Together a Chance is a pilot programme of prison-based social workers whose role is to support mothers in custody to maintain links with their children. The project, funded by The Sylvia Adams Trust, currently operates at HMP Send and HMP Eastwood Park and aims to improve the health and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. 

Why is this needed? 

When a mother goes to prison, her children often ‘disappear’ through the process of her imprisonment. There are no official records kept about how many children are affected by imprisonment of their parent, no routine data about them, nor any national strategy for attending to their needs. NICCO estimates that over 310,000 children are affected by the imprisonment of a parent each year, and women are far more likely than men to be sole carers for children prior to imprisonment. 

There is currently no structure in place for children whose mothers are in custody. In her 2006 report, Baroness Corston refers to the “catastrophe” of separation, a situation where children whose mothers are imprisoned face hardship and challenges that severely limit their ability to reach their full potential. The recent Crest Advisory report, ‘Counting the Cost of Maternal Imprisonment’ similarly highlights the long-lasting emotional trauma of maternal separation for both mothers and children. 

Together a Chance puts into practice Lord Farmer’s recommendation that all women’s prisons should have an on-site social worker as part of a multidisciplinary custodial team: 

“Currently community Social Workers have no obligation to visit the mother of a child designated to their caseload if she is in prison.  The unfamiliarity of the prison system and distances involved can make it difficult to locate a prisoner even if they are minded to do this.  Having Social Workers in the prison would help ensure effective liaison with Social Workers in the community who would have a direct link to help them organize a visit to assess the mother.”  

Lord Farmer Review for Women (2019)

With the support of HMPPS colleagues, Together a Chance aims to create a systematic change in the way imprisoned mothers and their children are dealt with, responded to, and cared for. As Lord Farmer highlights, this will make a “significant difference to women’s ability to maintain and strengthen their family ties, where appropriate.” Government research shows that people in prison who maintain family ties are 39% less likely to reoffend, and on-site social workers are just one of the ways that we can encourage desistance and ensure better outcomes for mothers, children, and wider society. 

How does the project work? 

Our social workers in HMP Eastwood Park and HMP Send offer intensive one-to-one support for women, empowering them to engage in matters involving their child, speak for themselves at court, and to understand processes and how to work with them. They also provide a vital link with community social workers who have children of female prisoners on their caseload and who may be reluctant to encourage familial visits or contact. 

During the project, the prison-based social worker role has included: 

  • establishing contact between mothers and children 
  • building relationships with social services to encourage better partnerships 
  • working out details around the adoption of children 
  • supporting women with court matters and acting as a McKenzie Friend - someone who supports or encourages an individual representing themselves - in court proceedings 
  • promoting the inclusion of mothers in Local Authority family proceedings 
  • supporting attendance at Initial Child Protection Conferences (ICPCs) - these take place when a child is considered at risk of significant harm 

As part of the project, we are developing a toolkit for Pact, prison and external staff and are part of ongoing meetings with one Local Authority to create a 'best practice guide' for community social work teams to improve engagement with prison systems. We have also been actively working with another Local Authority to pilot an alternative and more inclusive approach to working with mothers who have babies in prison.

There has also been a significant wider impact on social work as a discipline. In addition to conversations with leading universities on creating a module on engaging people in prison as part of their social work courses, the Together a Chance team has presented and delivered workshops at conferences across the UK and worked with the criminal justice leads at the British Association of Social Work to create a new CPD module for members. 

Pact is spearheading this work to share practice and know-how, in the expectation that the Government will implement Lord Farmer’s recommendations across the whole women’s estate. The pilot is being evaluated by Cascade, the Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre, and an interim report is expected in June 2022. 

Hayley's story 

One social worker has been supporting a woman named Hayley*, whose own mother is seeking a Child Arrangement Order in relation to Hayley’s son. Hayley’s son is currently being supported through the child in need process under local authority social services.    

Hayley has experienced a challenging relationship with her mother over the years and finds relationships with professionals can often feel strained due to her being particularly direct in her communication, which others sometimes interpret as hostile. Over the course of Pact's involvement, Becky has supported Hayley to think critically about her feelings and what is best for her child, and to be more mindful of her communication style. This has had a positive impact on all parties and has enabled Hayley to feel that she has a more active role in her son’s case.      

Becky has enabled increased contact between Hayley and her son’s social worker through video link and telephone calls, promoting a positive working relationship, more open communication and greater information sharing. Becky has also advocated for and supported Hayley to access legal advice prior to the family court process beginning. She attended the first hearing with Hayley as a McKenzie friend, which ensured emotional support at the time and meant Hayley had someone to with whom to discuss the hearing. 

This support has reduced Hayley's stress and anxiety around the process, enabling more positive contact with her mother, her son and her son's social worker.   

*name changed to protect identity

For more information about this project, please contact us at [email protected]