Impact of imprisoned mothers on children

The impact of incarceration on children whose mothers are in prison is the focus of a world-first Australian Research Council study. The Discovery Project Maternal incarceration: Mechanisms of risk and resilience in children received $470,500 in funding from the ARC this week. Researchers from Griffith University and the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement  (Catrien Bijleveld) 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 (Griffith University). “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. 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.

Picture: Susan Dennison, © Griffith University

About prof. dr. mr. Catrien Bijleveld

Catrien Bijleveld graduated in 1986 with honours in Methods and Techniques of Social Research. In 1989 she was promoted to the analysis of categorical time series. After an appointment as a statistical consultant at TNO (Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research), she spent seven years as a lecturer at the Department of Methodology and Statistics at the Department Psychology of Leiden University. In 1997 she was programme coordinator at the Research and Documentation Centre of the Ministry of Justice, where she was responsible among others for research on criminal justice, environmental enforcement, ex-TBS detainees, recidivism in general and foreigners.

In 2002 she graduated with honours in Law at Leiden University. As of 1 January 2001 to August 2014 she worked as a senior researcher at NSCR. Her research activities focus on research into criminal careers and (experimental) research into the effectiveness of interventions, juvenile sex offenders, historical trends and the intergenerational transmission of delinquent behaviour. Catrien Bijleveld is also professor in Methods and Techniques of Criminological Research at VU University, Amsterdam. She is a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW) and a member of the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (KHMW). She was director of the NSCR till August 2019.

Catrien is a member of the Life-course Cluster, the Intergenerational Cluster and the Extremism/terrorism Cluster.

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