Dads in Victoria who end up in prison are being denied their parental rights and treated differently from incarcerated mums, according to research published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities recognise the rights of parents to provide guidance to their children and the need to protect the family as the fundamental unit of society.
Yet while these human rights obligations are being applied to mums in prison, through initiatives such as the Mothers and Children Program that allows imprisoned mothers to live in a unit with their children, the same human rights obligations are not being applied to dads.
The research found that 4 out 5 of primary carer dads in Victorian prisons had not been offered access to fathering support programs.
How many dads are in prison?
It is well known that the majority of Australians in prison are men. Around half of these men are dads and more than one in 10 prisoners are said to be the primary carer for the children. In the Victorian context, around 630 (11%) of the 5,706 men who entered prison from 2013 to 2014, were primary carers.
Why prison dads matter
It has long been established that helping dads in prison to maintain a relationship with their children has health and social benefits for both dads and kids. According to a literature review by the Victorian researchers, maintaining contact allows dads in prison to provide emotional support to their children, helps them feel appreciated and closer to their children and contributes to positive parenting, ongoing involvement and reduces reoffending post-release.
Find out more about Supporting Fatherhood.
For children, maintaining contact with their father, reminds them that their father continues to think about them. Furthermore, being incarcerated may in fact open up opportunities for more contact between fathers and children who come together during this time.
The researchers pointed to research in the US, which found that children experienced more negative outcomes in terms of their education, financial wellbeing and mental health if a separation from their father had been caused by incarceration.
What support is available for prison dads?
The authors identified several types of support programs including:
Educational Fathering Programs (EFP), which help support father-child relationships and improve fathering skills and child care issues. These have been linked to decreased offending post-release.
Formal father/contact support such as visiting, letter writing and telephone contact. These supports allow fathers to provide emotional support to kids and help them feel closer and involved.
Remote reading programs like Storybook Dads and Read Along Dads.
One prisoner in the study observed that inmates were more likely to be offered methadone programs that fathering support services.
Learning from best practice
The researchers undertook a review of the literature of examples of international best practice and highlighted the use of “fathering units” in several countries outside Australia.
While prisons in general may do little to encourage the caring aspects of fatherhood, it has been found that housing dads in prisoner with other dads, enables them to maintain a focus on family life.
For young offenders in the United States, housing fathers together has been shown to have a motivational impact and allowed fathers to use other fathers as a source of strength.
Similarly in Northern Ireland, an evaluation of the Families Matter program found that it helped fathers shift their awareness away from themselves and towards their children, which allowed them to focus on families.
Finally, findings from the Invisible Walls Wales fathering program, found that dads who took park recorded a reduction in several risk factors related to reoffending.
About the research
The research was presented in an article by Dr Tess Bartlett and Professor Christopher Trotter of Monash University, entitled ‘Did We Forget Something? Fathering Supports and Programs in Prisons in Victoria, Australia’.
The study published in International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology drew on an Australian Research Council-funded study with 39 primary care fathers incarcerated in Victorian prisons from 2012 to 2013. The men had been locked up for at least three months, and on average they had three children.
The prisoners were asked: “What supports/services have you been offered during imprisonment to support your parenting of your children?” and “What contact have you had with your children?”
79% of men said they were not offered any parenting supports in prison and 72% did not access any supports or services (three fathers sought them out of their own accord and accessed these services).
The authors concluded that “there remains a significant gap in knowledge about what actually works in practice.”
“Prisons in Victoria currently offer transient, sporadic, and often times ‘distant’ formal support services for fathers with no face-to-face contact involved.”
Bartlett and Trotter said the study responses from Victorian prisoners indicated that fathers are looking for ways to maintain father-child relationships from prison and that they are open to being supported in a way that is immersive and engaging with children.
Bartlett and Trotter acknowledged that fathering supports and services were not viable in all prisons, but existing programs could be extended to minimum and medium-security facilities.
“For primary carer fathers in prison, there is a need to engage, connect, and have support for their children and to work on fathering while incarcerated.”
READ: The reading program helping dads in prison stay connected to their kids (ABC News)
VIEW: Read Along Dads
Photo credit: Kyryll Ushakov