The plight of veteran offenders and the impact on their families

Work with Offenders looks into a new report into the needs of veterans in custody and their families and children

New research from Barnardo’s provides a glimpse into the ‘invisible’ lives of the children and families of veterans in custody.

The charity was commissioned by the Forces in Mind Trust to assess their unique needs as part of a two year project.

This follows previous work by Barnardo’s supporting children affected by parental offending and highlighting the importance of maintaining family relationships.

The new report, written by Leonie Harvey-Rolfe and Sara Rattenbury, identifies complicating factors for veterans such as a loss of identity and a lack of holistic support services, and suggests early interventions, peer support and a family-based approach to prison work.

The research reveals that many former military personnel don’t identify as veterans because they think it only applies to those with long-service or active-service backgrounds.

Others fear revealing their past military careers could damage their relationship with their former units, or they view seeking support as an admission of weakness – which means many veterans don’t seek help for themselves and their family until they reach a crisis.

Shame also plays a role. One prisoner said: “I saw coming to prison as a failure so I didn’t say I was a military veteran because that’s a double-failure. I didn’t say anything for a long time.”

The report digs deep into the experiences of people who have got into trouble with the criminal justice system after leaving the Armed Forces. Several of the people that Barnardo’s spoke to had been dishonourably discharged from the military. This was a traumatic experience for many all of whom had expected to complete their full military service. The individuals concerned frequently felt ashamed and had also had no time to plan their transition to civilian life.

The report also sheds light on the fact that neither prisons (who do collect numbers of identified veterans) nor military charities, nor peer support groups collect information on veterans’ dependents or family situation. As in many areas of social justice, needs that are recorded often go unmet.

(Almost) universally, families are reliant on ‘their’ veterans to inform them of the support available and to be eligible; the veteran’s military service must be verified. The report found that many veterans do not always identify as such and therefore do not see support services as applicable to them. This can be because they are not fully aware of the definition and associate the term with either those who have long service or those who have experienced active service. For those who do recognise themselves as veterans there was an acknowledgement of concern that, should they reveal this to criminal justice agencies, this might have negative repercussions for their relationship with the military. In addition there remains an association of seeking support and admitting weakness, which can be a challenging prospect.

Key findings include:

  • Family breakdown levels are high amongst the people interviewed and often this separation has occurred before the father went into custody.
  • Mirroring the transition from military to civilian life, the greatest challenge is at the point of release from custody when transitioning back into the community.
  • When veterans and families do access support on offer, feedback is largely positive.

The report also makes a number of important recommendations:

  • Opportunities need to be developed to facilitate peer support for veterans, partners and children
  • Consistent and funded veteran support services should be in operation across all prison estates
  • One agency should take responsibility for overseeing and coordinating support for children of offenders before, during and after their parent is in custody


Previous research has clearly demonstrated the importance of offenders maintaining family ties, and the impact of parental imprisonment on their children. This includes an increased risk of isolation, depression, bullying and truancy which can then affect their educational achievement and future prospects.

However, the voices and experiences of children and families of veterans in custody have largely been absent – which is why this new research is so important.

It is apparent that prisons, military charities and peer support groups often don’t collect information on dependants or family situations so this group is likely to remain invisible and their needs unmet.

There is no doubt that more specialist support is needed to meet the needs of the families and children of veteran offenders.