminster.

The most powerful advocates for the Child Impact Assessment are children and young people themselves. Recently, two sisters spoke at a Clinks workshop facilitated by PRT. They had received no support when their mother was arrested and imprisoned. “If I’d had set questions like these to ask me how I was feeling and how I was doing”, one of them said, “it would have been a lot better for me… It would have really helped me.” They were in no doubt that having a tool like the Child Impact Assessment would have ensured they got support much sooner, rather than having to wait for a crisis situation.

As I look back on my own journey in this field, 20 years seems a very long time to still be saying the same things. What excites me most about this Activate project is that it offers something concrete into a space where there have only been words (and often not enough of those). The Child Impact Assessment may not be the definitive answer, but I am hopeful it will lead to further action.

If now is not the time to assess the impact on children when a mother goes to prison, then when?

If you would like to receive further information about this project and details on how to get involved, you can read more here or contact Sarah directly on


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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