Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

SARAH BURROWS (HMP Huntercombe)

SARAH BURROWS (HMP Huntercombe)

Sarah Burrows

COMMENDEE 2018-19: Sarah is the founder and CEO of Children Heard and Seen, a charity offering support and mentoring to the children of prisoners. She is Commended for her transformational work at HMP Huntercombe in addressing the often unmet and overlooked needs of this “invisible group.”

This report quotes in detail several testimonials that cast a profoundly moving light on the profound secondary impact of imprisonment on the children of prisoners. The Initial Nominator and service user ‘Barbara’* was the very first user of Children Heard and Seen, the charity Sarah founded and runs, and vividly recalls her impact:

‘There isn’t anything like it anywhere else, but it should be everywhere in the country.

We previously had received no support, I had been knocking on doors for 12 and a half years, I had no one and nothing, and then Sarah found me, and she changed our lives completely… Sarah sat and listened and asked me and others what was it we wanted and then she made it happen.

Sarah introduced us to Ben, the charity’s first volunteer mentor. He changed ‘Charlie’ from a troubled challenging boy, into a kind caring boy, who is now in college and starts his apprenticeship very soon.

…the first hurdle of our situation was the secrecy and shame, when people hear you have a child in prison they run for the hills, but Sarah listened to us, supported us and made us feel comfortable, she gave us back control over our life, gave us confidence. The impact that she has made on our life and all the families is immense…we had someone to talk to, to make sense of a situation that we had felt completely lost and isolated in for years…I will be forever grateful.’

Sarah herself explains some of the shocking facts that inspired her to action:

‘65% of boys who have a parent with a conviction go on to offend themselves and there was no provision to directly support these children and their families in the community. Currently we support 165 children who have a parent in prison and have supported over 300 children since we began. At the point of referral 86% of families say they were offered no help or support prior to sentencing and 72% say there was no help or support offered once the parent/partner began their sentence. 48% of families say their children do not talk to anyone about their parent being in prison and 75% of respondents report a negative impact on their child’s behaviour at home and at school. These changes included increases in anger, aggression and threatening behaviour, poor attendance, sadness (missing the parent) and self-harm.

‘Research shows that children of female prisoners are more likely to experience multiple care arrangements (17,000 mothers are separated from their children each year), therefore it is important to address the needs of this group. None of this is delivered in isolation and the groups have been well supported by over 100 volunteers who are recruited, trained and supported to carry out this important work.’

Local Butler Trust Champion and Custodial Manager, Nathan Jones, says the focus of the charity’s work ‘is recruitment of mentors from the community who support children whose fathers (in the case of this prison, HMP Huntercombe) are in prison. The charity takes referrals from the prison but also facilitates Family Day visits here every month.’

‘Susan’, a grandparent, wrote of Sarah:

‘She makes a difference to lives when it is felt that no one cares. She shows that someone is caring and listening. Her constant fight for change, and for a voice for the children on prisoners shows no bounds and should be commended at the highest level.’

‘Helen’ says that, ‘When my children’s father was sent to prison, we all felt lost. We felt that there was no one to talk to, no one that would understand. Then like a fairy godmother, Sarah and Children Heard & Seen came along.’

‘Jessie’ is an 11-year-old with a parent in prison, and wrote that ‘Since I have been with Children Heard and Seen I have found it a lot easier to deal with my emotions. If it wasn’t for Sarah, I would not know how to do that.’

‘Rebecca’ is a mother of two children with a parent in prison. Her account is quoted at length as it brings to life the power of the circumstances that Sarah’s work responds to:

‘We went from a happy family of four to a broken family devastated and torn apart. I was extremely worried about the effect it would have on our two children aged 9 and 12 years old…When Sarah visited our house it was the first time, I felt that someone was listening to us and not judging… The first time that there was someone who wanted to help us and could offer us practical help. Until this point, we as a family felt totally bereft. We were embarrassed and humiliated by what had happened and as a family were being equally punished by the people around us, somehow the family as a whole was being punished for what just one member had done.

Being the son, daughter or wife of someone in prison is incredibly difficult. You have to somehow carry on but have to live with the stigma. Sarah is the founder of the charity and the reason it has become so successful. Sarah is a fantastic person who is great with people of all ages, easy to talk to and approachable… At a time where we had no one, she was our guardian angel. I am not exaggerating when I say she saved our family.

Sarah should feel very proud of the success she has made of her charity and of the real difference she is making to lots of people lives. I cannot thank her enough for noticing the total lack of any support for children of prisoners and for setting up the charity to change this. These children were invisible – thankfully Sarah has noticed this and so they are now becoming visible so they are not only dealing with an impossible situation but thriving.’

As HMP Huntercombe’s Governor, David Redhouse, points out, there are wider impacts from this work, too:

‘This issue concerns people outside the prison walls [and] is all too frequently overlooked by those of us who work within the prison system. However, it does in fact have massive impact within the prison since prisoners whose access to, and relationships with, their children are poor are at far greater risks of self-harm or of behaving violently out of frustration. In making a real difference to hundreds of people – prisoners, partners and children – Sarah is therefore not only recognising their humanity but doing a great service to prison establishments too.’

Sarah describes the children of prisoners as ‘an invisible group’ – and her work in making them more visible is truly inspiring.

* Service user names have been anonymised.

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