Mia* avoids telling people that her step mum has spent time in prison. She worries that people will judge her based on her step mum’s behaviour. It’s a heavy burden for a 19-year-old to carry.
“I do hide it a bit. It’s embarrassing and it looks poorly on me, that I’m associated with someone like that,” she said.
Mia is not alone. Australia’s prison population is rapidly growing with an increase of six per cent from 2016 to 2017, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That’s more than three times the rate of overall population growth in Australia. With more people entering the justice system, more of their children and families are being impacted.
Catherine Flynn, a Monash University lecturer has been conducting research in this area for over 14 years. She describes her work as research into “the unintended effects of the justice system”. Her experience has taught her that it’s common for children and young people to have similar feelings to Mia.
“The punishment has a ripple on effect to kids as well,” she said.
Dr Flynn estimates that over 40,000 Australian children have a parent behind bars. There are no exact figures on exactly how many children are effected by parental imprisonment.
Dr Flynn suggests that this is because, “if nobody asks, then nobody feels the need to do anything.”
“Kids do get forgotten,” she said.
Sixty per cent of participants in a Monash University study said that neither the arresting officer nor station sergeant discussed the care of their dependent children, when they were arrested. There are currently no official protocols in Australia to ensure the care of children when their parents are detained.
One of Dr Flynn’s research subjects recalled that he came home from school one day and his mum wasn’t there. He didn’t know where she was until his neighbors told him that she had been arrested.
She remembers talking to a 22-year-old, whose mum was in prison for 10 years – nearly all of his adolescent years. She said he felt powerless, recognising he needed professional help, but unsure where to start.
Dr Flynn said it is “cruel” for children and young people to be in this position, while trying to navigate a confusing time in their life on their own.
A family counsellor described the children she has worked with as “the invisible victims of crime”. Romy Same has worked for the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders for eight years.
On average prisoners have around two children, according to a study by VACRO in 2000.
She said she believed that if the public were more aware of the number of children being affected, then that would help “break down the stigma” and encourage people to seek help from organisations like VACRO.
It is estimated that only 15 per cent of affected children access support services, according to a Monash University study.
Mia has not sought professional support because she doesn’t “like talking about it to other people”. She described herself as, “the type of person who thinks [she] can handle everything herself”.
Charlie Wilson’s two-year-old son won’t remember visiting his dad in prison nearly every day for the 142 days he spent there. He won’t remember that at that time, his dad was behind bars for nearly half of his short life.
His son may not remember, but it’s a part of Charlie’s life that he will never forget.
“I’m really ashamed that I got locked up,” he said. While his son doesn’t understand what happened, Charlie said, “I might talk to him about it when he’s a bit older. If he gets in trouble I’ll say don’t do that because dad’s been down that path.”
While Charlie is open to discussing his criminal history, he said he “just want(s) to move on and away from it.”
He said he regrets owning an unlicensed firearm and pointing it at someone, which led to his arrest.
“The second you’ve told people that you’ve been in jail they get scared of you basically. That doesn’t mean that you’re a monster, doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, it means you made a mistake.”
Romy and Dr Flynn both noted that society often judges people that have served time in prison and sadly their children do too. This can reinforce the feeling that their parent’s actions reflect on them. “They go through the sentence too,” Romy said.
Dr Flynn found that a lot of children and young people were asking, “why am I being judged for that?”
Charlie said he was incredibly lucky to have a partner who was “extremely supportive of the situation and came and saw [him] every day and was there for every visit that she could.“
“We really made it work for us,” he said.
“It’s been extremely positive for my partner. She knew nothing about the justice system and now she’s gone on to study a bachelor of criminology.”
He described his experience as a “learning curve” for the whole family, including his two step children who visited him while he was incarcerated.
“They only see happy families, they don’t see the violence that goes on behind the doors.”
Kids being able to visit their parents in prison can be beneficial as “they don’t have to imagine that mum or dad aren’t okay”, according to Romy.
Dr Flynn has worked with kids who have said they miss their parents tucking them into bed at night or being there for their birthday.
“I’m extremely grateful to the magistrate for letting me go home just in time for my little boy’s second birthday,” Charlie said. He said that his relationship with his family has only strengthened since his release in June last year.
Mia said once her step mum was released from jail and failed to change her behaviour, she had had enough.
“I always looked up to her and saw her as a mum figure,” she said. When her step mum was sentenced to prison, it changed her perception of her.
“We don’t have a good relationship now. That’s because of what she’s put my family through and what I’ve seen her do to my dad and seen her do, as a mother to my siblings.”
She worries about the impact on her step mum’s two biological children. She said her 11-year-old brother has PTSD from being exposed to his mum’s history of drug abuse and other problems.
Neither of her brothers are aware that their mum spent five months in jail for kidnapping and drug related offences. Their dad doesn’t want to place the extra burden on the nine and 11-year-old.
Over the last decade, the number of women in prison has increased by 77 per cent. It’s estimated that 60 per cent of these women are mothers.
Mia is hesitant to allow people to see this aspect of her life because she doesn’t know “how people are going to take it”. Having a parental figure in jail has at times affected her relationships.
She said her ex-boyfriend, “didn’t come over to my dad’s. He would never come, he didn’t feel comfortable.”
Her current partner has been more supportive of her situation but she was frightened when she first told him because she finds it “a bit embarrassing”.
Dr Flynn questions if the real negative impact of parental imprisonment, is how kids are treated by society when their parent goes to jail.
*To protect the anonymity of the people in this article, some names have been altered.
If you need support call VACRO: 9605 1900
Or Lifeline: 13 11 14