Children of incarcerated parents the invisible victims of crime: Report

4 August 2022 Read the report

Hear from Committee Chair Fiona Patten on the inquiry’s conclusions on changes needed to prevent harm to children.

Parental incarceration can be a confusing and disorienting experience for children, and one that has lifelong consequences.  

One mother, who submitted evidence to the Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee’s inquiry into children affected by parental incarceration, explained the experience of her three-year-old daughter. 

‘She thinks her dad has forgotten her and doesn’t love her anymore. She can’t understand where he is or why and hasn’t been told,’ she wrote. 

‘She believes daddy is working away in the bush with no phone reception, which is also hard for her to understand but better than her thinking her dad is a bad person.’  

Mother of child whose father is incarcerated

‘Children affected by parental incarceration are the invisible victims of crime,’ said Committee Chair Fiona Patten.  

‘They serve a sentence alongside their parent, an experience which may affect them negatively for their whole lives,’ she said. 

The Committee examined existing policies and services available for children affected by parental incarceration in Victoria and considered available models in Australia and internationally. 

‘A lack of guidelines at various points of Victoria’s justice system (such as arrest, sentencing and incarceration) leads to the interests and needs of children whose parents interact with the system not being systematically considered,’ the report found. 

For some children the first they learn that their parent will be going to jail is when the police burst through the door. 

William, a father incarcerated at Loddon prison who had also experienced his own father’s incarceration, described the experience to the Committee during a site visit, saying an arrest at home is ‘the scariest thing that you go through when you’re a kid’. 

‘You don’t know it’s the police, you think someone’s running through your house....kicking the door in because that’s how they’re trained. Guns out, through the front, through the back at the same time … even as an adult, it’s terrifying.’ 

To address this the Committee has recommended specific changes, including introducing child‑aware arrest practices for Victoria Police, improved consideration of children’s interests when sentencing their parent and access to greater support services at court. 

The Committee found that parental incarceration can interrupt childhood development and have detrimental impacts on emotional and social wellbeing, exposing children to greater risk of poor mental and physical health outcomes. Cycles of trauma and disadvantage typically contribute to intergenerational incarceration.  

But, the report argues, it does not have to be that way. 

The Victorian Government should consider establishing a dedicated unit, branch or agency within the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing with a mandate to respond to children and families of people affected by parental incarceration, the report recommends. 

The Committee found data about children affected by parental incarceration is not collected or shared in a way that supports effective services for children, negatively impacting the ability to plan, fund, deliver and evaluate services. 

In fact, there is no clear figure for the number of children affected by parental incarceration in Victoria, with researchers estimating that about 7,000 Victorian children have a parent in jail at any time. 

The report recommends the Victorian Government implement systemic data collection processes to identify the number of children affected by parental incarceration. 

The report found some decisions made within prisons, such as restricting visits with children, were based on punishment rather than child wellbeing and the cost of and time limits on prison phone calls restrict meaningful connections between children and their parents. 

The report recommended that, in recognition of the child’s right to maintain parental contact, regular opportunities for meaningful contact are made available to children with parents in prison, including not revoking visitation as a punitive measure and making phone calls free to all people incarcerated.  

‘We also have to rethink our approach to incarcerating people,’ said Committee Chair Fiona Patten. 

‘We need to allow courts to consider dependent children in sentencing decisions. Not where major crimes or family violence is an issue of course, but in relation to minor crimes where incarcerating people is not the only option.’