Operation Paramount: Innovative scheme offers rapid support for children with a parent in prison

The Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit and Thames Valley Police have begun an innovative new process to identify children of a parent who is sent to prison, allowing a prompt offer of support for the whole family by the charity Children Heard and Seen.

By analysing data from the prison service, Operation Paramount has created a new means of recognising those families who may need additional support, helping to tackle risk factors of young people being drawn into future crime or experiencing other problems. 

First piloted in October 2021, Operation Paramount is live in Oxfordshire, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire and West Berkshire and we’re exploring roll out across the whole Thames Valley region by the end of 2023/24.

Children Heard and Seen are the only charity providing solely community-based support to families left behind after parental imprisonment, offering a range of services including one to one support, mentoring, online activities, parenting skills and peer support, and social events to bring families with shared experiences together. Prior to Operation Paramount, there was no statutory mechanism to recognise these families and the charity relied upon word-of-mouth to reach those needing help, often leading to long delays or families missed entirely.  

From November 2021 to late September 2023, 789 children recently affected by parental imprisonment were recognised across the Thames Valley with all of those suitable receiving the support offer with nearly 40 children/families accepting a referral to Children Heard & Seen to receive direct support.  Other families may later reach out themselves, now they are aware of the charity and as their needs change.

In February 2023, the VRU published the following short video to help explain how Operation Paramount works with Thames Valley Police and Children Heard and Seen to support families:

How does Operation Paramount work and why is it so innovative?

For the first time, data from the HM Prisons & Probation Service (HMPPS) database is being used not only to track a prisoner’s entry, movement through and eventual release from prison – but also to direct support to those vulnerable family members left behind at the point of their imprisonment.

Thames Valley VRU has a data-sharing platform called Thames Valley Together which allows secure sharing between partners, including HMPPS.  Using this system, each month the VRU runs an assessment on those sent to prison who have a link to a child in the Thames Valley region. This allows them to identify those families which may be suitable for a support offer.

The VRU then notifies the “Operation Paramount Champion”, an officer or member of police staff working on the relevant Local Policing Area. The family is contacted to make an initial offer of support and to arrange a voluntary home visit to discuss further, depending on the circumstances and availability.

As part of the welfare visit, which may be by a police officer or a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) from the local team, the role of the charity Children Heard and Seen is explained to the family and they are offered a referral to have an initial conversation with the charity. Where appropriate, i.e. when a family is already open to statutory support or Early Help, the officer will ensure local Children’s Services are aware.

At this point, Thames Valley Police’s engagement with the family ceases and Children Heard and Seen then begin their work if the family so wish.

What support does the charity Children Heard & Seen offer?

Children and families meeting TVP officers at an activity weekend hosted by Children Heard & Seen

Children Heard and Seen is a charity which provides support and interventions for children with a parent in prison. The charity was set up in 2014, with a focus on reducing intergenerational offending and mitigating the impacts of parental imprisonment.

Through their mix of trained staff and volunteers they offer a range of services including one-to-one support for parent or child, peer support groups and a range of social activities and residentials to bring families with shared experiences together.

The charity has supported over 850 children and their families with only five of them going on to offend whilst receiving support.

Where is Operation Paramount being delivered?

Operation Paramount first piloted in 2021 with a focus on Oxford city before rolling out across all of Oxfordshire by early 2022.  In December 2022 Paramount commenced in Milton Keynes and it went live across Buckinghamshire and in West Berkshire in July 2023. We have the ambition to be Thames Valley-wide by the end of 2023/24.

Elsewhere, other police forces and Violence Reduction Units have sought to implement the initiative, adopting the Thames Valley approach. West Midlands Violence Prevention Unit are also commissioning Children Heard and Seen with activity underway in north Birmingham.   Colleagues in the Wales Violence Prevention Unit are also trialling and we continue to liaise with other force areas and partners, sharing experience and promoting the initiative.

What are the success measures to Operation Paramount?

Prior to Operation Paramount, there has been no statutory mechanism to identify families who have lost a parent to imprisonment. Since going live, from November 2021 to late September 2023, 789 children have been recognised providing a more accurate record of the numbers affected, in turn helping to plan services and provide support.

Of those 789 children, 178 were aged 0 – 4 years, being in early years/pre-school. But over half (418) were of primary school age, 5 to 11 years. The majority were affected by their father being imprisoned, but 63 were subject to maternal imprisonment. 

To date, the VRU and Thames Valley Police have made an offer of support to all of those families within live areas. By September 2023, nearly 40 referrals have been made to Children Heard and Seen for a child whose parent or carer accepted the offer of support through the Operation Paramount initiative.

The initiative is recognised as having significant national potential.  Operation Paramount was recommended by the Centre for Social Justice as good practice. The Golden Thread – The Centre for Social Justice.

Operation Paramount was recommended to the Chilrden’s Commissioner by the Criminal Justice Alliance as a potential solution to current shortcomings in identifying families or supporting children. Children’s Commissioner Family Review response | Criminal Justice Alliance. The VRU has since briefed the Children’s Commissioner who welcomed the scheme.

The EU-funded Children of Prisoners Europe has recognised Operation Paramount as good practice, with a briefing provided at the international conference in 2022 Working with the police to safeguard children with a parent in conflict with the law – Children of prisoners.

In May 2023 Children Heard and Seen and Thames Valley VRU were honoured to win the prestigious Stephen Lloyd Award Stephen Lloyd Awards for Operation Paramount.