Families play a key role supporting vulnerable people through the criminal justice system but are often let down by a lack of effective support and accessible information. Too many face high levels of social stigma and isolation, a new joint report by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) and POPS (Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group) reveals.

The study heard from family members, including parents, grand-parents, siblings and partners of young people and adults with particular needs such as mental health problems, learning disabilities or autism in contact with criminal justice services. 20-30% of people in prison are estimated to have a learning disability or difficulty that interferes with their ability to cope with the criminal justice system. 26% of women and 16% of men said they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before custody.

Since 2008, members of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI), as part of the WI’s Care not Custody initiative supported by the Prison Reform Trust, have advocated for a better response to people with mental health needs in the justice system. In his influential 2009 report, PRT trustee Lord Bradley recommended the establishment of a nationwide liaison and diversion service, where nurses and health professionals based in police stations and courts would help to identify and support vulnerable children and adults in contact with justice services.

Family members interviewed for the report gave often harrowing accounts of years spent trying to gain effective treatment and support for loved ones; a lack of information to help navigate their way through the justice process, and the confusion and uncertainty they often felt as a result; and the negative impact that the experience had on them and their families, and on small children, in particular.

One family member spoke of being “left scarred by the trauma” of what she went through and being subject to a lot of insinuations, snide comments and suggestive remarks. She said: “I don’t think people realise the extent of the stigma, and the silence you go through.”

By contrast, those in contact with liaison and diversion services spoke highly of the support they received. Whether it was help to make sense of the situation and to understand what would happen next, the offer of practical support or ensuring referrals to local agencies, the relief at having, as one mother described it, ‘someone on my side’ was tangible.

One family member whose 15-year-old son was coping with his dad’s death and had a drug addiction, said: “They [liaison and diversion] have opened the door, things I couldn’t get before, I can now ... She [the liaison and diversion worker] looked and found something for us; she found out about the service, the name of the person we should talk to and the telephone number. It was so helpful; we just didn’t know what to do. My son is calmer; the house is calmer. We aren’t scared.”

Evidence shows that strong family relationships can help to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. By supporting their relatives through an often long and difficult process, family members spoke of how they could be an important resource for justice agencies; provided they themselves had access to appropriate support.

One family member said:

“We need more support ourselves, and then we’ll be more able to support them [their relative]. We need to be asked about our strengths, what resilience we have, what strengths we have. We focus an awful lot on them [their relative], but maybe we need a focus as well – what can you build on that’s positive?”

Today, in the WI’s 100th anniversary year and following concerted efforts by WI members, liaison and diversion services in police stations and courts have achieved over 50% coverage across England. The Department of Health has invested £75 million in ensuring that nurses and health professionals are there to assess, link with other services and where possible divert vulnerable people into treatment and care. HM Treasury go ahead for a full national scheme is expected in the autumn.

Commenting in the Foreword to the report, Lord Bradley said:
“Families are directly affected when their loved ones come into contact with criminal justice services; we know also that families can play an important role in helping their relatives to stop reoffending and to live safe, healthy and productive lives. This report is a valuable contribution to increasing our understanding of how families can support their relatives, and how their needs might be met through the important work of liaison and diversion services.”
Kate Davies OBE, Head of Public Health, Armed Forces and their Families and Health & Justice Commissioning at NHS England, said:
“NHS England greatly welcomes the Prison Reform Trust’s and POP’s report, Relative Justice. The criminal justice system is a complex place, and for many family members who have a loved one in contact with the police, courts, prisons or subject to a community sentence it can be confusing, frightening and lonely.  The report goes a long way to ensuring that the voices of mums, dads, partners, brother, sisters and carers are central to developing the Health and Justice Liaison and Diversion programme. I am delighted that the report, and many of the quotes from families, show that the health interventions, as part of the Liaison and Diversion Health and Justice programme, have already been a lifeline and opportunity to make a huge difference to the individual and to their family life.

Marylyn Haines Evans, NFWI Public Affairs Chair, said:
“The NFWI wholeheartedly welcomes Relative Justice.  The NFWI’s Care not Custody campaign is calling for improved support for vulnerable and mentally ill people caught up in the criminal justice system; the report paints a stark picture of the experiences and isolation of offenders’ families, giving voice to exactly why that support is so critical.  It makes a significant contribution to understanding the important role that liaison and diversion services can play; and creates a compelling case for service expansion.”
Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
“If you want to cut crime and help vulnerable people out of trouble, then family support, mental health and social care and treatment for addictions are the answer.”

Diane Curry OBE, Chief Executive Officer of POPS, said:
“Relative Justice sheds a timely light on the vital role of families in supporting offenders with particular needs. Engaging and involving families in liaison and diversion services will ultimately lead to improved outcomes for all parties, as we draw on the knowledge, support and influence of the family unit. As the report demonstrates, partnerships with specialist family support services operating within the criminal justice system will be the key to ensuring this engagement is meaningful and sustained.”

Christina Marriott, Chief Executive of Revolving Doors Agency, said:

“We welcome this report, which draws on the often unheard voices of relatives, partners and those who care for people in contact with the criminal justice system. Parents, grandparents, partners and carers have a particular insight into what their loved ones need. They remember the occasions their relatives didn’t get the help they need but also know what can help. It is good to see some solutions emerging.”