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Suffering from severe trauma, these youngsters need special protections introduced from the moment their mothers or fathers are locked up, experts insist.
The Daily Express Break The Cycle campaign is calling for the Ministry of Justice and social services to introduce more help for these children.
This would include a system that flags them up to the authorities, and a commissioner to protect their interests.
The Express has heard harrowing tales of how children have been told by their peers to kill themselves because of what their parents have done.
One leading expert who provides counselling to traumatised youngsters explained children of prisoners are often “collateral damage” after a parent is sent to prison.
Yet schools and social services do not know who they are, despite their vulnerability, it was said.
This means the children are often carrying an overwhelming sense of “shame, humiliation and isolation” with no one else to talk to.
Around 310,000 under-18s have a parent in prison.
Research by Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit found these youngsters are three times more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour.
Two-thirds of boys with parents in jail go on to commit crime, with 25 per cent developing mental health problems, playing truant and under-performing at school.
A pilot scheme has now been set up by the unit in Oxford to identify children as soon as a parent is jailed.
They are then able to use data from the prison service to contact families and refer them to a dedicated charity called Children Heard and Seen.
The charity offers one-to-one help, mentoring support groups and activity days.
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Sarah Burrows, of Children Heard and Seen, said: “Unfortunately, children of prisoners are often collateral damage after a parent is sent to prison, with some having to leave their home, change schools and even change their names so they are no longer identified as being related to the parent in prison. Some children have had to move over 300 miles away from all that is familiar to them to escape the criminal notoriety and stigma associated with their parent.
“These families are slipping through the net. When we see these children, there are lots of tears. Their whole world has been turned upside down. The big problem is there is no recognition. It takes a lot of time to even identify them.
“We have had parents going to court in the morning and they are not expecting to be given a custodial sentence. Then nobody picks the children up from school. I have had instances where children have been told to kill themselves, faeces put through their letterboxes.
“It is not the children’s fault. We have got children who have witnessed their parents being arrested.”
Ms Burrows said the only way the charity can identify children in desperate need of support is if the families contact them. The group has been calling hundreds of schools,
GPs, probation services and police in an attempt to identify the children slipping through the net.
Ms Burrows said the Ministry of Justice often allow contact between inmates and their children.
But she warned this may not be in the best interests of the child.
She said: “What is in the best interests of the child? In our opinion, it is not always in their best interests to visit the prison.”
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