Most kids have a weekend routine. Maybe they are bundled into the car on cold Saturday mornings and taken to play footy, or stuffed with lasagna at their grandparents’ home.
For my little boy, the weekend means going to visit his birth mamma at ‘The Big House’, otherwise known as the Dame Phyllis Frost maximum security women’s prison, where she is incarcerated for murder. Every Sunday, Ollie is one of a rowdy parade of kiddies who are brought in by grandparents and siblings and carers to spend a few precious hours with Mum.
(Ollie’s birth mum is my sister, Anna. If you’d like to know more about the reasons her son is in my permanent care, or about Anna and her crime, check out this episode of the No Filter podcast.)
The sprawling visitor’s centre comes alive with laughter and squeals on these days. But the cacophony obscures a bittersweet reality. A few short hours after they are dropped off, the children are retrieved by their carers and forced to leave their mums once more.
“I want to staaaay! Please Mummy!” pleaded a four-year-old girl through sobs last week.
I’ve seen kids throw themselves on the floor and grab onto Mum’s ankles, or dash back into the centre. But the worst is the older ones, who simply trudge back through to the carpark with a look a weary recognition.
And that’s the kids who even get to visit Mum. Of approximately 350 mothers at DPFC, we see the same 40 or so kids week in, week out.
Listen to Mia Freedman’s No Filter episode with Katie Horneshaw, who took in her sister’s baby when she murdered a man.
What happens to kids whose mums are imprisoned?
As the rate of female imprisonment has climbed rapidly in recent years, so too has the number of innocent casualties: the children who find themselves suddenly stranded without a mother. At DPFC, around 70 per cent of women have children on the outside.
Kerry Tucker was one of those women. In 2003 she was forced to leave her two little girls behind in order to serve a seven year sentence for what was dubbed ‘the largest white collar crime ever committed by a Victorian female’.
She soon discovered how profoundly a mother’s sentence can impact her relationship with children. “The sentence for my girls didn’t end when I was released. It quickly became obvious that years in prison had largely dismantled our relationship.” she writes in her memoir, The Prisoner.
On the phone, Kerry admits that, “I had a whole set of financial and emotional recourses that most mothers in prison don’t. If it was tough for me to regain that relationship; for them it’s often impossible.”
When a primary-caring mother goes to prison, DHS has to work out what to do with her kids. If they’re lucky, a relative will put up their hand and volunteer to provide kinship care, as I do for Ollie. But these arrangements are often far from perfect.
Tara, a young woman who was imprisoned with Kerry, was given no say in the matter when her sexually abusive step-father volunteered to care for her own young daughter. Tara was so horrified by the prospect of her daughter facing abuse, she took her own life. Obstacles faced by kids in kinship care are not always so severe, but many struggle with their mental health, their relationships at school, and their standing in the new family.
The majority of kids, though, end up in foster care. These children are at even greater risk of trauma, mental illness and abuse than their kinship peers, and they tend to be brought in far less often to visit Mum.