Special Independent investigation: Women in prison

Mothers & prison: Thousands of children being brought up by their grandparents

When mothers are sent to prison, the cost can be devastating for all concerned - as this third part of our week-long investigation shows

Chloe and Rachel still wake in the night crying for their mother. They are not infants. The twins are aged 11 and starting secondary school this month. But their mother, Charmaine, has been in jail for the past three years, and has at least two more to serve.

"It was a terrible, terrible thing for the girls," says their grandmother, Margaret Jones, who, at the age of 59, should be making indulgent grandparental visits but now, instead, cares for them full-time. "When they were only eight they lost their mother, their friends, their school, their home all in one go. I think they found it not too bad to start with – it was a bit like a holiday – but later when they realised she wasn't coming back for such a long time they found it very difficult.

"The twins have gone through some very emotional times – and they still are. Emotionally I think they are still doing quite badly. Even now they need hugs all the time."

More than 4,000 children every year in England and Wales move in with their grandmothers because their mother has been sent to jail. Another 5,000 are taken in by other family members or friends. Some 2,000 others are adopted or fostered because their mother is behind bars. Those who volunteer – often at dramatically short notice – are faced with substantial responsibility, stress and expense as a result.

It often begins with a sudden call from the local police station or social worker. "Relatives get a call out of the blue to be told: 'Can you come and pick this child up from us, otherwise they will go into care'," says Sarah Salmon, deputy director of Action for Prisoners' Families.

"In some cases it is not until the woman gets from the court to the prison that she announces: 'I've left my baby with a neighbour who's expecting me back' and the authorities have to go round."

Children often seem an after-thought in the British criminal justice system, says another charity. Grandparents Plus is campaigning for changes to the system in order to put the interests of children first. Its policy and research manager Sarah Wellard says: "One of the appalling things is that a child can go off to school without any idea that their mother is going to be jailed and that nobody is going to be there to pick them up. There is no duty to inform social services when a mother is given a jail sentence. It can leave children in a very vulnerable situation."

It is revealing that a charity acting for grandparents is taking a lead here. Only a few children are cared for by their fathers when their mother goes to jail. That has far-reaching consequences. When a father is jailed, it is likely that his children will remain in their own home with their mother. But only 9 per cent of children whose mothers are jailed are cared for by their fathers.

That is, in part, a reflection of the widespread dereliction of duty among many fathers. But it is also because some of the men are also in prison; a survey of the women at HMP Styal showed that as many as a third had partners in prison. But it also reflects the fac t that twice as many women prisoners were single parents before they were jailed, compared to the general population. The impact of this is significant. It means that a mere five per cent of youngsters stay in their own homes once their mother has been imprisoned. A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the impact of imprisonment and separation disrupted every aspect of the lives of the family left behind.

Imprisonment has profound impacts on psychological health of both the children and their new carers. Margaret Jones is visibly upset as she recounts her family's experience. "Rachel will end up in tears at bedtime even now, three years on. Sometimes she wakes up and has had a dream about mummy being hurt. They worry that their mother isn't coming back," she says. "Chloe has had a lot of problems – sadness, anger, you name it we've had it. Her behaviour and attitude has been very bad". Chloe is now under the care of the Child Mental Health Service.

All this is despite the fact that the twins – unlike many prisoners' children – have been able to visit their mother regularly. "We have been lucky that she has been placed in two prisons that are reasonably close to where we live," grandma Margaret says. "But it has just been luck – there isn't anything in the system that thinks about the practicalities of how children can visit their mother."

Having a mother in prison can also quickly stretch family finances to breaking point. Not only does the family lose the prisoner's former income, but extended family members are often forced to quit work to care for their children.

That happened to Sue Smith, a business consultant who was forced to reduce dramatically the time she could spend on work to enable her to care for her grandson. She spoke as she sat in a budget hotel in Wakefield not far from New Hall prison from which her daughter was due to be released next morning. With her was her 3 year old grandson. Sue had brought him to see his mother as she walked through the 20 foot high metal-mesh fence that separates inmates in the closed women’s prison from the outside world.

Her daughter’s offences were related to such a history of drug abuse that social workers had made it clear that the child would be taken into care as soon as he was born. Sue and her husband took out a Special Guardianship Order then and began to pick up the pieces of her daughter’s life. “He calls me Nan,” Sue says, “He is four next month and is a very happy, confident well-adjusted little lad. He treats my other daughters as his big sisters. To all intents and purposes me and my husband are his Mum and Dad.”

But she has seen her income fall by three quarters since she began caring for him. “When you are a grandparent or kinship carer you always have financial problems. I’m self-employed and I had to downsize my workload to cope – not just with the child but because there are the battles with the prison over all sorts of things which are very time-consuming and emotionally exhausting.”

The majority of grandmother carers find it impossible to get back into work during or after the childcare. According to Grandparents Plus, 47 per cent of carers who were previously working gave up their job when the child moved in. And 41 per cent are now dependent on welfare benefits. Yet unlike new parents or adoptive parents, family carers are not entitled to paid leave from work to meet the children's needs. Unlike foster parents they receive no allowances or payments from the state Many are tipped into poverty as a result – leading to deprivation and hardship for the children in their care.

Margaret and her husband have found it difficult to afford the new uniforms as the twins start secondary school. "Financially it has been very difficult," she says. "We get no allowance; all we get is child benefit and tax credits. Having the twins also put us in debt as it took so long to get child benefit and until we got that, we could not get any other benefits. If we were foster carers we would get paid."

In addition to normal childcare costs the families of prisoners have additional expenses. Women prisoners wear their own clothes, not prison uniforms, so their families have to find the money to buy clothes. Many try too to send in cash for the prisoner to buy phonecards to ring their children. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that the average additional cost to relatives of a prisoner is £175 per month. Most prison charities think the figure is higher.

Some local authorities do give kinship carers an allowance of around £200 a month, according to Sarah Salmon of the charity Action for Prisoners' Families.

"But someone in a neighbouring authority will get nothing," she says. "It's a postcode lottery."

Nor is such assistance matched to the needs of the children. "You can have a child with serious emotional problems whose carers get nothing in terms of support," she says.

Sarah Wellard of Grandparents Plus says: "In some areas social workers will work tirelessly to get people support while in others they do not see the need for it."

The strain of caring also throws up personal problems for the grandmothers. "It affects your social life," says Sue Robson, who is 52. "At my age none of my friends or peers have got children any more, so it's difficult to get babysitters. It also sets up tensions in the family, because my other daughters, who ought to be able to rely on me to give them some help as a grandmother, have to help me instead."

Margaret Jones has similar problems. "I have lost touch with all my friends. We used to go out most weeks. All our friends have families who have grown up. They go off for the weekend all the time but we cannot do any of it. We need to be here 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the girls. We also can't afford to go out. I do feel very isolated sometimes."

Depression among grandmother carers is unusually high. So are stress-related illnesses as a result of the extra care burden combined with declining physical health. And family relationships are destabilised and fragmented as a result of the pressures of what can be a very isolating experience.

A number of charities are campaigning for more state support for the emotional, financial and practical needs of the carers – and their children. The charity Kinship Carers wants a national allowance. "It should be straightforward, transparent to all carers and irrespective of the child's legal status," a spokesman said. At present financial support is often refused if the child has not previously been in care. Grandparents Plus also wants kinship carers to be entitled to unpaid parental leave.

For some prisoner's families the sentence is open-ended. Within one week of being released from New Hall prison, Sue Smith’s daughter was admitted to a Mental Health unit. Sue will continue to look after her grandchild indefinitely now.

The names of the prisoners and their children have been changed

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