Thousands of Australian children have a parent in prison, and while the exact personal and educational cost of this is unclear, everyone can surely agree that no child should have their lives and educations limited by parental prison sentences.
While data on this neglected group is scant, a 2022 Victorian parliamentary inquiry found parental incarceration interrupts childhood development and has a detrimental impact on emotional and social wellbeing. “Children affected by parental incarceration are the invisible victims of crime,” says inquiry chair Fiona Patten. “They serve a sentence alongside their parent, an experience which may affect them negatively for their whole lives.”
SHINE for Kids – whose slogan is ‘Not my crime’ – runs the only professional development program in Australia aimed at building the skills, knowledge, and confidence of teachers to better support children with an incarcerated parent. The pilot program targeted teachers in disadvantaged schools in parts of NSW and in Frankston, Victoria.
SHINE’s executive officer Julianne Sanders says the training looks at ways that teachers and schools can be a ‘protective’ factor, helping to break cycles of intergenerational incarceration.
“The pilot training developed teachers’ general knowledge about the effects on children as a result of the incarceration of a family member, signs to look out for that show children are struggling, and practical ways that teachers can support them,”
Teachers and schools can be a ‘protective’ factor, helping to break cycles of generational incarceration.
“It also explored and debunked misconceptions about incarceration and its effects on children.”
Monash University’s Catherine Flynn, Associate Professor of Social Work, collaborated with SHINE on the program and contributed to the Victorian parliamentary enquiry. She estimates that roughly one child in every class of 30 Australian students has some experience with a family member in jail.
“There’s little research in Australia, but it’s clear in the US that parents going to prison flows onto a child’s experience of schooling,” she says. “The complexity of all these challenges is made worse by secrecy, and everyone buys into that at some level. Kids either internalise the problem or act out. A disproportionate number of them are excluded or expelled, and this leads to contact with the police.”
Dr Danielle Tracey from Western Sydney University evaluated SHINE’s teacher training. “We all know that family is the most important thing,” she says. “But after that, the relationship with their teachers is fundamental, especially if there’s a family breakdown.”
She says that after doing the SHINE training, teachers reported feeling more confident and knowledgeable about the needs of kids affected by the incarceration of a parent. “People do shift when they attend a training session, but we are yet to see how it has changed their practice when they go back into the classroom.”
“The relationship with their teachers is fundamental, especially if there’s a breakdown in the family.”
According to criminologist Dr Richard Evans, more children are being affected as Australia’s prison population continues to rise. “There were about 17,000 prisoners in Australia in 1994,” he says. “In 2019, there were more than 43,000. That’s an increase of more than 150% over 25 years.
“Our rate of imprisonment is more than 200 per 100,000 people. That is extremely high for a prosperous first-world nation. It’s twice the rate of France, and nearly three times the rate in Germany.”
According to a NSW parliamentary committee, that problem is compounded when parental incarceration forces children to leave school and join the workforce to support their family. Others change schools because of bullying and stigma. These difficulties are consistent with Catherine’s research, which points to a lack of empathy for kids, with some parents forbidding their children to play with peers who have a parent in prison.
“The level of stigma is so high. Many parents don’t want to expose their kids to that and then that compounds the secrecy and shame,” says Catherine.
Victoria’s parliamentary enquiry found cycles of trauma and disadvantage often lead to intergenerational incarceration. The Victorian government is yet to respond to its findings.
For more information about SHINE’s teacher training workshops, contact SHINE for Kids at [email protected].