Continuing a Croakey series examining the forces which can have a profound on health but are often neglected in health debate and policy…
Below is an edited extract from a new book from Catholic Health Australia, Determining the Future: A Fair Go and Health for All, which outlines how the recommendations of a 2008 report of the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health should be adopted in Australia.
Why isn’t society doing more to help this vulnerable group of children?
Helen Wiseman and Gloria Larman, from SHINE for Kids, write:
When a child’s mother or father becomes involved in the criminal justice system their entire life is destabilised. We know it increases their risk of facing poverty, dropping out of school, and of one day becoming a prisoner themselves.
Yet why is it that when we discuss victims of crime we rarely mention these innocent bystanders?
Early life experiences are one of the key social determinants of future health, yet in Australia there is marked absence of policy, and appropriate funding, to specifically support these vulnerable children.
After 30 years experience working with these children and their families, SHINE for Kids believes that with the right interventions we—the society at large—can help redirect the trajectory of a child’s life away from intergenerational cycles of crime and social exclusion.
SHINE stands for Support, Hope, Inspire, Nurture and Empower … we work towards building resilient children, who are less likely to become the next generation of offenders.
The number of children being affected by parental involvement in the criminal justice system has increased dramatically in recent decades, in line with unprecedented growth in the prison population.
Between 1992 and 2008 the number of prisoners in Australia rose by 31 per cent, 5 per cent more than the average increase in all other OECD countries . Indigenous people are being imprisoned at a rate 14 times higher than non-Indigenous people, and the number of incarcerated women has increased by 60 per cent over the last decade .
This means more children are being impacted by their parent’s incarceration, with Indigenous kids disproportionately affected. And high rates of recidivism mean some children are experiencing this trauma over and over again.
As SHINE for Kids has repeatedly seen, having a parent involved in the criminal justice system can set off a chain of adversity for a child. They may witness the arrest (possibly violent and unexpected), be suddenly thrown into poverty, have to change houses and primary carers, have their education disrupted, and face extreme stigma. In many cases the entire family structure dissolves. The children we work with frequently struggle with strong feelings of sadness, shame, separation anxiety, and anger.
Despite extensive research that shows children with parents in the criminal justice system face a series of social determinants that increase their risk of an unsuccessful transition to adulthood, they remain a largely hidden group.
This lack of visibility exposes these children to the risk of systemic neglect.
Negative outcomes however are not inevitable, as Laverty pointed out: ‘most social determinants of health can be modified to improve personal and population health outcomes’.
SHINE for Kids is an example of an organsation working closely with this group of children to mitigate the adverse impacts of parental incarceration to their long-term health and wellbeing.
A large focus of SHINE for Kids work is our Child and Family Centres. These are operations located on the non-secure grounds of (or adjacent to) correctional centres. In NSW we have them at Silverwater, Parklea, Windsor, Bathurst, Cessnock, Junee, Wellington and Kempsey. Two new Child and Family Centres will be opened at Goulburn and Nowra Correctional Centres by the end of 2011.
Visiting a parent in prison can be a confusing and frightening experience for a child. Our centres provide respite, and fun activities for kids during these visits. It gives them an opportunity to meet peers in the same situation, and to interact with child-care professionals and trained volunteers. It enables us to connect these children and their families with our services, including counselling and support, mentoring, and financial assistance for educational and social needs.
One of SHINE’s flagship programs is ‘Breaking the Cycle’, a highly successful project that’s been running in Bathurst, NSW, since 2005. The project works with the non-incarcerated parent or carer and their dependent children, and provides four key programs: mentoring; education (we work within the local primary schools); casework and counseling; and carers group programs.
A mother whose child was mentored by SHINE reported:
‘Looking back, I feel my child would not have been able to cope with her dad’s incarceration without the quality time her mentor spent with her … having my child in the mentoring program has helped me become a better mum. I felt lifted when I was down.’
And this, from a child mentored by SHINE:
‘At school we have news every week where we have to stand up in front of the class and talk about what we did on the weekend. This was hard for me because I visited dad in gaol on Saturdays and Sundays and I couldn’t tell this for news. Now I have my mentor, the other kids think it’s cool and I can talk about different places.’
At SHINE for Kids we see daily the positive impact of our work on the children, but we are also painfully aware that we are only just scratching the surface in terms of meeting the existing need.
Our current services are primarily targeted at those children who visit a correctional centre and use our Child and Family Centres. Many children never get to visit an incarcerated parent at all. Funding constraints mean our Supported Transport Service is only offered in Sydney and Bathurst. This means that particularly in regional and rural areas, many children are experiencing the trauma of having a parent caught up in the criminal justice system without any additional support.
Unless we can find a way to start supporting these children, we risk creating a new generation of offenders and the socially excluded.
Parental incarceration is a strong determinant of poor outcomes in adulthood, but with the right interventions we have the opportunity to create a better pathway for these children.
When kids follow their parents into intergenerational cycles of offending it extracts an economic and social price on society at large—it is in everyone’s interests we support these vulnerable children.
• This is an edited extract from the Catholic Health Australia book, Determining the future—a fair go and health for all (chapter 16). Copies of the book can be ordered at: http://www.connorcourt.com/catalog1/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=7&products_id=169
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2009, 4102.0 Australian Social Trends, viewed 22 June 2011, www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features60Dec+2009.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2010, 4517.0 Prisoners in Australia, viewed 22 June 2011, www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/4517.0Media%20Release12010?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4517.0&issue=2010&num=&view.
Laverty, M. (2009) The central place of Health in Australia’s Social Inclusion Agenda: Addressing the Social Determinants of Health to achieve social inclusion, Catholic Health Australia.
Previous articles in this Croakey series: