15 Jun 2007

Ladies and gentlemen

I would like to thank the Quaker Service for inviting me here this morning to address you. And before going any further can I congratulate you on the re-launch. And unlike the Olympic logo – I hope the new brand makes it in the media for the right reasons.

Having known the work of the service I know that today is not so much about re-launching the service, but a reaffirmation of its values and a celebration of its successes.

Undoubtedly the service has provided opportunities to those for whom opportunities are few and far between. And key among those opportunities has been encouraging children and young people to take steps towards realising their potential.

And since I was appointed I have been amazed by the potential of children and young people in the most difficult of circumstances – and that so often that potential is realised with the right support at the right time.

From starting as Commissioner just over six months ago I have met just over 1500 young people from all backgrounds and across Northern Ireland. 

We have too many children living in poverty in Northern Ireland - around 130,000 with 32,000 of those living in severe deprivation. 

Poverty is not just about finance. I have seen at first hand the poverty that children and young people are living in North Belfast

Statistics are all very well for quantifying relative poverty but I find that a more meaningful way of putting poverty in context is to look at the life experiences behind the numbers - for it’s here that you begin to get a glimpse of what living in poverty actually means to those children who are caught in the poverty trap.

It’s about a child who goes to brush their teeth and finds raw sewerage oozing into the sink.

It’s about a disabled child whose parents have to give up work to care for them…and end up on benefits.

It’s about a child who has a parent in prison and suffers financial poverty and the emotional poverty that can result from loss of contact with that parent.

The imprisonment of a parent or other family member is still for most a traumatic and distressing experience. The effect on children can be even more profound. 

Evidence shows that the vast majority of children are likely to display adverse changes in behaviour. 

Prisoners’ families have been identified as suffering a “silent sentence” and prisoners’ children are the innocent victims of the criminal justice system. 

Imprisonment impacts on children in many ways. This is something that recognised by no less a body than the United Nations. In my work I use the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to guide me. It has several relevant articles to the service you provide. They range from the right to non-discrimination through to reaffirming that parents or legal guardians have the main responsibility in promoting a child’s development and wellbeing. 

I urge you all to look at the Convention; you can find a link on my website.

When you do that you’ll find what I believe to one of the most important rights. It’s contained in Article 12. It says that children must have a say in decisions that affect their lives.

And how can they say when often they don’t know what’s happening. When we carried out research through Queen’s University in 2004 it was one of the issues children and young people told us, amongst many others.

As is often the case with bereavement, children were not told the full story as families struggled to cope with prospect of long term imprisonment.

While poverty, meeting basic needs such as housing, food and clothing, was a material consequence, the emotional struggle involved attempts to maintain meaningful family contact in the inhibiting and punitive situation of prison visits.

Difficulties in maintaining positive and fulfilling relationships between children and their imprisoned parents extended into the period of adjustment on their release as ‘relationships had to be healed’.

Children of politically affiliated prisoners were made to feel that they had ‘done something’ or been guilty of something themselves. 

Stigma faced by children of prisoners in rural areas was less than those suffered by children living in urban areas. 

Feeling among children that they were not responded to as individuals with their own views and opinions but labelled as ex prisoners child. Can you imagine the conversation in school…’My dad’s a bus driver. What does your dad do?’ 

Children of prisoners felt vulnerable in social situations where they did not want to be defined by their family history.

The quieter and more distant voices have been those of the children, whose own problems of lost parenting and family disruption also need to be recognised.

Problems experienced by children of prisoners are similar-

  • A sense of loss
  • Lack of knowledge/understanding
  • Material deprivation
  • Emotional suffering
  • Unstable and distanced relationships
  • Stigmatisation and labelling
  • Adapting to release
  • Fear of further loss 

Given that there are three prisons in NI - access in terms of geography and cost for families travelling long distance is an issue for some.

Mothers who are in prison expressed their primary concern as the health and welfare of their children and the fear of losing their bond with them; one long term prisoner felt that the jail could a lot more to maintain family ties.

The experience for some children of prisoners of being stigmatised was profound: “it starts with difficulties and fear in the school playground but as the child gets older it becomes more aggressive”.

Particular problems faced by children of prisoners “are not understood or addressed in school” and often their behaviour “puts them in the detention unit and on a predetermined course”.

Families “are left high and dry with no natural support mechanism, fearing the services provided”.

Children “are the silent victims” and there has been “little or no commitment to identifying their needs and those of the family” yet “at the heart of working towards a reduction in recidivism is, in part, keeping families connected”. 

Creative ways had to be found of addressing service provision without identifying children. 

Support services for prisoners and their families’ pre and post release is an important aspect of recovery from the disruption to family relationships.

Visits “should be consistent, connected to resettlement and form an essential element of the children’s strategy”. In this process, “children have a view and should be consulted’ and ‘they should be fully informed about prison and what happens there”.

There needs to be a more respectful and dignified way of handling visits, they should be more family friendly”. The overall conclusion was that there should be “greater family involvement with the sentence” including “knowing that their fathers are progressing and sitting in on resettlement interviews”.

You are familiar with the issues – indeed you address them every day. I believe that the issues we have identified through research, and through meeting children and young people will be mostly the same.

For us those key issues are: 

  • Establishment of child-centred, flexible visits; (Article 3 of the UNCRC says governments should place the interests of the child at the centre of all decision making processes.)
  • Separate partner visits;
  • Access to mainstream services;
  • Appropriate support without identification/stigma;
  • Inadequate welfare support for families; poverty as a consequence of imprisonment.
  • Gender issues regarding the imprisonment of mothers; distinct visiting needs; recent adverse publicity concerning women lifers and the impact on their children.
  • Children born in prison and their separation from their mothers.
  • Greater family involvement with the sentence and appropriate, family-based programmes of resettlement; ‘safe’ return to community/integration.
  • Language and cultural issues for children visiting their parents classified as non-nationals.
  • Problems of information and access associated with visiting parents in custody in England

These are issues that require some funding, some creativity and some lateral thinking to be addressed properly. But more than that they require a real will to make them happen.

Through my office, through the work you do, through organisations such as NIACRO and EXTERN we can make sure that we have the will to make change happen – and we make sure that Government knows they must accept the challenge to keep the interests of children and young people to the fore – always!

Thank you again ladies and gentlemen