‘Invisible’ children of imprisoned parents at risk of falling through the cracks

Megan F. Bell, Donna M. Bayliss, Rebecca Glauert, Jeneva L. Ohan, Australia, July 2018

This short article is part of a series highlighting presentations at the Australian Institute of Family Studies 2018 Conference that focused on child mental health or children at risk of experiencing mental health difficulties.

Australia’s imprisonment rates have risen rapidly over the past decade1, with a large proportion of those in prison being of child-rearing age.2 This suggests there may be increasing numbers of children with one or more parents in prison. However, it’s difficult to know exactly how many children are impacted by their parents being in prison. This is because there are no standard procedures at the point of arrest, sentencing, or when offenders first enter prison to determine if they have dependent children. As a result, these children form a somewhat ‘invisible’ group who are currently not adequately identified, assessed, or supported by either child- or adult-oriented services.3,4

When parents are sent to prison, their children can be exposed to a range of adverse experiences5,6 such as:

  • disruptions to their care, living, and/or schooling arrangements
  • stigmatisation and bullying by peers and adults
  • financial hardship and housing instability
  • psychological distress, including feeling afraid, confused, abandoned or ashamed.

When we better understand how having parents in prison impacts children, supports can be put in place to improve long-term outcomes for both the children and their families.

Parental imprisonment and child development

In a study by the Telethon Kids Institute and the University of Western Australia, we used de-identified linked administrative data from Western Australia’s Department of Justice to identify parents who had been convicted and sentenced to community orders or prison terms.7

We merged records of parent convictions with the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) records of children aged 5-6 years. The AEDC is Australia’s national measure of child development, completed every three years by teachers on children starting full-time school. The AEDC measures five areas of development: emotional maturity, social competence, physical health and wellbeing, language and cognitive skills, and communication skills and general knowledge*. We compared the AEDC scores of children of imprisoned parents to those of children whose parents were convicted but served only community orders. We then compared both these groups to children whose parents had no convictions or who had received only fines.

We found that children of parents who had served a community order were up to 63% more likely to be developmentally vulnerable when they started school, compared to children whose parents had no convictions or received only fines. The risk was even higher for children of incarcerated parents, who were up to 115% more likely to be developmentally vulnerable. This means that children with convicted parents have a higher risk of poor social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and communicative development than other children. Both maternal and paternal convictions were associated with poorer developmental outcomes in children, with the risk being greater than that associated with family disadvantage.

In our study, the two groups of children with convicted parents had similar rates of socioeconomic disadvantage. Yet the children with imprisoned parents were at increased risk of physical, communicative, and cognitive vulnerabilities compared to children of parents who had served community orders only. This suggests there may be something about the separation from an imprisoned parent, over and above the parent’s criminal activity or the family’s socioeconomic background, that creates a risk for the child’s development. From the information we had available, it’s not possible to say why this is the case but it certainly points to a need for greater support for these vulnerable, and currently underserved, children.

Need for better support

Children of convicted parents are at risk of starting school with diverse developmental vulnerabilities that put them well behind their peers. We believe that addressing early developmental vulnerabilities may reduce the likelihood of children experiencing the later school problems that adolescents with imprisoned parents often face. These problems include underachievement, social and behavioural difficulties, and poor attendance.8,9

As in all adult-oriented services, we need to establish procedures to improve the response to children. In this instance, we have to identify adult offenders who are parents. We also need to make available appropriate services, involving the resources and expertise of multiple government agencies, to respond to the needs of affected children.10 Providing this support when children start school – or even earlier – may help to prevent poor school outcomes in later years. We also need to provide support that is culturally appropriate, and that continues beyond the parents’ release from prison, as this can be a particularly challenging transition for families.

Dr Megan Bell is scheduled to present Developmental vulnerabilities in children of criminally convicted parents at 11.35 am on Friday, 27 July 2018, as part of the AIFS 2018 Conference: What matters most to families in the 21st century?

*Developmental vulnerability is defined as a score in the bottom 25% of all scores (based on national data) on any of the five Australian Early Development Census domains.


Megan F. Bell, School of Psychological Science, University of Western Australia, and Telethon Kids Institute, University of Western Australia

Donna M. Bayliss, School of Psychological Science, University of Western Australia

Rebecca Glauert, Telethon Kids Institute, University of Western Australia

Jeneva L. Ohan, School of Psychological Science, University of Western Australia

* The views expressed here are those of the authors, and cannot be considered as either endorsed by the government departments involved in this research, or an expression of the policies or views of those departments. Any errors of omission or commission are the responsibility of the authors.

The authors would like to acknowledge the work of the Western Australian Data Linkage Branch, the Department of Justice, and all data custodians, as well as representatives from the Western Australian community who contributed to this project.

1. Russell S., & Baldry E. (2017, June 14). Three charts on: Australia’s booming prison population. The Conversation. Retrieved from <theconversation.com/three-charts-on-australias-booming-prison-population-76940>
2. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2015). Prisoners in Australia, 2015. Canberra: ABS.
3. Trotter C., Flynn C., & Baidawi S. (2017). The impact of parental incarceration on children’s care: Identifying good practice principles from the perspective of imprisoned primary carer parents. Child & Family Social Work, 22(2), 952–962. doi:10.1111/cfs.12315
4. Nesmith A., & Ruhland E. (2018). Children of incarcerated parents: Challenges and resiliency, in their own words. Child and Youth Services Review, 30(10), 1119–1130. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2008.02.006
5. Saunders V., & Barry E. (2013). Children with parents in prison. Australian Capital Territory: Institute of Child Protection Studies
6. Arditti J. A. (2012). Parental incarceration and the family: Psychological and social effects of imprisonment on children, parents, and caregivers. New York, NY: New York University Press.
7. Bell M.F., Bayliss D. M., Glauert R., & Ohan J. L. (2018). Using linked data to investigate developmental vulnerabilities in children of convicted parents. Developmental Psychology. doi:10.1037/dev0000521
8. Foster H., & Hagan J. (2007). Incarceration and intergenerational social exclusion. Social Problems, 54(4), 399–433. doi:10.1525/sp.2007.54.4.399
9. Hagan J., & Foster H. (2012). Intergenerational educational effects of mass imprisonment in America. Sociology of Education, 85(3), 259–286. doi:10.1177/0038040711431587
10. Flynn C., Naylor B., & Fernandez Arias P. (2016). Responding to the needs of children of parents arrested in Victoria, Australia. The role of the adult criminal justice system. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 49(3), 351–369. doi:10.1177/0004865815585390

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