CHILDREN with a relative in prison are the most over-looked and under-supported youngsters in society, a welfare expert has claimed.

Sarah Roberts, support worker with the charity Families Outside, believes children affected by imprisonment are often denied access to the care they need.

She argues the stigma of imprisonment is so strong that schools are often unaware of the child's situation and are therefore unable to help them cope. And as a result, some of these children may face a serious risk to their social and educational development.

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She said: "There is a huge amount of stigma involved with imprisonment and, as a result, children often feel angry, scared and alone.

"Children need to know it is not their fault and that they are not alone. But if the authorities don't know what the child is going through, they are unable to help.

"This means these young people are the most over-looked and under-supported children in society."

She added: "We need to promote a community of compassion in schools, where parents feel comfortable telling teachers that their child's mum or dad, or indeed any family member, is in prison. It's a no-brainer; children need to feel they are being listened to and if they trust the teachers, they will engage better in their education. Children who are properly supported will learn better, leave school in a much better position and enter society with greater opportunities."

An estimated 27,000 children are affected by imprisonment in Scotland each year with around 16,500 having a parent in custody.

Ms Roberts said she had heard first-hand accounts from children who have endured the experience of having a family member behind bars. She said regular contact with an imprisoned parent could soften the child's distress.

The Scottish Prison System has been keen to encourage learning sessions between parents and children during visits.

A spokesman said: "We actively encourage those in our custody to take part in all forms of learning and we are looking at developing opportunities for prisoners and their loved ones to engage in education and to encourage family learning."