Family Relationships Quarterly No. 19

AFRC Newsletter No. 19 – August 2011

Responding to the children of women in prison: Making the invisible visible

by Catherine Flynn


On any given day in Australia, approximately 38,000 children have a parent in prison (Quilty, 2005); similar to the number of children who are subject to child protection orders (Bromfield & Horsfall, 2010).   It is not known how many of these children fall into both categories; but it is known that in Victoria there is "no coordinated response by the child protection and justice systems to managing these children's situations"  (Sheehan, 2010, p. 164). Murray (2007) also noted that in England and Wales the same numbers of children affected by parental imprisonment are affected by parental divorce. For these latter groups of children a range of specialist services is offered. Yet, the children of imprisoned parents, whose experiences are not dissimilar, receive negligible attention or intervention. These children are also a growing group, with significant increases in imprisonment rates over the past two decades resulting in related increases in the numbers of children affected (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2004). It has also been shown with relative consistency internationally that around two-thirds of the women in prison are the mothers of dependent children (e.g. see Caddle & Crisp, 1997; Mumola, 2000; Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). The problems experienced by their children are also well documented: isolation, behavioural difficulties at school, anxiety, insecurity, withdrawal, anger, and mental health concerns (Baunach, 1985; Brown, 2001; Caddle & Crisp, 1997; Kampfner, 1995; Kingi, 1999; McCulloch & Morrison, 2002; Phillips, Burns, Wagner, Kramer, & Robbins, 2002). Despite these concerns and the growing nature of the problem, these children remain largely invisible, and do not feature as a priority for government policy and statutory welfare bodies.


This study gathered qualitative data from 15 women who had been imprisoned in the state of Victoria, 14 of their adolescent children, and a small group of professionals (3) who had been involved with these families. Case studies were constructed from this data, investigating the impact of maternal incarceration on 20 individual children. The mothers were a purposive sample drawn from a study population of 237 women who were released from prison in Victoria during the period December 2002-December 2003.


Data show that these children are the indirect recipients of adult justice, intersecting with the criminal justice system at many points; this offers many possibilities for effective identification and intervention.


"She was just gone." (Emma1, aged 16 when her mother was arrested and remanded into custody, before being acquitted and released seven months later)

"I was actually remanded in custody, so it was like a shock ... I was whisked away and there was no ... nothing." (Sarah, mother of five, sentenced to 7 months imprisonment for fraud)

Previous U.S. research indicates that around 50% of children are present at the arrest of their parent, and that this experience leads to considerable trauma (Kampfner, 1995). Victoria Police, however, currently do not have procedures for responding to the children of parents being arrested (Flat Out and Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO), 2006). In this study, whilst the majority of children were not present at arrest, nine of the 20 were left parentless as either their sole parent mother or both parents were remanded into custody; 10 of the 20 children were not aware of their mother's pending imprisonment before it happened, if at all, despite most mothers not being subject to arrest and remand procedures


Whilst the Judicial College of Victoria (2005) indicates that "hardship" to others can be taken into account in sentencing, the weight accorded to such information is at the discretion of the individual judge or magistrate. In the current study, some participants indicated that the needs of dependent children were not taken into account when sentencing their mothers. Kylie, a mother of six recounts:

The lawyer pleaded with the judge when I was being sentenced to give me a few extra days - to come back on Monday - to have time to organise childcare [for the six children]. He said "No". I was devastated. I had to rely on the lawyer to make all the calls and organise [the kids]." (Kylie, mother of six, sentenced to 14 months for armed robbery)

The findings of this study further indicate that a range of supportive and competing factors influenced the degree to which mothers facing imprisonment actively engaged in planning for the care for their children. Mothers with a more realistic orientation, to both their own personal problems and to the criminal justice process, typified by having experienced imprisonment previously, were more likely to ensure that secure care plans for their children were in place. Other key supportive factors included: a relationship with at least one significant adult who provided support to the woman in her parenting role, a positive relationship with the child's carer, and having adequate time to arrange care - not being remanded into custody.

Conversely, the children of women without such supports frequently lacked secure care plans. Lily was a mother who had previously not been to prison; she suffered long-term heroin addiction and lived in unstable housing with her estranged partner. She advised her son Ben aged 12 years on the morning of her court appearance:

"I'm going to court and if I don't come home I'm going to gaol."


Unsurprisingly, maternal incarceration in this study lead to considerable interruption to the children's care, with almost two-thirds of children displaced from home, typically in an unplanned way, and often into insecure arrangements. Children also experienced sustained separation from their mother: few children had frequent and predictable visiting arrangements; the contact that occurred took place in poor visiting conditions, which were not conducive to children's needs. Children's social isolation was further reinforced, both directly, in the active silencing they endured, and indirectly, in the lack of acknowledgement of their loss by teachers/schools, as well as the broader community. Most children experienced emotional responses with which they struggled on their own; typically they coped by internalising their concerns, with few supports accessed.

"I needed someone to talk to, but there was no one there. And I couldn't go to a teacher, because I didn't know who they would tell." (Keira, aged 11 years when her mother was sentenced to 3½ months for shop steal)

"I just used to cry all the time - sit in my bedroom and cry" (Sheree, aged 11 when her mother was sent to prison for 3 months).


Data from mothers in this study, indicate that participants were not aware of any policy or pre-release program for planning for family reunification after parental imprisonment. This is consistent with the report from Flat Out and VACRO (2006). It is evident that most reunification occurs with no formal support. It is of concern that although reconnection of imprisoned mothers with their children has been much discussed in previous research, beyond the current study only four studies have examined actual reunification data (Anderson, 2003; Hayward & DePanfilis, 2007; Martin, 1997; Stanton, 1980). All four of these studies indicated that many children return to their mothers care after prison. They also highlighted the challenges to family reunification, including: opportunities for contact during imprisonment, pre-prison care relationships, length of imprisonment, and the mother's pre-existing problems. The findings from the current study show that whilst the majority of children (16 of the 20) returned to live with their mother after her release from prison, formal planning and support occurred with only one family. The findings confirm the key role played in family reunification by the pre-prison placement of the child with his/her mother, and that this is supported by predictable visiting. Interestingly parental problems, particularly chronic substance abuse, have been suggested by previous research as hindering factors in family reunification. This study also indicates, however, that such problems were not always prohibitive, and can be mediated by supportive factors, particularly: informal and formal external supports (such as grandparent/s and/or long-term partners) combined with the mother's involvement in drug treatment, specifically a heroin replacement program.

Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO)

VACRO has had contact with families and children of offenders for many years and sees first hand the impact that incarceration can have on all family members. As awareness of these needs has grown, VACRO initiated family focused research and gradually expanded provision of services to include information and support for these families and children.

In 2000, VACRO commissioned Doing it Hard: A Study of the Needs of Children and Families of Prisoners in Victoria and has completed further research on policies and guidelines impacting on children as their families come into contact with the legal system (Children: Unintended Victims of Legal Process, 2006 & 2007). This research tracks needs from the stage of police contact to the point of prison release and proposes policy responses to the issues raised. VACRO has also developed service models linking vulnerable families to much needed support at the point of contact with the Courts (Court Based Family Support, 2009).

The VACRO Women Family and Children's Team offer services that provide information and support to families throughout their interactions with the criminal justice system (arrest, court, prison & post release). These include:

  • informational resources for families (Caught Out: What Now?), children & young people (Busted);
  • Visitor Centres outside three Victorian prisons in partnership with Red Cross;
  • Family Information and Referral service;
  • Video Visits program offering virtual visits between children and incarcerated parents; and
  • Supporting Kids and Youth program providing family support and referral for children and their carers.

For further information, visit the VACRO website <>.

Practice implications of this study

This study suggests that it is important for arresting officers to be aware of offenders' parenting responsibilities, and for children's care needs to be considered. A similar process to the Family Violence Referral Pathway (Department of Human Services, 2006) implemented in response to family violence in recent years in Victoria, would acknowledge the direct impact of the adult justice system on defendants' dependent children, and ensure that adequate plans are in place, linking them with appropriate resources as necessary.

Particular groups of children appear in the current study to be more at risk of having no secure care plans in place at the time of their mother's imprisonment: those whose mothers are remanded into custody, whose mothers have not been imprisoned previously (but whose offence or history suggest that imprisonment is likely), those whose sole parents are active substance users, and whose mothers have a limited support network. Further examination of these factors may reveal the value of "red flagging" these mothers and children for particular intervention, via a more formally facilitated referral.

The findings from this study and others (e.g., see Stanton, 1980) indicate that at sentencing, a formal family impact statement, incorporated into the pre-sentence report could assist with providing a more thorough assessment of children in their families, with attention to the likely impact of sentencing options on them. This would enable the rights of children, to have their voices heard in legal proceedings which affect them (United Nations Convention  on the Rights of the Child, Articles 9 and 12) (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2008), to be upheld. Implementation of the Better Pathways'  (Victorian Government Department of Justice, 2005)recommendation for professional development for Community Corrections Officers around improving awareness of women's needs as well as assessment of families, would go some way to addressing this.

It is important to acknowledge recent changes which have an impact on the children, whilst their mothers are in prison. Children whose mothers are held at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, located in Melbourne's outer western suburbs, can now visit in new surroundings, with the addition of a multi-purpose room for children's programs and new playground equipment (Victorian Government Department of Justice, 2008). SHINE for Kids has recently implemented the Prison Invisits Program, where during prison visits children are engaged in art and craft activities, supported by Early Childhood workers and volunteers. This organisation, together with VACRO also provides a mentoring program (Supporting Kids and Youth) for these children.

However, as has been shown by the findings of this study, the impact of parental, specifically maternal incarceration on children can be far reaching; effective intervention needs to also consider the pre- and post-prison periods. Family reunification planning prior to release is suggested as a method of softening the impact of the mother's transition home and its potential impact on child wellbeing. Currently, women are "propelled, not prepared" [Christine, mother of 10 year old Dan] for release into their families and communities.

This recent in-depth study of the experiences of 20 adolescent children who experienced maternal imprisonment in Victoria clearly indicates that the experiences of these children intersect with the adult criminal justice system at many points, yet their needs are not acknowledged or responded to formally.  This is a common finding in research into the experiences of the children of prisoners (e.g. see Burns, Brandon, Oakes, Olopade and Krikorian (2007:8)  The findings suggest the need for change to ensure these children are brought in from the margins: the identification of primary carers at arrest; alternatives to imprisoning mothers; family impact statements in pre-sentence reports; targeted support services for these children; and formal attention to family reunification planning.

SHINE for Kids

SHINE for Kids was created in March 1982 following the release of The Children of Imprisoned Parents Report, commissioned by the Family and Children's Services Agency. SHINE for Kids provides advocacy and various other services for the children of imprisoned parents and their families. A core focus in providing this support is our belief in the power of early intervention to stem some of the negative effects of parental imprisonment. These negative effects can include:

  • family poverty;
  • breakdown in family relationships;
  • children's inability to thrive in a social and educational setting; and
  • discrimination faced by children and their families due to the imprisonment of a parent.

These effects of imprisonment on children and their families can lead to a cycle of disadvantage for children and can also potentially result in children coming into contact with the criminal justice system themselves. SHINE for Kids goal is to address these issues and combat this potential cycle.

Child and family activities

SHINE for Kids provides a range of initiatives aimed at reducing the isolation that children face due to having a parent in the criminal justice system. We allow children an opportunity to feel supported, have fun and enjoy visiting their mum or dad in prison with:

  • Prison Invisits Program;
  • Child and Family Centres;
  • childminding;
  • children's activities; and
  • Connecting Kids and Dads Program - Barwon Prison.
Other services include:
Contact services

These services focus on building and maintaining positive relationships between the child and their imprisoned parent, and assistance to succeed educationally and reach their potential.

Mentoring Program for young people

This program offers a child or young person consistency, stability and healthy options for dealing with life through a supportive, caring and non-judgmental relationship with an adult mentor. These trained volunteers meet fortnightly with the child, enabling them to participate in events and activities which enhance their development and self esteem.

Group Work

Group Work focuses on children and young people and their carers by providing opportunities to interact together in structured, fun activities. These help reduce their isolation, build resilience and develop positive communication, as well as learning and applying strategies to effect change.

Research and advocacy

SHINE for Kids undertakes a number of research and advocacy initiatives to give children of prisoners a voice. Research and advocacy provide opportunities to share knowledge, experience, and expertise with the community, industry and government leaders.

SHINE for Kids are located across New South Wales and Victoria. For more information visit the SHINE for Kids website <>.


  • Anderson, N. (2003, February). Broken families: The children of women accessing Melbourne Citymission's prisons programs. Paper presented at the Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, Melbourne.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2004). Prisoners in Australia (ABS Cat. No. 4517.0). Retrieved from <>.
  • Baunach, P. J. (1985). Mothers in prison. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.
  • Bromfield, L., & Horsfall, B. (2010). Child abuse and neglect statistics (NCPC Resource sheet).  Retrieved from <>.
  • Burns, A., Brandon, V., Oakes, K., Olopade, D., & Krikorian, S. (2007). Children of offenders review. London: National Offender Management Service and Department for Children Schools and Families.
  • Brown, K. (2001). "No-one's ever asked me". Young people with a prisoner in the family. London: Action for Prisoners' Families.
  • Caddle, D., & Crisp, D. (1997). Mothers in prison (Home Office Research Findings No. 38). London: The Home Office, Research and Statistics Directorate.
  • Corston, B. J. (2007). The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. London: The Home Office. Retrieved from <>.
  • Department of Human Services. (2006). Formal protocol between Department of Human Services and Victorian Police Family Violence Referral pathways 2006-2008 (PDF 27.8 MB). Retrieved from <>.
  • Flat Out and Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. (2006). Children: Unintended victims of legal process. A review of policies and legislation affecting children with incarcerated parents (PDF 593 KB) (Discussion Paper). Retrieved from <>
  • Glaze, L., & Maruschak, L. (2008). Parents in prison and their minor children (Cat. no. 2222984). Bureau of Justice Statistics, United States of America. Retrieved from <>.
  • Hayward, R. A., & DePanfilis, D. (2007). Foster children with an incarcerated parent: Predictors of reunification. Children and Youth Services Review, 29, 1320-1334.
  • Judicial College of Victoria. (2005). Victorian sentencing manual. Retrieved from <>.
  • Kampfner, C. J. ( 1995). Post-traumatic stress reactions in children of imprisoned mothers. In K. Gabel & D. Johnston (Eds.), Children of incarcerated parents (pp. 89-102). New York: Lexington Books.
  • Kingi, V. (1999). The children of women in prison, PhD Thesis. Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Martin, M. (1997). Connected mothers: A follow-up study of incarcerated women and their children. Women and Criminal Justice, 8(4), 1-23.
  • McCulloch, C., & Morrison, C. (2002). Teenagers with a family member in prison. Edinburgh: Scottish Forum on Prisons and Families.
  • Mumola, C. (2000). Incarcerated parents and their children. US Department of Justice, Retrieved from <>.
  • Murray, J. (2007). The cycle of punishment: Social exclusion of prisoners and their children. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 7(1), 55-81.
  • Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2008). Convention on the rights of the child. Retrieved from <>.
  • Phillips, S. D., Burns, B. J., Wagner, H. R., Kramer, T. L., & Robbins, J. M. (2002). Parental incarceration among adolescents receiving mental health services. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 11(4), 385-399.
  • Quilty, S. (2005). The magnitude of experience of parental incarceration in Australia. Letter to the Editor. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 12(1), 256-257.
  • Sheehan, R. (2010). Parental imprisonment and child protection: A study of children presented to the Melbourne children's court. Australian Social Work, 63(2), 164-178.
  • Stanton, A. M. (1980). When mothers go to jail. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.
  • Victorian Government Department of Justice. (2005). Better Pathways: An integrated response to women's offending and re-offending. Melbourne: Victorian Government Department of Justice.
  • Victorian Government Department of Justice. (2008). Better Pathways report card. Retrieved from <>.
  • Woodward, R. ( 2003). Families of prisoners: Literature review on issues and difficulties (Occasional Paper No. 10). Canberra: Department of Family and Community Services.

Dr Catherine Flynn is a Lecturer in the Department of Social Work, Monash University, Melbourne.


1.   All participants are referred to by pseudonyms to ensure confidentiality.