When a parent is sent to prison, what’s put in place to support the child? Not a lot according to this expert.
There are more than 43,000 children in Australia who have a parent in prison. And with Australia’s prison population rapidly rising, that number is steadily increasing.
But according to Dr Catherine Flynn from Monash University, Australia is failing these children.
“The problem with largely adult systems like policing and corrections is they don’t see kids as their business so what happens is that everybody kind of steps back,” Dr Flynn says.
She started researching this area around 15 years ago and went on to do her PhD examining what happens to children when one, or both, of their parent ends up in prison.
The senior lecturer and researcher says the issues for kids start from the point of arrest.
“Police have policies for dealing with dogs at arrest but not children.”
Dr Flynn says arrests are not always conducted in a child sensitive way, and can be traumatising for children to witness.
And while she says some police she’s spoken to strive to do the best they can for kids “it’s so ad hoc, there is no set policy at all.”
When a parent is taken into custody children are often put in the care of extended family – family that can’t always cope.
“We know that most of these families are really struggling and then they take on more kids, and evidence shows that they don’t tend to ask for help.”
The long term impacts on children with parents in prison is that they can get hand balled around different family members and services, and can be forced to move house and school.
This can cause children to feel isolated and unsupported and some children can develop behavioural and emotional issues Dr Flynn says.
“We know school is really important but if schools are not supported they can’t support kids.”
“You need a service where people understand and those services are few and far between."
Most concerning for Dr Flynn is that the issue of what happens to these kids isn’t really on anyone’s radar. And she believes the different systems – child welfare, education, policing and the criminal justice system – are not currently working together.
“Kids have just been left to work it out and it’s not their responsibility to have to ask for help, they’re kids, it’s our job to reach out and do that.”
Dr Flynn says general services that are currently available do not know how to negotiate with the prison system, which is why specialised services are needed.
“You need a service where people understand and those services are few and far between,” she says, adding that the stigma to ask for help is high among those who need help the most.
Dr Flynn would like to see better policies that are sensitive to, and reduce a child’s exposure to trauma when a parent is arrested in front of them.
“If we could make one change there, let’s assume there might be some flow on,” she says.
She believes that by changing procedure, which will change people’s actions, this could lead to a change in thinking.