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Victoria urged to support children who have parents in prison

Dechlan Brennan -

A coalition of 30 community organisations has called on the Victorian government to support the significant number of children whose parents are incarcerated and who suffer adverse outcomes in key metrics including education, housing and health.

Whilst no data is available for the number of incarcerated women with children at any one time, the latest statistics show 10 per cent (2,977) of prisoners in Australia are female.

Aboriginal women are the fastest growing prison population and are incarcerated at 17 times the rate of non-Aboriginal women. 38 per cent (1,156) of women incarcerated are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The number of incarcerated Aboriginal women has tripled over the last decade.

A significant concern is the disconnection in culture between children and family members who are incarcerated, as well children falling into the carceral system after their parents have been imprisoned.

A report from Smart Justice for Women noted the majority of Australian women in prison have children, and their incarceration often leads children to being placed into the child protection system.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission has previously urged the state to revamp its child protection model and make it Indigenous-led, whilst the Aboriginal Children's Commissioner reported Indigenous children in care face barriers - including racism - that maintain the gap in education outcomes.

The latest report from Smart Justice for Women highlights the perils facing children whose mothers have entered the justice system

"Children whose mothers are in prison are more likely to have disrupted education, poor health and unstable housing, all of which are factors that heighten the risk of a child or young person entering the child protection or criminal legal system," the report states.

"Women are more likely to have been the primary caregiver of young children at the time of reception into prison.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are less likely to be placed under a community-based corrections supervision than non-Aboriginal women, and this gap has been increasing over time."

Co-chair Elena Pappas told The Age a two-page government response to a 2022 report by Victoria's Legal and Social Issues Committee, which found children impacted by parental incarceration were the "invisible victims of crime," was "pretty disappointing".

"There's some pretty tangible and pretty straightforward things that could be achieved if there was a proper response and a bit more thought given to how the government might do things better," she said.

Bail laws, which were implemented by the Victorian government after the Bourke Street attacks, were criticised as punitive and leading to an explosion of inmates behind bars - many on remand. They, along with public drunkenness laws, have recently been amended by the Allan government and the government has said the number of people in behind bars at its lowest mark since 2015 with the number of women currently incarcerated at its lowest point since 2009.

The 2022 report argued for a unit within the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing to help support children and families who have been impacted by incarceration and Ms Pappas told The Age the situation had often acted like "a pipeline into the criminal justice system for children."

"They're falling between the cracks … There's not one agency that has clear oversight for these children," she said.

Smart Justice for Women has recommended "allocating funding to build public housing and investing in services that divert women away from the criminal legal system."

Furthermore, they called for programmes in prison and following release that are "accessible, therapeutic and sustained to minimise trauma, help women reconnect with community and prevent re-offending."

The report also argued for an approach to allow women to stay connected to their children whilst in prison. This would include a "culturally appropriate process" to ensure Indigenous women can keep their babies, something that should be mirrored for women with young children.

Maintaining cultural connection also includes calls to drastically reduce the cost of telephone calls in prison and "implementing a long-term sustainable funding model to resource community organisations supporting the children and families of people who are incarcerated."

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