Dr Shona Minson is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow here at the Centre for Criminology University of Oxford working on the rights and experiences of children whose parents are in conflict with the law. She is an established and celebrated figure at the Centre having received an Impact Acceleration Award and Early Career Impact Prize from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), a Research Council Partnership Award from the University of Oxford, Early Career Impact Champion from O2RB, and a John Sunley Prize from the Howard League for Penal Reform for her MSc dissertation titled ‘Motherhood as Mitigation.’ Dr Minson completed her DPhil titled Who Cares: Analysis the place of dependent children in maternal sentencing decisions in England and Wales, under the supervision of Professor Rachel Condry whilst publishing pivotal works across sentencing, parenthood and the rights of children, most recently culminating with Maternal Sentencing and the Rights of the Child, launched through a webinar at the Centre chaired by Professor Rachel Condry and panelled by Professor Laura Lundy and Professor Shadd Maruna of Queen’s University Belfast, and Professor Felicity Gerry QC of Deakin University, Libertas Chambers London and Crockett Chambers Melbourne.

The dichotomy:

Dr Minson’s existing research on safeguarding children when sentencing mothers highlights stark discrepancies in the treatment of children separated from their mothers in family as opposed to criminal courts–with separation through the former prescribed by Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 to require the paramount consideration of the court to be the best interests of the child, whereas that sanctioned by criminal courts lacks such attentiveness and assurance, leading to ignorance toward and neglect of child dependents throughout criminal proceedings. Such differential treatment is explored in this short film and as the central dichotomy of the book, formulating key questions which Dr Minson seeks to answer through a distinctive combination of insights from children faced with maternal imprisonment and of those left to provide them with care in their absence, along with that of judges. Such deliberation is of key pertinence, set against the context of the increasing imprisonment of women, their illnesses and fatalities during custody, and that of their accompanying children.

Why are children separated from mothers in criminal courts treated differently to those separated by family courts?

In interrogating such oversight of children in criminal cases Dr Minson hypothesises three possible reasons for differential treatment. The first is the assumption that children whose mothers are imprisoned do not suffer adverse consequences and so do not require particular care or consideration, second that the duty of care of the state toward children does not extend to those whose mothers are convicted of a crime, and third that judges are either not permitted or unable to consider child dependents when sentencing a mother. The robust research clearly presented in the book stoutly substantiates Dr Minson’s central contention that none of these provide explanation of or justification for the differentiated treatment, nor the serious suffering of those separated by criminal courts. Minson instead posits differential constructions of children in court settings as a cause of their differentiated treatment–with those in family courts deemed as vulnerable and both in need and deserving of protection, whilst those in criminal court appear only in relation to proceedings as victims or perpetrators and are perceived to be less vulnerable and worthy, leading Minson to make the powerful claim that children are ‘both an institutional and institutionalised blind spot’ when it comes to the sentencing of their parents.

Maternal Sentencing and the Rights of the Child

Palgrave Macmillan

What are the implications for this differentiated treatment for families, wider society and the state?

This, Minson reaffirms, has serious consequences for both the children of imprisoned parents, and for their resultant caregivers. The patent stigmatisation and trauma are shown to cause significant harm during and beyond custodial parameters, with grave ramifications not only for the quality of family life but for the life chances of children within it. Here, Minson’s work bridges a key divide by explicitly linking such dire harms suffered by children through maternal imprisonment directly to the imprisonment itself. She conceptualises such harms as secondary prisonisation and secondary stigmatisation, both of which are explained to be neither legally nor morally justifiable. As such, beyond failing to fulfil a duty of care and afford children the formal protections separation should necessitate, Minson asserts the state to be in breach of multiple conventions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), reasoning that judges are not only able to consider children when sentencing their parents, but are legally obliged to do so. Here, differentiations and resultant discrepancies are determined to raise issues both of difference and discrimination, as well as damage and rights violations.

                                                                                                            

What could remedy this?

 Minson calls for the state to accept its blatant breaches of its duties under the UNCRC, in particular its duty to protect children from discrimination or punishment they may suffer as a consequence of the status or activities of their parent. To do so they would need to adopt a communitarian approach acknowledging the ramifications of imprisonment, show willingness to change and reduce its use, and mitigate the harms suffered by children who are separated from their mothers by imprisonment. Despite substantiated grounding and resounding resonance after decades of work around the Cortson Report, such concrete calls have unfortunately been met by diametrically opposed and indefensible action, with the Government’s recent announcement of plans to expand the women’s estate by 15% with the creation of 500 further spaces for their concrete confinement.

The “Hands” taken by Penny Matthews and obtained from Freeimages

Taken by Penny Matthews and obtained from Freeimages

Dr Minson closes the book and its launch with the powerful passage:

It is now clear that the existence of such differentiated treatment is not acceptable in a democracy which claims to uphold the rights of children and citizens, and which acts upon a duty of care towards many children within its jurisdiction. Children are rights holding citizens and this requires our critical attention, particularly in the often-invisible practice of punishment.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9f5Z8ZKWv0\

Blog post by Millie Smith, current MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice student at the Centre for Criminology at The University of Oxford.