World-first study examines impact of imprisoned mothers on children

Susan Dennion

The impact of incarceration on children whose mothers are in prison is the focus of a world-first Australian Research Council study announced today.

Researchers from Griffith University and the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement will identify conditions that promote risk and resilience in children of incarcerated mothers in Australia.

“While it is well known that paternal incarceration severely affect children’s psycho-social and behavioural outcomes, heightening risks for chronic offending, there is little research on maternal incarceration,’’ says lead researcher Associate Professor Susan Dennison.

“As mothers are central to children’s developmental outcomes the impacts of their incarceration should mirror those of paternal incarceration, but we do not fully understand how maternal incarceration shapes children’s short and long-term life outcomes.

“At least half of the 2800 female prisoners in Australia are mothers and even if one child from each mother turns to chronic offending, the justice and welfare system costs to Australian taxpayers would be upwards of $336 million”.

Children’s sole caregivers

“Incarcerated mothers are often their children’s sole caregivers and the majority of children are displaced from their homes at some point during maternal incarceration.”

The study will determine how maternal incarceration affects children’s (aged 6-17) psychological and social development and related behavioural outcomes.

“This means their emotional regulation and coping skills, self-control, level of cognitive and social competence, family bonds, attachment to mother, peer attachment, school engagement and performance and externalising problems such as antisocial and offending behaviour,’’ Associate Professor Dennison said.

Researchers will interview imprisoned mothers, their children and caregivers in Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory. The study will also include a comparison group of children from non-incarcerated, offending mothers from similar backgrounds.

The study will consider the specific challenges for Indigenous mothers in prison, their children and caregivers in urban, regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The project will inform policies and programs to support children’s positive development. It will also lay the foundation for a longitudinal study on the enduring effects of maternal incarceration on the children in this study.

The study is one of 30 Griffith studies that received a share of $11.5 million in funding from the ARC this week.