Children of Prisoners: 'Collateral Damage'?Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) Insight magazine, Number 9, February 2014

The children of prisoners in Victoria are largely ‘invisible’, to the justice system and the broader community. Dr Catherine Flynn and Melanie Field-Pimm say it’s time for us to consider how they are punished too.

Natalie[1] is 14 years old and her mother has recently been released after seven months on remand, her sixth stint in prison. For the past four years Natalie has lived in an informal foster care arrangement, through a church group her mother met in prison. Whilst she is happy and settled, she feels let down by her mother who continues to cycle through the criminal justice system. ‘I was scared that if I did live with mum I’d have no hope of getting anywhere in life.’ She is right to be concerned, when the impact and implications of parental incarceration for children are examined.

Jason, who is also 14, has a father who has been convicted of a violent crime against someone he knows. Jason dropped out of school, was self-harming and refused to talk to his mum about how he felt. He described himself as ‘Dad’s best mate’ to the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO) counsellor. His previous counsellor had told him to forget about his dad, but he loved him and missed him terribly and just wanted to feel understood. Tarnished as ‘guilty by association’, he did not know how to make sense of his own thoughts about his dad, let alone the stigma and bullying. He internalised the anger directed at him by others and didn’t want to be told how awful his dad was.

Extent of the problem

Natalie and Jason are just two of the 67,500 Victorian children who have a parent appear as defendants in the criminal court each year, [2] and of the 38,000 children in Australia annually who have a parent in prison. [3] These estimates are somewhat dated and likely to be underestimates now, given the Victorian Government’s commitment to ‘one of the largest prison expansion programs in Victorian history’ [4], and increasing prisoner numbers [5], around 50 per cent of whom are thought to be parents.

Despite the significance of these figures, such children remain invisible and do not feature as a priority for government policy and statutory welfare bodies. There is no peak body to represent this group; community attitudes are typically dismissive and lacking in sympathy. One of the key functions of prisons is to keep inmates isolated and separated from the community; however the children of these prisoners are equally socially excluded.[6] Parental imprisonment for many children is both stigmatising and shameful, and actively concealed by many of their families.

When we do speak of these children, it is in largely negative terms, about anticipated problem behaviour in adolescence and adulthood. Much time is spent considering to what extent children will follow in their parents’ footsteps with the figure of ‘six times’ more likely to end up in prison often referred to. Despite this figure being questioned, [7] it is clear that children, like Natalie and Jason, do face considerable risks: often living in poverty, they are more likely to be exposed to problematic parental substance abuse, family violence, gambling, and mental health issues, and social isolation is common.[8] It seems common-sense that exposure to such challenging, accumulating and adverse events in childhood increases the likelihood that these children will fare less well in both childhood and adulthood.

If we then add into the mix the unintended consequences of the adult criminal justice system, what is clear are the increased risks to children’s long term wellbeing as well as their immediate safety. Because this system is adult-focused and not ‘child aware’, it is not unusual for children to:

  • experience traumatic arrest processes[9]
  • suffer the consequences of both their parents’ behaviour and the decisions of the adult criminal court, which has no clear protocols for considering hardship to children in sentencing[10]
  • experience sudden and forced separation from their parent/s at remand or imprisonment[11]
  • struggle to maintain contact with their parents during the period of incarceration.

Although these children are clearly vulnerable and experience multiple disadvantages, there is a definite lack of coordinated service delivery from both the child welfare and justice systems.

What needs to happen?

This problem cannot be solved by one group or one government department alone. It requires input from adult justice services as well as from children’s services. We all have a part to play and VACRO provides a framework for this approach.[12]

There have been some positive developments which have allowed children to be seen and responded to particularly in the early stages of a parent’s journey through the criminal justice process. In the US there are now some established cross-disciplinary programs to ensure child-sensitive practice at arrest. [13] Victoria Police have just expanded their trial, across the state, of SupportLink (a computer assisted single referral gateway) which allows them to make referrals for support for people they come into contact with, including family members and children, when they are arresting a parent;[14] VACRO is currently trialling a three year family support role at Geelong Magistrates Court; and certain prisons provide targeted playgroups and other initiatives for children.

What would need to be different for young people like Natalie and Jason? We need to address both attitudes and actions. We need to challenge some of the current public attitudes to prisoners’ families – that they are somehow undeserving and that they should ‘move on’ from the inmate – when we know that sustained family contact and support reduces recidivism and is better for the community.

When dealing with those in contact with the criminal justice system we need to begin with awareness that imprisonment is a family issue. Think family. Be ‘child aware’: ask about children. Assume that what you do will have an impact on a child and accept responsibility for mitigating any negative impact. We need to work together, across disciplines and departments, government and non-government, to ensure these children do not continue to fall through the cracks: to recognise and prioritise their needs. This is everybody’s business.

Dr Catherine Flynn is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University.

Melanie Field-Pimm is Manager of Communications and Development at the Victoria Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO)

  1. Names are pseudonyms.
  2. L Ward, Court Based Family Support, A Service Model for the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court. VACRO, Melbourne, 2009.
  3. S Qulty ‘The magnitude of experience of parental incarceration in Australia’, Letter to the Editor, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 12(1), 2005, pp 256–257.
  4. S Butcher, ‘Weekend court sittings plan to fix cell squeeze’, The Age, October 19, 2013.
  5. Sentencing Advisory Council, Victoria’s prison population 2002–2012, Melbourne, 2012.
  6. AY Davis, Are prisons obsolete? New York ,Seven Stories Press, 2003.
  7. C Flynn, ‘Understanding the risk of offending for the children of imprisoned parents: A review of the evidence’, Children and Youth Services Review, 2013, 35, pp 213–217.
  8. M Robinson, Next Generation on the Outside: Better outcomes for vulnerable families in contact with the Australian criminal justice system, VACRO, Melbourne, 2011.
  9. CJ Kampfner, ‘Post-traumatic stress reactions in children of imprisoned mothers’, in K Gabel & D Johnston (eds), Children of incarcerated parents, Lexington Books, New York, 1995, pp 89–102.
  10. C Flynn, B Naylor & P Fernandez, ‘Responding to the care needs of children of imprisoned parents: learning from practice’. Paper presented at Family Transitions and Trajectories, Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, Melbourne, 25–27 July 2012.
  11. J Murray and D Farrington, ‘Parental imprisonment effects on boys’ antisocial behaviour and delinquincy through the life-course’,Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2005, 46 (12), pp 1269–1278.
  12. op. cit. Robinson, 2011.
  13. G Puddefoot & LK Foster, Keeping children safe when their parents are arrested: local approaches that work, California Research Bureau, Sacramento, 2007.
  14. SupportLink 2013