By Mark Morrissey, Former Tasmanian Commissioner for Children
Friday, March 4th 2016
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The little children are excited, if a little nervous. The older kids' faces are quiet, but excitement shows in their eyes.
They ignore the barbed wire atop the massive grey fences and large gates. Most of them have been here before. It's Kids Day at Risdon Prison and today these kids get to visit their mum in jail.
l'm visiting the prison with Norm Reed, who is a family engagement worker at the prison. Norm reckoned the children's visiting program was, according to the inmates, the best thing the prison does. Kids Days are organised by the prison in conjunction the Christian Family Centre and volunteers recruited from individuals and organisations across Tasmania. They are held in the school holidays and are operating in each prison complex (four events three times per year) for two hours. The focus is on the needs of the child and the creation of positive memories with their incarcerated parent. Days usually have themes and involve preparation of a meal.
Since the program started in 2011 there have been 75 Kids Day events and more than 3500 children have had a special contact visit with their incarcerated parent. It is important to remember that while prisoners forfeit some rights in the community, their children should not. Children have an entitlement to see their parents. More than one in four, or 28 per cent, of prisoners in Australia have children who depend on them for their basic needs, and 21 per cent of prisoners report that when they were children, their own parent had been imprisoned.
Kids Day is a chance for children and young people to visit their parent on their own, without the other parent or carers. When a prisoner's spouse or partner comes to visit, the focus is often on adult matters and the children get left to play on their own.
Many of these kids have been here on family visits, but going into a prison visit when it is just the kids gives it a different focus. When it is just the kids and the parent, the kids get all the attention, they get to talk about what they want, and they get to interact with their parent, doing kid things. The kids and the parents love it.
Soon the last locked gate and security check is behind them. A group of excited mums waits eagerly and the children break into a run, rushing towards their mum. We hang back, allowing them privacy. Soon they head to the activities room where they can do face-painting, games, read books, and catch up on those matters that can be neglected when the spouses or partners visit as well.
Children and young people whose parent or parents were incarcerated have many challenges to face.
Children and young people can be distressed and confused when a parent is arrested, particularly if it occurs in front of them; they lose contact with their parent and sometimes extended family; and can be bullied and ashamed at school. It can be difficult to keep contact with their incarcerated parent; they may have new caring responsibilities for siblings and remaining parents; physical and mental health issues; financial disadvantage; family conflict and divorce; and instability and homelessness.
Research shows support for prisoners and their children can be provided at three critical times - at the arrest of the parent, through the period of imprisonment, and at reintegration into the home and community.
Norm tells me promoting parent-child contact during imprisonment leads to improved outcomes for the children of imprisoned parents. He said it was extremely important to maintain family and community relationships for the prisoners as it helps them reintegrate into society when they are released. It also helps the children adjust to life at home without the parent, and when their parent returns.
Research shows keeping contact with an incarcerated parent is an effective way to improve a child's emotional response to incarceration, and reduce the incidence of problematic behaviour. It also helps the incarcerated parent by reducing recidivism rates.
As Kids Day draws to a close, Norm takes a photo of each parent with their child or children. These are printed immediately and a copy given to each child to take home with the other things they have made with their mum. Prison is not a nice place, but the aim is to create some positive memories for the kids and mums, which are then captured in the photos. They create good memories and the kids are not deprived of that.
Mark Morrissey is Tasmanian Commissioner for Children.