Children Heard and Seen

Invisible Harms and Hierarchies of Shame: The distinct challenges faced by children with a parent in prison for sexual offences

Existing research on prisoners shows that there is a clear hierarchy of offences that determine how society establishes their moral culpability. Within this hierarchy, sex offenders face an increased risk of stigmatisation in comparison with other offences. However, no research has ever been done to explore how this stigmatisation impacts the children of sex offenders. This report does just that.

Current estimates suggest that 312,000 children are impacted by parental imprisonment in the UK every year, with sex offenders currently representing one of the largest groups of sentenced prisoners, (18% of the total UK prison population (MoJ, 2021)). Therefore, the number of children with a parent in prison for sexual offences in the UK is likely to be much larger than anticipated.

In this paper, I conducted interviews with those caring for children with a parent in prison for a sexual offence, professionals who have worked with these children and an adult with lived experience. The aim of this was to determine how the experiences of children with a parent in prison for sexual offences are distinct from those whose parents are imprisoned for other offences. One mother explained:

“I do think, yeah, I think 100% the nature of the offence made it worse”

The findings of this report have revealed that:

  • These children are even more at risk of social exclusion and decline in emotional wellbeing than those with parents imprisoned for other offences.
    • The revelation of parent’s sexual offending had significant implications for the way in which children were able to form their own identity during a crucial developmental stage. Difficulties were felt most profoundly in children entering adolescence
    • Being hunted by dedicated vigilante groups reduced familial capacity to hide their identity and undermined children’s sense of security, whilst sensationalized media reporting of sexual offences fuels negative social responses to sexual offenders and their families.
    • Long term placement on public registers and enforcement of supervised contact post-release caused confusion for young people hoping to rebuild a relationship with their parent after they had been released.
  • There is no support available from government/social services that appropriately respond to these needs.

Ultimately, the report explores how the nature of the offence can disrupt a young person’s sense of identity, whilst community backlash and the threat of vigilante violence forces many families to change homes, schools, or even their names.

One mother interviewed in the study was forced to move her and her 5 children over 100 miles from their family home after her husband was arrested for viewing indecent images of children online. She explains how her own children have missed out on school and how existing friendships have really suffered. The children have also had to change their names to avoid detection from vigilantes. In the report, she explained:

“Relocating meant that he lost out on starting in Y7. He went into a form of denial for a time, and he just kept asking: when can we move back?…”

One issue highlighted in the report is the lack of understanding and knowledge of these experiences in professionals who work with children. Through publishing the report on the CHAS website, free to access, it will be accessible to social workers, schools, and other professionals, informing how they support to children with a parent in prison for sexual offences.

Painting credit: Sophia, aged 15, about how parental imprisonment made her feel.

I am the current Funding and Research Coordinator at Children Heard and Seen. The content of this report was originally written as my dissertation submission for the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Oxford in June 2021. The original version of this paper was awarded Routledge Prize for Best Dissertation Submission 2020-2021.