A forum held by the Office of the Child Safety Commissioner Victoria and SHINE for Kids on 15 April 2011

The packed forum presented a full day of diverse speakers giving their perspectives on the status of children of prisoners in both the child welfare and prison sectors, and where the future lies.

After an acknowledgement by Vickie Roach of the traditional owners of the land on which the forum was held, SHINE chair Helen Wiseman introduced the organisation with a brief history.

The keynote address for the forum was given by Helen Barnacle, a psychologist in private practice. Helen spoke of her own experience as a prisoner and her fight for justice for prisoners. She was one of the first prisoners to be allowed to keep her infant daughter, Ali, with her. However she was separated from her when Ali turned four and Helen still had four more years to serve. Helen spoke of the impact of separation and “going downhill” as a reaction.

Helen reminded us that you only need the support of one person – in her case, her brother, who looked after her daughter after their separation.

Panel discussion

The panel consisted of Ms Barnacle and five other community members:

  • Glenn Broome has been working for 20 years with prisoners about contact with family including partners. Glenn said that kinship carers are not given any priority for support unless child abuse or neglect has been established; children who are not involved with Child Protection also need support and mentoring; they are at risk of repeating the cycle of offending and incarceration. A lot more resourcing is needed for support of prisoners’ children, as much of the support work is currently done voluntarily. A group of responses is needed, not just one type.
  • Vickie Roach, an Indigenous Research Officer at UNSW, was taken from her mother and put into care when she was age two. Vickie was in care and juvenile detention, then later was heroin-dependent and was in prison over several sentences. Vicki said that there are big issues with keeping in contact with children while inside. Children are allowed to stay until the age of five, but there are very few children in prison and limited resources for them. Women generally should not be in prison as they are usually not violent. They lose everything – family, home and finances.
  • Sonia Chudiak is the Manager of Justice Family Support Programs at Melbourne Citymission, working at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre. She is involved with taking children to prison visits with their mothers and runs in-prison programs for them. She works in with Child Protection – but noted that Child Protection was not represented at the Forum that day. They also run a pre- and post- release program (WIS). They work with a minimum of 90 women a year.
  • Huy Luu spoke of the big shame of imprisonment in the Vietnamese community, despite the high numbers of Vietnamese people in prison. Grandparents usually care for the children, but this involves a very different way of raising children from the parents’ way, and can include denying them access to their imprisoned parents because of the stigma.
  • Maree Frilay is a single woman who has been a kinship carer for three grandchildren for a long time. The children’s mother (Maree’s daughter) has a mental illness and substance abuse. Marie described the difficulty of her situation, especially with the mental health issue. She said that the children need someone to help them handle the situation of drugs and jail. Their education suffers as they have difficulty concentrating. SHINE for Kids helps a lot. The Big Brother program is good for the 12-year-old, but mentoring from SHINE is more consistent. Maree said that jail is not right for someone with mental illness.

On the panel were (left to right): Glenn Broome, Vickie Roach, Sonia Chudiak, Huy Luu, Maree Frilay and Helen Barnacle. At far right is forum MC Terry Laidler.

What one thing would make a difference to the system?

The panel was then asked: What is one thing that would make the system better? What is possible to do and would make a difference?

Maree Frilay: Her grandchildren need easily accessible counselling, also mentoring. They need help at school, and with coping with everyday life. Financial help is needed for many.

Helen Barnacle: One thing that needs to change is the education of child protection workers. Parents can’t be honest with them about drugs, or the children will be taken. So they can’t talk about substance abuse, how to deal with it and the issues behind it.

Huy Luu: Prisoners need a home after release. They can’t afford housing so they go into rooming houses and share houses.

Glenn Broome: Prisoners used to get day leave to visit children in their own home. Now we are too risk-averse to allow this. People can’t get parole because they can’t get housing. Housing is a huge issue – yet there are houses sitting empty.

Vickie Roach: Stable and appropriate housing is one of the most important things. Housing should not be in a poor unsuitable environment such as the Collingwood high-rise, or over a pub – which is what she was given. Ms Roach added that we should stop calling Dame Phyllis Frost a prison and turn it into a therapeutic community that can help women recover from substance abuse and get better health-wise. Women’s prisons should be more like hospitals or health lodges. They don’t get anti-psychotics in jail, so people with mental illness get worse again. It’s “torture by medication”.

Maree Frilay spoke of her challenges as a carer of three grandchildren

After comments and responses from the audience, Terry Hannon described the research she undertook research for VACRO, published in 2007, on the impact on children of parents’ imprisonment. She cited examples of newer and better court processes, e.g. Koori court, drug courts and the Family Court, that could be explored and applied to the mainstream to benefit children. We may need a public awareness campaign to address their needs; cross-departmental work to address the lack of comprehensive guidelines re children’s needs, and to look at arrest, sentencing and other matters. VACRO has a continuing role in taking the research recommendations forward.

Speakers from SHINE for Kids

Gloria Larman detailed the various programs run by SHINE, including the SKY program which offers individual counselling and support; mentoring; educational and social assistance and financial assistance. There are six Child and Family Centres in close proximity to the correctional centres, providing child care staff; counselling; information; advocacy; age appropriate activities and Prison Invisits Program; safety before and after visits. Recent Aboriginal programs include the arts-based Colourful Dreaming for children 10-15, involving elders, promoting contact between children and fathers by mutual participation.

Marcelle Nessim described how the Mentoring Progam involves volunteer mentors who commit to the program for a year. After being screened and trained, they provide social support and activities of interest to children.

Louise Billman outlined the Prison Invisits Program, which includes a table with activities such as craft, games and painting, supervised by a volunteer. This changes the environment and has a positive impact on the child and family. The parents can have a chat while children are occupied. But the program can also engage the whole family, e.g. creating a painting together. Paintings are displayed on the walls of the parents’ cells. Children now often look forward to these visits. In Victoria, both Dame Phyllis Frost and Barwon prisons are supportive of the program.

Connecting Kids and Dads is a very new program, started end of 2010. Louise says the fathers have done lots of parenting courses, but they want individual support; they want to be able to change a nappy, or to communicate with a two-year-old. Other issues discussed might be around helping a prisoner with talking to their partner constructively about family decisions. The Building Bridges program uses scrapbooking to involve the fathers in the development of their child, and shows the child the parent’s interest. The program continues as follow-through into support for the family unit after the parent is released.

Gloria Larman then summarised the lessons of the last 30 years, asserting that a child-centric approach is critical, where parents can focus on the child’s needs. Child and family support should wrap services around the child and family – provide a hub. Programs should be co-ordinated, organised and cross-regional, as well equally accessible services in different prisons, so if the prisoner moves, they still get the service.

Children and young people want targeted services: individual support, and access to peers. They want to work through their grief and loss, to talk about it. They want support for understanding people and the system. They want visits and phone contact – as they need it.

Children and young people need to have their needs acknowledged; not to be ashamed; to be free of stigma; not to believe they will go to jail or offend; community awareness of their situation.

We are still missing:

  • Accurate statistics on how many children of prisoners there are
  • An overarching supportive framework for working with them
  • Community acceptance
  • Cross-agency collaboration (justice, education, community services, health)
  • Cross-government support

Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that there can be a bleak future for the children of prisoners. But it is not all doom and gloom. With support, positive outcomes are possible. No research supports prevention of contact between children and parents in jail (Finney Hairston – a research specialist on children of prisoners).

Other speakers

Alfie Oliva and Kim Eldridge spoke on support for mothers and children residing in prison. The Corrections Act 1986 and Regulations 2009, and the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 govern what can be done. Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC) and Tarrengower prisons have programs for mothers and children. There are small numbers of mothers in these programs, a few with more than one child. In the last 12 months they have pushed the boundaries re what is possible. DPFC has the Best Start Program – there is some very good work in the jail. Tarrengower is trying to mirror it there. These prisons are committed to maintaining ties between mothers and children.

Wayne Harper described a parenting program at Spring Hill Unit Marngoneet Prison near Lara, a male treatment unit. In a new unit of 88 beds which is opening in mid-2011, there will be a parenting program on a scale not seen before. It has a strengths-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approach, which has been suggested by the international literature – an individual program shaped to the family. The program covers a set of topics including the transition home, child development, problem-solving etc. In addition, they will include communication skills, life skills, play therapy, Storybook Dads and a support group. Initially it will involve 36 three-hour sessions over 12 weeks.

Dr Catherine Flynn outlined her research at Monash University’s Department of Social Work, The impact of incarceration on children’s care: a strategic framework for good care planning. This is research for knowledge and practice in working with children of prisoners – the first time such research has been done anywhere. It is funded by an ARC grant until 2014. There is poor care planning for children both at sentencing and release. There is a lot of ad hoc research in this area that has not joined up. The lack of formal data is global. Seven researchers from Monash with partner organisations are negotiating with Community Services NSW and Corrective Services NSW. The Victorian Department of Justice has recently started collecting data. Monash is looking at how to make use of it, i.e. analysis of secondary data. They are getting data from prisoners and families, including carers. The researchers are looking not just at women but also men, who are 93% of the prison population. There are many imprisoned fathers, some are primary carers of children.


SHINE’s new adolescent website was launched by Child Safety Commissioner Bernie Geary and Glenn Watson of Cyberdog Design.
The website is at: 
www.mylifenow.com.au or 

MyLifeNow sets out stories told to Dr Flynn by young people through the course of her research. It is a means of conveying research to people: adults (workers, teachers etc) can listen to what the young people say, as well as other young people. Through the use of audio files, it will soon reach both the literate and the illiterate, as many teenage children of prisoners have poor reading ability.

Summing up

MC Terry Laidler made the following statements:

  • The criminal justice system is not what it was. The institutions for people with mental illnesses and disabilities have been emptied out. Large numbers of these people now live in prison, and are in and out of the criminal justice system. There is an increase in the impact of drug addiction on our community. We can no longer say “this is not our problem” with respect to the human needs, the family needs.
  • We are obligated by international law to consider the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration, just as in family law. One facet is the principle that every child has a right to a relationship with both parents. If we need to stop contact (and we may), we need to do the least harm possible. For example, if we incarcerate the father, the justice system must address his right. This is a core responsibility as regards the rights of the child.
  • Governments must act equitably. The rights and needs of all children must prevail. Governments must spread the programs across all jails.
(L-R) Helen Wiseman, Bernie Geary, Gloria Larman, Glenn Watson, Dr Catherine Flynn

(L-R) Helen Wiseman, Bernie Geary, Gloria Larman, Glenn Watson, Dr Catherine Flynn

Photographs kind courtesy of Daniel Mendelbaum