Being separated from a parent is one of the most traumatic events a child can experience
Whether that parent is in prison, has died or abandoned the family, the grieving process is much the same. There is the same fear, anxiety, sadness and anger. And often the same problems of financial hardship and disrupted care are thrown into the mix.
But some things are unique to the children of prisoners. Things like shame. A fear of being ostracised. And a terrible sense of isolation.
The isolation is frequently physical. A parent in prison often triggers a move to a new community and a new school – a severing of ties with existing social and support networks. But even more debilitating is the isolation that comes with guarding their terrible secret. One thing that makes these children so easy to overlook is that they make it their life’s work to stay hidden.
These young people deserve our help because none of us would choose for them to suffer. But, beyond the humanity, there is also a more selfish motivation. When we help them we are also helping ourselves: children of prisoners are five times more likely than other kids to end up in prison themselves – a high price we all have to pay.
What happens for a young person who has a parent in prison?
There are a lot of consequences for children or young people who have a parent in prison. In conversations with us the kids themselves have identified as being:
- Isolated – feeling lonely
- Stigmatised – feeling they aren’t as good as others
- Ostracised/ignored – left out
- Missing out
- on time with Mum or Dad
- on activities, because there isn’t enough money
- Angry – at Dad, at Mum, at the police, at themselves
- Deserted – betrayed, let down
- about Mum or Dad not being OK
- about what is going to happen to them now
- Humiliated/embarrassed – most kids wouldn’t dare tell any of their friends
- Stressed – stress can trigger anger/aggression, fits of crying, even bedwetting
- Guilty – a lot of kids feel like it is their fault that mum or dad is in jail
- Confused by changes in family dynamics
- Insecure – most kids no longer feel safe and secure, they miss their parent
- Low in self-esteem
- Having to become the adult
Statistics indicate that at any one time approximately 15,000 students in NSW are directly affected by the imprisonment of a parent, and that 60,000 students under the age of 16 have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. The peer groups of each of these students can also be affected indirectly.