Introduction by Croakey: Two new publications have identified an urgent need to improve care and support services for children who are at risk of experiencing trauma and lifelong disadvantage.
A Royal Australasian College of Physicians position statement released at a roundtable meeting in Canberra today calls for wide-ranging reforms to improve healthcare for children and young people who are at risk of entering out-of-home care, are in out-of-home care, or are in contact with care and protection services.
The recommendations are directed at federal, state and territory governments, as well as service providers and workers (read more here). The report also notes that experience of racism in the Australian healthcare system “has a hugely negative impact on mental, physical and cultural health and wellbeing of First Nations children”.
Meanwhile, an urgent need for better support and care for the tens of thousands of children who have a parent or carer in prison has been highlighted in a recent study, reports Julie Hourigan, the CEO of SHINE for Kids.
Julie Hourigan writes:
Around 40,000 Australian children will go to bed tonight knowing that their mum, dad or carer is spending the night in prison. It’s a staggering number.
This number of children could fill a stadium and yet we as a society treat them like they barely exist.
There is no government department to represent them.
There is no Minister to fight their cause.
Even their teachers have no idea how to help them because they don’t have any specific training for children living through parental incarceration. Schools haven’t even been invited into the conversation.
There was very little research into what these kids might be up against. Until now, that is.
As the peak national child advocacy and support organisation for children whose parents are in prison, SHINE for Kids commissioned a study to improve understanding of the characteristics, needs and experiences of children with a parent in prison.
Monash University carried out the study in conjunction with the Australian National University and Griffith University between October 2022 and February 2023 by surveying 94 caregivers about the specific experiences of the oldest child of an incarcerated parent.
The results make for some difficult reading.
The survey found that these children suffered from disability at rates far higher than their peers, that ADHD and anxiety were reported at a percentage three times higher than in the community while depression was similar.
Only a third of survey respondents said the children in their care were connected to any support service, sport or hobby.
Of the carers surveyed, 30 percent said their children had been suspended or expelled from school and a staggering 50 percent reported their children were regularly absent.
While school can be a place of support for children, carers told us that these children are struggling in stressed households where there is often limited money for school. This fact was borne out in our figures. A concerning number of the carers surveyed indicated the children in their care have also had contact with police and/or youth justice.
You don’t have to be a statistician to see the links between the two – when kids aren’t in school, they are more likely to come into contact with police.
Then there is the third overlay of disadvantage.
Poverty, disability and mental illness are rife in the prison population, and those problems and their impacts on families don’t go away when a parent gets locked up – they get worse.
Despite being over-represented in the prison population, Indigenous families aren’t offered enough targeted support.
Despite needing extra help, one in ten of the survey respondents reported that they have no resources or support for their family. One caregiver told us she was “in despair”.
Despite children in this situation needing more support, teachers and schools aren’t offered any specialised training.
The survey shows that children of a parent or parents in prison have a range of complex needs and that those needs are almost universally not being met.
Every response to our survey showed the glaring gap between the incredible need of these children, and the inversely proportional lack of support for them and their families.
Children with a parent in custody are in this situation through no fault of their own, and this data paints a true picture of the level of trauma they experience, the lack of help they get, and the impact this can have on their social and emotional development.
Calls to action
Australia has a moral obligation to turn this situation around.
We need to address the needs of these tens of thousands of children, who are being left behind to struggle into adulthood after suffering through painful childhoods. We need to help them overcome their very challenging start in life.
While obviously there are no simple solutions, we know six things that would make a big difference:
- Specialised, free and accessible support for children and families should be proactively offered at key points including arrest, sentencing and around times of visits in person and via video.
- Wraparound support such as case management, counselling crisis care and outreach for families with complex needs to reduce the burden of navigating multiple service systems.
- Targeted support to address the specific needs of Indigenous families including in terms of education and housing.
- Services and resources to support ongoing family connection during imprisonment. The evidence shows that if supported well, an ongoing relationship can benefit both the child and person in prison.
- Specific training and support for schools and teachers so they can properly help a child when required.
- More research, particularly when it comes to hearing from the children themselves about their experiences and how they adapt in the post release period.
SHINE For Kids proposes these solutions from a place of compassion, pragmatism and experience.
We have successfully delivered programs and provided support to children for more than 40 years, because improving their lives benefits society as a whole.
And the services work, helping to break intergenerational crime.
One of our most successful programs, Rise, is run in some primary schools for students with a parent in prison.
Through mentoring, students engage or re-engage with school, attendance increases, confidence and resilience is built, and anti-social behaviour and school suspensions are decreased.
With more funding we could provide more help like this.
I look forward to raising these findings with the Australian Government and partnering with our nation’s policy makers to improve the situation for these vulnerable children.
With immediate attention and support we can disrupt the intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and incarceration, and give these kids the best start in life.
For more information on SHINE for Kids, and to read a copy of the survey report, visit: shineforkids.org.au
• Julie Hourigan is the CEO of SHINE for Kids
See Croakey’s archive of articles on child health