Changemakers: Sarah Burrows ensures prisoners’ kids are heard and seen

Stigma and shame are often attached to a family when a parent is locked up but Sarah's tireless work goes a long way to preventing kids from being lured in by a life of crime

“The children of prisoners seem invisible in this whole equation,” says Sarah Burrows, founder of Children Heard and Seen. The charity supports children and families with parents or partners serving time, fighting the stigma and shame they face in their communities. Children whose parents have been convicted are three times more likely to commit a crime themselves, while 65 per cent of boys whose fathers are incarcerated will end up in prison themselves one day. 

Burrows has worked with vulnerable children in Oxfordshire since the beginning of her career, when she left school and picked up a job in a local children’s home. She moved between studying social work and continuing in residential care until she joined a scheme that protects children at risk of offending. 

While working to reduce the number of young people entering the criminal justice system, the 54-year-old was gripped by a need to know why they were becoming enmeshed in the first place. It didn’t take long for her to pin down a recurring theme – an overwhelming majority of them had a parent already in prison.

Burrows assumed there would be tailored support available for a vulnerable group like the children of prisoners in her area; she was convinced that this was the key to reducing childhood offences. But, she says, there was nothing. So she took matters into her own hands. 

Children Heard and Seen was registered as a charity in 2014, but it took another 18 months of Burrows researching and planning (“a lot of Googling”) on evenings and weekends for the project to take shape. Nearly three years had passed before she left her job working with at-risk young people to go full time with the charity.

The founder’s vision for the charity has shifted since its launch. Burrows explains: “At the beginning I was quite preoccupied with the prevention of offending. I’m not any more.”

It became apparent that many of the conditions that lead to offending are structural – like poverty, poor housing and few education opportunities. They’re out of her power, no matter how good her intentions. But as she spent more time working with local families with relatives in prison, she witnessed the stigma surrounding them. 

“That isolation, the awful treatment children receive from their classmates at school. They didn’t have anywhere to go that was free from judgement, they couldn’t build any relationships in their own communities. It can be a loneliness so intense it ruins lives.

“I had to focus on providing emotional support,” Burrows adds. “It might sound vague or simplistic to some, but I’ve seen first-hand how absolutely crucial it is. The families and children of people in prison are rarely thought of as a vulnerable group; their emotional wellbeing barely gets a look in.”

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The programme is a mix of mentoring, peer support groups and activities like music sessions, art workshops, and cultural trips. Children Heard and Seen has helped more than 300 families to date. Right now, the children involved with the charity have parents spread across 36 prisons in England. If families from outside Oxfordshire get in touch, Burrows will first try to find some support for them in their area, but help is rare enough that many travel hours to access her service. 

“There are three of us working for the charity, including me, plus about 25 volunteers,” Burrows adds. “We work from my kitchen table.”

That support is powerful enough that some get involved in campaigning themselves. Some families involved have spoken about their experiences to the parliamentary human rights committee, while other children are helping shape upcoming conferences focused on
parental imprisonment.

“There were things I hadn’t thought of,” says Burrows. “Child maintenance paid by a father even after the relationship has ended – that all goes when they serve a sentence. You hear of children having to get up at 4am to travel to visit a parent in prison. Some want a one-off visit because a partner has been jailed and they don’t know how to explain it to a child.”

But Burrows and her team make it easier, plugging a gap in services that often goes unacknowledged. Families become fiercely loyal to the charity, sticking around to help even after their own need for support has passed. 

As the charity grew, Burrows realised there was a tool missing: a database of children made vulnerable by parental imprisonment. She had to rely on schools referring families in the beginning, until word-of-mouth took effect and demand soared as more people heard about the service she offered. 

“It would make so much possible; pupil premium, for example, I think they should be eligible for that. But if no one ever bothered to create a database, there can’t ever have been any intention of supporting them.”

In the months ahead, Burrows will continue to fight the uphill funding battle – and navigate new challenges worsened by the UK’s political climate. One boy she supports has a father in prison who faces deportation to Nigeria upon release. This means he does not just face the uncertainty of a parent rejoining the home from prison, but the uncertainty of a parent not coming home at all. “People often don’t think about the children,” she says. “They’re an afterthought.”

Image: Lyndon Hayes