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“I want to stay! Please Mummy!” What really happens when mums go to prison.

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.

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kerry tucker the prisoner
"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," writes Kerry. Image: Blush Creative.

Once a woman is separated from her children, it’s much more difficult for her to take them on again. This is partly due to practical reasons: 40 per cent of female prisoners are homeless upon release, and with few transition support services available, setting up a stable home and income can prove next to impossible.

But the deepest obstacles are emotional. Kerry writes: “Although the visits were meant to bring the kids and me closer, the reality is they underscored just how far we’d drifted apart.” Once the bonds of trust that connect mother and child are damaged, they are very tough to rebuild.

Even in cases where a mother does manage to regain custody of her children post-release, recidivism rates are extremely high, meaning that it’s often not long until kids are uprooted again.

For children, the uncertainty of being constantly volleyed between different care arrangements can set off a tidal wave of trauma and dysfunction that extends deep into adulthood. This trauma eventually becomes a cycle: Children of prisoners are six times more likely to later be imprisoned themselves.

So what can be done?

The most obvious solution, as Kerry points out, is to keep women out of prison. She reckons the best way to do this is to address recidivism rates by providing life skills training within the prison and better accommodation support upon release. Anna echoes this sentiment: “Almost everyone in here has been in a few times before.”

The mental health and addiction treatment sectors also require major reform in order to reduce conviction rates.

Failing that, “We need to take into account the needs of the children when sentencing the mother.” says Kerry.

This could take many different forms, from keeping sentences to a minimum to allowing non-violent offenders to serve out their sentences at home.

“Home detention would be a lot cheaper, and in many senses it’s more isolating than being in the prison. You wear an ankle monitoring bracelet- it’s definitely not ‘cheating your sentence’.” says Kerry.

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Another option would be extending the mother and baby program, which allows mothers to keep their children with them while in custody. Both my sister and Kerry attest to the value of the program: “The mothers are supported by the Parenting Program within the prison and kept to a strict regime that forbids fighting or dirty urines,” writes Kerry.

Obviously it’s not ideal to have a child behind bars, but in almost every case, it’s preferable to the alternative. “Everyone is on their best behaviour around the kids,” Anna tells me.

In cases where a mother must be separated from her kids, Kerry believes there should be a process of staged family re-integration. This might mean a minimum-security facility where mums and kids can stay together for the last few weeks of a sentence and participate in family therapy and parenting classes.

Kerry wrote about her experiences adjusting to prison life as a mum of two daughters. Image: Supplied.

Kerry admits that she lost her parenting skills while in prison. “I could not believe how lost I felt. I could easily manage the affairs of 300 criminals but (with my own kids) I was out of moves,” she writes of the day she took her girls out for the first time post-release.

Finally, kinship carers need more support with everything from accommodation to travel to-and-from the prison, so that relatives are better resourced to take children on and keep them out of state care.

This might all sound rather pricey, but, as Kerry points out, “In the long run it would be a hundred times cheaper than paying to keep generations of women in jail.” When kids remain with their mothers, both the mums and their children are less likely to commit further offences.

“It should be so simple!” says Kerry. “There are things we can do to interrupt the cycle of separation and trauma and keep families together. Why aren’t we doing them?”

*I’d like to make it clear that the prison and the officers there do a great job with the recourses at hand. They can only work within the confines of current policy, which the government is responsible for.

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