Andy Keen-Downs: Collateral Damage


As part of our series of blogs for Children's Mental Health Week, Andy Keen-Downs, Chief Executive of Pact (Prison Advice and Care Trust) tells a story about a child affected by familial imprisonment

A child's bedroom. The red numbers on a cheap digital clock show 4.17 am. Yellow streetlight seeps around the edges of the blinds. A jumble of plastic and soft toys, books, clothes, football boots. The racing car duvet has slipped to the floor. The boy, in his team's football kit, sleeps soundly, sprawled diagonally across the bed.

A Bang. A crash. Shouting. Wide awake. Confusion. Terror. Big men, all in black, running through the the flat. His mum screaming. His big brother shouting, swearing. Fighting. Furniture being kicked over. Glass shattering. A man, a stranger, is in his bedroom, telling him to stay where he was. 'Mum!' The man won't let him go to his mum. His mum is shouting, crying, telling his brother to stop. The men take his brother. They've got him by his arms and the back of his neck. They leave the flat. And then the only sound is his mum sobbing, and the cars pulling away from the block. He ventures out of his bedroom, and into the living room. It's a mess. The door is hanging off its hinges. A neighbour peers into the flat, and then another. 'Serves you right, scum', says one. His mum screams at them, uses bad words. Then she holds him tight, sitting on the floor next to the splintered doorframe and smashed telly, and sobs.

He hadn't done his homework. He'd left it at school. He had been worried that he would get into trouble again. He stood in the playground and was aware of the group of children staring at him and jeering. One came over, and boy in the year above. 'My dad says your family are criminals and your brothers going to rot in jail'.

He was in trouble for fighting again. He hadn't liked what the bigger boy had said, or the way some of the other kids were laughing. The headmistress had called his mum and had asked for a meeting. His mum hadn't answered the phone. She was probably in bed. She spent a lot of time in bed these days, since his brother had gone to prison.

He didn't like having to open his mouth so that the woman could look inside, or having to stand on the box and let her touch him to feel if he had anything under his clothes. It made him feel dirty and as if he had done something wrong. His mum told him not to worry about it, and that they'd see his brother soon. They'd had to get up to 5 o'clock in the morning, to get the bus, the train, and then another train, and then the mini cab. His mum had counted out the money with a scared look on her face. He didn't like all the banging, and keys jangling, and his head hurt and he wanted to go to sleep. He had been looking forward to seeing his brother all week, but his mum had told him not to mention it at school. 'We'll say you had a bad cold' his mum had told him. There he was now, sitting at a table across the big noisy room. His brother was wearing an orange bib, a bit like the one they sometimes wore for football at school!. He saw him wave and do a funny smile - happy and sad at the same time. Now that he was here, he felt awkward. It wasn't like he expected, having to sit at a little table in this big room, in front of all of these strangers, with the uniformed people watching them all the time.

He fell asleep in class the next day, and dribbled a bit on his book. Some of the kids were laughing at him as he woke up and realised. He threw his pencil case at one of the girls and it hit her in the eye. He got taken to the headmistress' office again. They called his mum but there was no answer. So when it was home time, he had to stay in the office until his auntie could come. 'Your mum's not feeling too good love', she said. 'We'll go to the shops and get something for tea and you can stop at ours tonight.'

Outside the supermarket, waiting for his auntie, he saw a policeman. He was in a uniform like the men who took his brother away when his home got smashed up. 'Alright son'. The policeman smiled. 'P**s off Fed' said the boy, making a gesture with his hand that he'd seen the older boys use, and ran towards home.


This year, around 200,000 children will experience the imprisonment of a parent. There are no statistics for those children who experience the imprisonment of a sibling.

Studies show that prisoners' children experience two to three times the incidence of mental health issues than other children, and are significantly more likely to suffer poverty, homelessness, and educational issues. An estimated 6 out of 10 boys with a father who has been to prison will go on to offend in later life.

At Pact, work is underway to give children affected by familial imprisonment a voice, and to raise awareness amongst schools, the police, and sentencers. We are delighted to have been awarded grants by Comic Relief and the Pilgrim Trust to take forward a project called 'Hear Our Voice', in partnership with Place2Be.

The story above is based on real stories we have heard from young people who have used our services. Far too many children are the 'collateral damage' of the criminal justice system, and Pact is developing training and resources to ensure that agencies can feel confident to provide appropriate support to children and families who find themselves in this kind of situation.

To find out more about how you can get involved, contact (

This blog was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation. 

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