Guide helps staff support young people affected by bereavement

Recent guidance aims to help youth justice practitioners to improve how they support young offenders to deal with grief and bereavement.

The guidance has been put together by Dr Sotirios Santatzoglou and Professor Sue Read at Keele University, with the support of Barrow Cadbury Trust, after they found there is a significant gap in training and guidance to help staff to deal with this issue.

Research on young offenders has found they suffer a disproportionate amount of bereavement, loss and separation compared to the general population. This might be family members, friends, their co-accused or even their victims.

It is not difficult to identify the problems of being locked up and losing a loved one, but the practical solutions are not always obvious and may demand time, which is rarely available for over-stretched custody officers, probation staff, chaplains, education staff and family visit organisations.

Duty of care

The environment mitigates against an offender trusting and confiding in someone. It takes a lot for someone to ask for support, which means there is a duty of care on custody staff to notice the signs that someone needs help.

Information sharing is a must for preventing suicides and supporting people. Organisations such as Pact, Barnardo's and POPS will often be the first to know about bereavements, and co-ordination with the prison staff - without breaching confidentiality - is vital.

However, when supporting a bereaved young person, staff need to think about who else needs to know they have lost someone. Key questions include: does this need to be recorded and does the young person agree to you telling others about the help being offered? Continuity of support is valuable, but a young person does need to know it is being done.

What services can young offenders be signposted to? Dr Santatzoglou and Professor Read suggest that practitioners could compile a list of local and national bereavement agencies to provide specialist support for those that need it.

Chaplaincy support

The Prison Chaplaincy also has a role to play. While many will associate it with religious practice, it is also there to provide support to those who need it - whether they practice a religion or not.

The guide gives the following advice to practitioners:

  • Be approachable. Sometimes just spending time with someone will help. Ignoring the loss can be worse than any clumsy language used. Practitioners should not feel they need to have all the answers to complex questions raised; just being available and eager to listen is what matters most.
  • Bereavement support may involve finding out information about the death, contacting relatives and finding out details about the funeral. Practitioners should arrange to speak to the prisoner in a private space to let them know they are there to speak to. Listen to them, make eye contact and look for common responses to loss. What coping strategies can be suggested?
  • Think of ways they can continue the bonds with the deceased. Some prisoners have created small shrines for example. Visual aids, such as photos, provide identity, heritage and history.
  • Think about who needs to be involved in the support process.
  • What other staff within the custody environment can be called upon? Identify what support systems are already in place as well as local agencies coming into the prison who can offer support.
  • Develop a central contact list of local faith leaders as well as local specialist organisations, liaison and diversion services, charities and support agencies.
  • Help the young person apply for temporary release for a funeral or to visit a terminally ill relative. They may not know that this discretionary system exists.

The majority of young people will be better prepared for release if they have been supported with their bereavement needs.

Bereavement guidance for young offenders is available from

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