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Core findings of prisoners' children study

Press release: embargoed until 4pm, 15 December 2009
Core findings of first year study of prisoners’ children

The community organisation PILLARS, and the research company Network Research, have collaborated on the first year of a major research study into the children of prisoners.

Funded by the Lottery Community Sector Research Committee, the study interviewed prisoners, families, children, community and government organisations about the status and outlook for prisoners’ children.

Do the children of prisoners follow in their parents’ footsteps? Is crime somehow hereditary? Do children come to see a criminal life as just normal? Or are the social, economic and emotional effects such that children are stuck in poverty with no apparent way out?

These are some of the questions that we seek to answer in our three year study of the children of prisoners. We begin, in fact, from a much more basic question: How many children of prisoners are there at any given time in New Zealand? Our preliminary and tentative answer is - about 20,000 at the moment, and increasing.

Our study interviewed prisoners, caregivers of the children, some children themselves and a wide range of stakeholders from community and government organisations with an interest in the prisoners of children. In the first year we interview or surveyed over 250 people.

Our findings so far….

Children seem to be present in around 1 in 5 arrests. The process of arrest ranges from relatively benign to quite traumatic. In a small number of cases the arrest has lasting effects on the children. Most children do not go to view the trial, but for some it is an important part of coming to understand why their lives have changed. Prison visiting is important for many in maintaining good family relationships, but distance, institutional practices and cost often make regular visiting difficult. For families that follow their imprisoned family member around the country, there is a cost to be borne.

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Most of the families in this study subsist on a benefit. They often face significant debt and costs associated with the imprisonment. Most of these families live well below the poverty line. There are few spare resources for meeting non-essential costs.

The children of prisoners may live with their other parent, a grandparent, older siblings, aunties and occasionally with non-family carers. They often move around quite a lot for a number of reasons, including housing costs, moving away from an area, to live with other people or to be near the prisoner.

These children suffer from an alarming array of physical, emotional and (in some cases) mental health issues. There is little evidence that their health needs are being addressed effectively. Children seem to suffer from nightmares and separation anxiety when younger, then anger, emotional upset and bed-wetting in middle childhood and a worrying range of problems as adolescents. Some have clear signs of mental ill health.

Not surprisingly, the children tend not to do well at school. Transience, low attendance rates, bullying (as victim and perpetrator), as well as difficulties in concentrating, added to the well-documented effects of poverty on educational achievement, mean that the odds are stacked against these children.

About two-thirds of Māori prisoners and one third of pakeha prisoners had lived with a family member who had gone to prison when they were a child. The differences in these figures are wholly explained by the high (8 times higher) rate of Māori imprisonment over pakeha. There are clear trends towards inter generational imprisonment, although the literature suggests the reasons are complex.

This is a study undertaken for the community sector. Our study has begun to investigate the range of community and government services available to help these children and prevent them following their parents into prison. While health and education services are often supportive, the assistance they give appears not to make much difference. Work and Income, who provides the incomes for most of the families, has no specific understanding of any special needs this group has. Services that are funded to offer programmes to these children always have large waiting lists or, in the case of PARS prison visiting fund, may run out of money well before the end of the year.

The study continues next year, as we seek to build a fuller and better informed picture.

Executive summary of ‘Invisible Children’

The number of prisoners in Aotearoa/ New Zealand is being driven up by policies and practices that extend prison terms and imprison more offenders. This trend is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

There has been virtually no research undertaken in this country that examines the effects of imprisonment on the families and children of prisoners. The aim of this study is to begin to address that gap.

The research approach is community-based and collaborative, aiming to build the community sector’s research capacity while undertaking high quality research.

The study will estimate how many children have a parent in prison, the social, health, family and educational needs of that group, the role of community organisations, what the international literature says and, over the 3 years of the study, develop a framework for community intervention.

The study received ethical approval from the MRHEC and support from the Department of Corrections. The method has three parts: a survey of prisoners, qualitative interviews with the caregivers of prisoners and some children and a series of interviews with government and community stakeholders. The aim is to accumulate knowledge over the three year research period.

The prisoner survey was undertaken in Paremoremo, Christchurch Men’s, Christchurch Women’s and Arohata prisons, and surveyed a total of 137 prisoners who had agreed to take part on a voluntary and informed basis.

A total of 46 interviews were completed with the caregivers and some children of prisoners. These were written up and collated into themes using the qualitative research tool NVivo.

A further 26 interviews were completed with government and community stakeholders. These were entered into a spreadsheet and analysed.

The concept of ‘invisible children’, the title of this first year report, is derived from the international literature but is seen as particularly apt at this point in the project. Invisibility relates to children in the arrest, sentencing, incarceration, visiting, and health, educational, social and economic effects of parental imprisonment. They are invisible in both policy and practice, and their needs are rarely a priority.

In support of this view, the policies and practices of a range of government agencies are discussed.

A child is present at about one in five arrests. This is an international estimate and our first year results support it. It appears that the needs of children are rarely considered in the arrest process, and we were given several instances of quite violent and disruptive arrests in front of children.

Children are not really welcome in New Zealand courts for their parent’s trial, although a number do attend. In principle there is no room for contact between parents and children in the context of the court, and that is unlikely to change. On the other hand, informally police and court officials do often assist family members to see the prisoner after sentencing.

From our first year study, around 87% of women prisoners and 65% of male prisoners have children. For every person in prison, whether they have children or not, there is an average of 2.2 children. These figures will be refined after year two and three findings. Māori and pakeha prisoners appear to have roughly the same number of children.

Children have difficulties getting to see their parents. Well over half live more than an hour’s drive from the prison. PARS helps some with travel grants but these are not always enough. Families are very critical of facilities and staff at some prisons, but others were considered good.

Nationally and internationally, the families of prisoners tend to be among the poorest in society. Recent reports have shown that New Zealand ranks low on measures of child welfare, and there are increasing income and welfare inequalities. In our study, all but six of the families lived on benefits or superannuation, and most were struggling to make ends meet.

On top of the ordinary burden of low and fixed incomes, the families had to contend with a range of issues, including loss of wages, prior debt, costs of moving house, and additional costs associated with maintaining and visiting the prisoner.

One area highlighted was the high cost for prisoners of making phone calls from the prison, at a fixed rate of 99 cents per minute. This makes it very hard for prisoners to maintain contact with their children, with families struggling to pay for phone cards. We suggest that alternatives be explored.

Many of the families received economic support such as food parcels, contributions from churches, family and community, assistance from schools and so on. Many of the children get Christmas presents through the Angel Tree trust. Some families are unwilling to discuss their circumstances and as a result get no support at all.

There are a range of social factors that impinge on the children of prisoners, including increasing inequality and Māori disadvantage. The social effects of imprisonment on children relate to family changes, transience, health and education problems and increasing likelihood of alienation and criminal behaviour.

The families and children bear significant social costs. Some have supportive environments, but others either decline to reveal their circumstances, or face sanctions when they do so. The fear of a negative reaction is sometimes enough incentive to keep their situation secret.

Some of the stories we were told were of personal circumstances that shattered potential social relationships, either at an adult or child level. High anxiety levels, coupled with a desire to hide away, make for stressful families.

Some families move to get away from the local area, in search of cheaper housing or for positive reasons such as a ‘new start’. Quite a few children end up living with extended family members, such as siblings or grandparents. Most of the grandparents are keen to do what they could for their mokopuna, but find it difficult to cope financially.

There is a lack of literature on the health effects of prison on both prisoners and their families, but recent research and inquiry work is bridging that gap. Internationally, the literature describes a wide range of health effects fr the children of prisoners.

There are three main health effects noted in the literature and in this study: physical health needs, emotional health and mental health and conduct disorders.

A wide range of emotional issues were noted in this study. These include anger, nightmares, bedwetting, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, shame and attachment problems.

Physical health problems include asthma, eczema, psoriasis and a range of allergic and nervous disorders. Sleeplessness and lack of good nourishment were also noted.

A number of children demonstrated mental health or conduct disorders, especially as they got older.

We noted that health problems changed over time, with emotional upset, attachment and physical problems when the child is young, anger, violence and bed-wetting during middle childhood and a range of at-risk behaviours involving drugs, sexualised behaviour and so on once the child reaches adolescence.

We did not specifically ask about health programmes and interventions available to assist the young people, but there appeared to be few available. We will follow this up in year two.

The international literature considers the link between educational success and staying out of prison to be a strong one, if not well understood. There are a variety of elements to this, include high self-esteem, likelihood of having a well-paid occupation, better opportunities and also a likely justice bias in terms of charging and sentencing a person.

A key public policy issue is whether more money should be spent on education to prevent criminal behaviour, or not. There are a variety of programmes that may be successful, but they require early intervention and a strong political will for change. The conditions for such a change do not appear to be in place currently in New Zealand, or other nations like ours.

The Ministry of Education does not have sector wide research, policy or practice relating to the children of prisoners, but is very willing to work to examine what is needed at the school level.

A number of the children have changed schools as a result of the imprisonment of a parent, and for a variety of related reasons. Some children have low attendance rates at school, and some find it difficult to concentrate when they are there. Some are bullied, and some are bullies. As a result of these various trends, nearly all of the children in this study are at risk of failing at school, despite the fact that school personnel are usually very supportive of the children.

The report briefly considers the very large literature regarding intergenerational recidivism, including the need to understand Māori as an group who have, in recent years, been subject to high and growing rates of imprisonment. Two main reasons are given for this: the colonisation argument which sees the justice institutions as biased at all levels towards Māori, and the high relative levels of deprivation and other risk factors that exist among Māori.

This means that even if the social and economic factors were removed or ameliorated by social service work and government policies, there may still be an institutional bias. We were told that since the Ruatoki raids the Police have been reviewing their policies and procedures, and have brought in new rules around search and seizure. This is a good start.

In our survey of prisoners, Māori were far more likely than pakeha to have lived, as a child, with someone who went to prison. The most common relatives to have been imprisoned were fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins, but there were also a substantial number of female relatives imprisoned.

One issue that was brought up by several stakeholders was what we call the normalisation argument. This states that children and family members should be kept as far away as possible from courts, prisons and the justice system, so that they do not begin to treat that system as if it were a normal part of life. In this view, children learn to become prisoners by observing their parent.

The community agencies tend to hold the opposite view. From their perspective, it is separation, trauma, emotional insecurity and attachment problems, as well as social and economic deprivation, that make it more likely that children will offend when they grow up. Maintaining healthy and good quality relationships with their parent through childhood will foster emotional stability and high self-esteem, making offending less likely.

Our study found little evidence for the normalisation thesis. Only five prisoners were identified who appeared to fit the criteria as having always treated prison as a normal part of life, and it really is difficult to know whether this is the case. However, we will continue to investigate this issue.

The final part of this report considers briefly the practice implications of what we have learned in the first year of the study. The economic, social, health and educational gaps are considered, and it is argued that in each area, a lot of work appears to be needed.

The final section is called ‘making children visible’, which examines the work of a number of the community organisations that we interviewed for the study. Organisations such as PILLARS, PARS, Early Start, Family Help Trust and others work to improve the lives of the children of prisoners every day, which policy organisations such as the Howard League and the Henwood Trust work at the policy/practice interface.

The team are keen to get feedback from individuals and organisations on our first year findings, and to discuss with people how to get excellent results over the next two years.


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