Mapping the needs and experiences of children affected by parental imprisonment: A national survey
Children who experience parental imprisonment are known to be some of the most disadvantaged and overlooked in our community. They often experience multiple and compounding disadvantages, with long-term consequences, but receive no specialised assistance. Rigorous knowledge about these children and their families is lacking in Australia and is required to inform policy development.
The aim of this report is to improve understanding of the characteristics, needs, and experiences of children with a parent in prison. The study was commissioned by SHINE for Kids and is supported by funding from them.
Methods and participants
The study was approved by the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee (Project ID: 31763).
Data were gathered via an anonymous survey, facilitated through the online platform Qualtrics. The survey was available from 31 October 2022 to 6 February 6 2023. The link was distributed via a range of mechanisms:
· SHINE for Kids;
· other relevant not-for-profit organisations across Australia;
· a range of social media platforms; and
· the researchers’ and other key stakeholders’ professional networks.
· The survey gathered primarily quantitative descriptive data, including:
· family demographics, including age and disability and Indigenous status;
· visits with the incarcerated parent;
· connections to formal and informal supports; and
· connections to any other statutory services.
A small number of qualitative questions were also asked.
Caregivers of dependent children with a family member in prison completed the survey. Although no population-level data exist on children and families who experience the imprisonment of a family member, our survey responses indicate that, in general terms, the imprisoned family members of the survey respondents were broadly similar to the wider prison population, with regard to age, gender, Indigenous status, legal status, and prior imprisonment.
Women under the age of 40 years, caring for one or two children whose father was in prison, were the dominant group of survey respondents.
The families in this survey are quite well connected to the incarcerated parent, with regular visiting evident, although problems with maintaining contact were described, including the lack of in-person contact or access/technological issues with video visiting.
The families in this study describe a range of substantial needs, both practical and emotional. Financially, families are struggling to meet basic needs, including for food, shelter and paying utilities. Many report having limited money to pay for school expenses or children’s activities. Many families rely on government benefits, but receive most support informally, from family and friends. It is clear that these families have higher needs, but limited access to supports.
The children being cared for were typically under 10 years of age, with 23% being of pre-school age. Boys made up around 54% of the overall group. The level of disability or chronic illness reported in children was considerably higher than in the community, as were the reports of diagnosed mental health issues. Around one-half of the children are regularly absent from school, with many struggling to get the children to attend, commonly due to feelings of anxiety and experiences of bullying.
Experiences of school suspension/exclusion are higher than the community average and a concerning number of children have had contact with the police/youth justice.
From the findings presented, we can conclude that although survey respondents may be quite connected to the imprisoned parent, families are experiencing considerable financial stressors, which affect their daily lives and how their children engage with the community. While these families are supported informally by friends and extended family, they are poorly connected to informal or formal support services or resources; the children, in particular, have limited community engagement.
The caregivers surveyed clearly paint a portrait of children who are also struggling. They are young, living in stressed households, with limited money for school costs and around half are regularly absent from school. In addition, when they do attend, internalising and externalising behaviours create further challenges. Experiences of anxiety and bullying create barriers to school attendance; conversely, engaging in bullying or other violence then leads to children being suspended or expelled at rates far higher than the wider community. These children have also had contact with police and/or youth justice at higher rates than the community. Accordingly, our findings highlight that families with children experiencing parental imprisonment need our immediate attention and support.
The survey findings support the implementation of a range of specific recommendations, namely:
· increased support for incarcerated parents, particularly noting the additional needs these parents are likely to present with, as a result of co-existing health/mental health challenges;
· specialised, free and accessible support for children and families, during and after imprisonment, which should be pro-actively offered at key points, when families interact with the criminal justice system (e.g. arrest, sentencing, at imprisonment, and in relation to visiting);
· wrap-around support for families with complex needs to reduce the burden of navigating multiple service systems;
· support before, during and after video visits for children and parents;
· targeted support to address the specific needs of Indigenous families
· targeted support to address the specific needs of families experiencing disability;
· services and resources to support family connection during imprisonment; and
· training and support for schools and teachers, to ensure they are aware of the issues the children of incarcerated parents may experience and can respond appropriately.
Our research has also revealed areas which require ongoing investigation. Specifically, there is a need to hear from :
· children directly, about both their experiences and their recommendations for support in relation to their parents’ incarceration; and
· children and families, about their experiences of the post-release period.