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Study highlights effects of imprisonment on children

EMBARGOED Saturday, 20 November, 2010

Two year study highlights effects of imprisonment on children

A two year research study has pointed to health and education problems, living below the ‘breadline’ and the effects of stigma and discrimination as the factors that are likely to lead to the children of prisoners ending up in prison themselves.

A child of a prisoner is seven times more likely than non-prisoner children to end up in prison. As just over half of all prisoners are Māori, this means that Māori children are heavily at risk.

The research demonstrated startling patterns of attachment disorders and nightmares in early childhood, anger, bullying and being bullied and growing educational failure in middle childhood, along with an epidemic of bed-wetting and other signs of emotional harm, leading to alienation, drug and alcohol use, risky behaviours and early school leaving among adolescents.

The children tend to end up with no school qualifications, an anger management problem and emerging mental health issues out of years of emotional difficulty. That is, they come to have exactly the same problems that are endemic in the prison population.

This makes it more likely that they will offend and end up in prison themselves.

The good news from the study is that all of the observed processes can be countered by appropriate treatment and intervention by agencies.

In some cases this is merely simple things. For example, in a number of the families we interviewed – 10 out of 76 – the police arrested the prisoner using the tactic of a raid on the property, often at dawn, and with children present.

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The study predicts that if the agencies of justice – police, courts and prisons – engage with children in a positive and respectful way at all times, children will become less likely to end up in the system themselves.

Social and health agencies need to engage positively with the children and focus on resolving emerging problems as they occur. A key finding is that these children often do not grow out of their problems – they grow into them. Early intervention to deal with signs of emotional harm, to ensure stable and safe lives, good health and educational progress can prevent the next generation ending up in prison.

All of the findings of this first New Zealand study are consistent with other research and with the Drivers of Crime study. Out of this study will become a Practice Manual which will provide a roadmap for agencies to be effective in ending inter-generational imprisonment.


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