Monash University
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Waiting for mum: the impact of maternal incarceration on adolescent children

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posted on 2017-01-10, 04:23 authored by Flynn, Catherine Anne
In western countries such as Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., the women’s prison population has increased exponentially over the past decade, far outstripping the rate of growth in male imprisonment. The majority of women in prison are the mothers of dependent children. Subsequently, increasing numbers of children are being separated from their mothers; many displaced from home and effectively left parentless. Despite a growing body of knowledge since the 1960s, and growing numbers of children affected, little is known about these children, particularly older children and adolescents. This study examines the impact of maternal imprisonment on 20 young people, aged between 10 and 18 years, whose mothers were incarcerated in the two women’s prisons in Victoria (Australia). Data was gathered directly from young people themselves, as well as from their mothers and a small cohort of professionals, after the mother’s release from prison. To answer the research question, the study sought retrospective and predominantly qualitative data on children’s lives before, during and after their mother’s imprisonment. The data was analysed in a variety of ways, initially through the development of case studies and then across cases using thematic content analysis, drawing on themes emerging from the data and a priori categories gleaned from earlier research. The study shows that maternal incarceration has a significant impact on the lives of adolescents, and that it is uncommon for children to have secure care arrangements in place at the time of their mother’s imprisonment. For children to be displaced from home is also common, although most maintain some contact with their mother over the course of her imprisonment. While the majority of children return home to live with their mother, this is largely influenced by the child’s pre-prison placement and their visiting patterns during the imprisonment. Interestingly, although many young people are not satisfied with their care arrangements, particularly those who are cared for by their fathers, and cope with difficulties by internalising them, most do not report persistent adverse effects. The study provides new and challenging ideas. It describes the important role played by care planning in children’s reaction to maternal incarceration; this has not previously been examined. The findings also illustrate the poor coping mechanisms employed by children and discuss the range of social factors which affect this coping. Finally, factors influential in actual family reunifications are described and examined; very few studies, and none in Australia, have previously sought this data. The study provides a description of family reunification pathways, and highlights the importance of pre-prison placement and children’s visiting. The study findings stress that the impact of a mother’s imprisonment begins before sentencing and continues beyond her release. Yet research to date has focused predominantly on the period of a mother’s imprisonment. Overall, the study finds that limited formal or informal attention is given by adults involved to children’s needs. They are little seen or acknowledged at any point during their mother’s contact with the adult criminal justice process. From her arrest, through sentencing, imprisonment and planning for release, they are not considered to be participants in the proceedings.


Principal supervisor

Sheehan, Rosemary

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Department, School or Centre

Primary and Allied Health Care

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Primary Health Care

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences

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