Children with parents in prison have been forgotten during lockdown, campaigners have told MPs.
The cross-party human rights committee is looking at the impact on the right to family life, with a focus on people in institutional settings including prisons, care homes and mental health facilities.
Relatives gave emotional evidence on Wednesday of the devastating impact of long periods without visits to children, parents and spouses.
A message was played from children whose mother is in prison and whose short visits have become even more limited. A nine-year-old said: “I wish I could see my mum without it [the link] glitching and cutting out. I used to speak to her lots but she has moved now and I rarely get to speak to her.”
It is estimated that 310,000 children each year have a parent in prison.
Sarah Burrows is founder of Children Heard and Seen, a charity working to support children with parents in prison. She said that a difficult situation, offering only patchy contact with parents, has worsened during the pandemic because of a failure to focus on children.
“Half the children we work with were not getting regular visits even before lockdown. Families are breaking down because of a lack of communication.
“We can’t even give phone access equally across the system. The little boy who spoke today, his mother had in-cell phone access in one prison then was moved and now has to queue with 30 others for the phone. Some prisons restrict the number of children who can visit, and families have to pick a child.”
Many prisons have been under pressure in the face of increasing Covid outbreaks and social visits are now almost entirely suspended.
Harriet Harman, chair of the committee, told the Guardian: “These are areas where there are already underlying problems … and now the pandemic has made this worse.
“When the pandemic hits, it’s just, ‘oh ban all visits’. Why not ask how we can make visits safe? And if you are thinking about the right of the child to family life – perhaps give early release to the mother?
“It’s about looking at it from the perspective of individual rights, and even within a pandemic these should be respected because the impact can be devastating. Think of young people with autism or the undermining of a child-mother relationship if prison visits are stopped for months.”
The committee is also looking at the treatment of young people held in mental health facilities.
A mother broke down as she listed the ways she had tried to reach her daughter, who is being held in an assessment and treatment centre. Despite “E” having the emotional age of a toddler, her parents have been refused permission to see her in person because of Covid restrictions.
“She calls us and says: ‘I want my mummy.’ If the Zoom call goes over 10 minutes they take the iPad out of her hand – it is wrong. We have even been refused a window visit.
“We cry every day. Our child is incarcerated and now because of Covid, I can’t even advocate for her. Social workers and police are allowed in, but a mother and father who have been with her 24 hours a day until she was detained are not allowed to look through a window – it is cruel, it is inhuman.”
The inquiry will look in more detail at the impact of lockdown on human rights, following on from the committee’s first report in September last year.
The government responded earlier this month with a full report on the findings, saying: “The central aim of the government’s response has been to protect lives. The coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented global impact that has severely affected public health, the economy and society.
“Balancing consideration of the economic and social implications of restrictions with the need to protect public health and make sure the NHS does not become overwhelmed is challenging, but the government has been committed to a proportionate and flexible response.”