Sins of the fathers

Something is missing. Outside the hamburger chain restaurant, traffic shudders along the highway. Inside, the hiss of a deep fryer, the pucker and spit of bacon and thawed beef patties. And something harder to define - an absence.
By · 21 Sep 2013
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21 Sep 2013
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Something is missing. Outside the hamburger chain restaurant, traffic shudders along the highway. Inside, the hiss of a deep fryer, the pucker and spit of bacon and thawed beef patties. And something harder to define - an absence.

In fact, there is more than one absence on this particular day in this particular restaurant in 2004. But right now what is missing is the sound of children laughing. And this is odd, because today is a six-year-old boy's birthday party.

Michael's* mother has sent 11 invitations on specially printed paper to his prep classmates. She wanted to make it his big day, his first birthday as a schoolchild. But only one of his friends has come to his party.

In the past year, Michael has lost clumps of his hair and had constant nightmares. He has been in therapy for more than half his life. But that is not why none of his friends have turned up today. The reason no one else has come is that two weeks ago Michael's father had to go away "for work" again. His classmates' parents knew all about it. It was reported in the newspapers and on the radio, because where his father has gone is not really work.

Michael can't remember the first time he went to court. He was still in his mother's belly when his father came home early one morning, cut and bruised, scuff marks across his face smelling of boot polish. His father had been involved in a fight with undercover police at a nightclub, and the brawl had not stopped when he was arrested and taken to a police cell.

Two weeks later Michael was born, and two weeks after that he went with his parents and older brother James* to the Magistrates Court.

The night before he had a fever. His parents had hardly slept and Michael was still in pain, screaming in his mother's arms as they entered the court 15 minutes late. The police were waiting at the door. Those 15 minutes meant Michael's father had just breached bail. They arrested him immediately, leaving his mother Karen* alone with her howling baby and two½-year-old James, who wanted to know where "Dadda" had gone.

There was no offer of counselling, no support officer to explain the proceedings or even hand her a pamphlet. "You walk out of the courtroom absolutely in tears," Karen says now. Little has changed over the past decade for families such as Karen's.

Michael and his brother are two of the rapidly growing number of Australian children who have a parent in prison. More than two-thirds of prisoners are parents, according to estimates from the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (and that figure could be greater, because the children of inmates are not identified as a specific group).

The children of prisoners are almost completely overlooked in the criminal justice system. Victoria Police has little reference in its manual for how officers should manage the children of a person they arrest, judges are legally unable to take into account the effect of a jail sentence on the children of a primary parent and courts are not obliged to notify the Department of Human Services when a parent (usually a father) is jailed. There are small programs aimed at keeping the families of inmates together but across an expanding prison population the resources are spread pitifully thin.

And the situation is worsening. Tough law and order policies are now locking Victorians up in record numbers. The state's prison population soared past 5000 for the first time last year and is continuing to rise, hitting 5400 in July. But it is inmates' children - about 38,000 of them across Australia, according to prison researchers - who are the silent victims of their crimes.

Michael first started seeing a child psychologist when he was three. Karen had looked in the Yellow Pages because she was worried at the way he was treating other children. The counsellor sat Michael in a sand tray filled with toys. She watched as Michael carefully placed all the toys except two horses - one big, one small - at one end of the tray before picking up the horses and holding them while he stamped on and punched the rest. Finally, he buried them. The two horses remained unhurt.

The counsellor told Karen what she thought was wrong. Michael's father was in prison again and Michael just wanted to see him. "He would wet the bed crying for his dad at night," Karen says. She had raised her children to believe their absent father was away working. But the counsellor told her she needed to take her youngest son to prison to let him see his father and reach his own conclusions. "I didn't want to do it but I followed her advice."

It smelt odd in the prison, Michael noticed, and the chairs were stuck to the floor, but there was Dad, alive and well, in his green work uniform. The new normal.

Except that for children such as Michael there is no normal: 5am, a knock at the door. "Open up." Police with guns on their hips. A warrant. Michael and James wobbled out of bed. Their mother took them into the lounge room, where the police directed them, and there they sat on a wooden coffee table. Their father was not home. The boys cuddled into their mother. Later the children found the house littered with used latex gloves.

Until 2010 the Victoria Police manual made no reference to how to deal with children when arresting a parent or searching a home. Even now the guidelines are limited. A police spokeswoman said the only reference in the manual was asking if arrangements have been made for the children. If not, officers will notify child protection. But much about how a child is treated is at the discretion of the police officers. Sometimes the police are sensitive. Sometimes, inevitably, they are not.

Psychologist and prison researcher Terry Hannon was sentenced to four years' jail for drug offences in 1991 when she was a young mother. Her daughter was only 11 months old. But Hannon was lucky. She was mostly in the low-security Tarrengower Prison, in the goldfields north-west of Maldon. She was able to live with her daughter in a small house, learn to cook and get her university degree.

Today, organisations such as the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and SHINE for Kids are encouraged that small steps are being made to rebuild the family units of prisoners. Corrections Victoria has also recognised that family plays an important role in reducing reoffending. It has imported a parenting program from the US, where about 10 million children are estimated to have a parent in prison.

The local version of the program began in 2011 at Marngoneet Prison, a medium-security jail near Lara north of Geelong. It runs for 12 weeks. The US study Parenting Inside Out, on which it is based, found its participants were less likely to have been rearrested (27 to 59 per cent) and less likely to report having been involved in criminal behaviour (91 per cent) one year after release. Even Sesame Street has got in on the act, introducing a puppet character who has a father in prison.

But when Hannon looks at the Victorian government's tough-on-crime policies, what she sees is a lost generation of children. Separating a child from their parent can cause long-term emotional, social and psychological damage even in ordinary circumstances. When that parent is in - or, as is often the case, in and out of - prison, she says, the grief can be worse than death. "In some ways with a death there's closure and you move on, but when the parent is imprisoned, particularly if they are a recidivist parent, you lose them, and it's like a death, but then they come back again and it's like a resurrection. And then they fall from grace and it's like a death again."

In the soft light of a winter afternoon, Michael bounces a football in the driveway of his mother's workplace. Hearing footsteps, he turns and waves, welcoming me inside, where his mother and brother James are waiting. Michael fiddles with his smartphone as we talk. Later he will use it to write about his feelings for his father.

The brothers are of similar height but James has a leaner, more athletic build. In the past few months he has been playing with the seniors at the local football club, where he has literally been kicking goals. When James, who has turned 17 this year, mentions the club, his brown eyes widen and his lips part into a soft smile. The club has been invaluable , providing much-needed stability.

James speaks quietly, doesn't waste his words. Beneath his teenage mop of brown hair, he seems a lot older than he is. Bloody birthdays.

Sixty children turned up to James' 11th birthday at the football club's social rooms. The room was packed. But amid the people and the party paraphernalia was the gap where his father should have been. He had disappeared about four days before. James knew, even at this young age, that his father was on the run from police. But then a figure slipped into the room. Dad. He took a spot in the room where he could not easily be seen. James knew his father was hiding but he didn't care. "As long as he was there I was always going to be happy."

After the party, his father went to the police station and handed himself in. He had just wanted to be there for his son's birthday, Karen says. A gift of sorts.

Monash University senior lecturer Catherine Flynn says the justice system needs to be changed to protect the families of those inside. Dr Flynn says even short, one-off prison sentences can significantly disrupt the lives of prisoners' children and have lasting consequences. Children can be forced to move away from home, their school or town while their parent is incarcerated, she says.

Karen describes the system as fragmented bridges. "The emotional wellbeing is so damaged by the way the system is with families and prisoners. There is no such thing as family. It's them and it's us."

And right now it's Darren* - the boys' father. Darren was released from prison recently, just in time to see James play his first senior game of football. But he didn't turn up. The next week James was selected to play in the seniors again. Again there was no sign of his father - until quarter-time. From the field, James saw his grandmother's car pull up on the far side of the ground. In the passenger seat was his father. Darren stayed in the car for the entire game, in which James played a big role in his team's six-goal win.

"I kicked three goals. It wasn't too bad. But Dad didn't come out and see me once during the whole game. It was a pretty heartbreaking sort of moment."

Since that game, Darren has gradually become more engaged with his son. "He's been to two more games," James says. "It seems like he's got better. He comes out to see me now." But his father is clearly not the same man he was when James was a toddler, when he would take his son to the park for kick-to-kick.

Karen says prison has changed him. He has become hardened and has little empathy. "There has been no rehabilitation. Now we just feel like we have got this real hard-arsed guy who can't be the big teddy bear that he used to be. He used to joke around but now ... there's a lack of enjoyment and happiness." Karen knows, too, that the odds are stacked against her sons. In 2011, a VACRO study estimated that 65 per cent of boys with a convicted parent would commit crimes themselves. The report said the risk of prisoners' children committing crimes themselves was increased by "a child's negative experience of parental imprisonment". It said normal protocols for visiting hours could make children reluctant to visit and cause a breakdown in relations between inmates and their children.

"As a parent you just sit there saying, 'I'm doing this, this and this'," Karen says. "How can this be my end result? Because I can't live through this again."

Karen apologises. She is crying. She hasn't slept much in the past two weeks; Darren has been on a psychotic rampage fuelled by the drug ice. Recently he was involved in a car accident in which two people were injured. And now, despite having separated from Karen, he has been turning up making threats. The boys have, at times, had to hide in their room. Something is missing.

"My dad," writes Michael (fingers flying over his smartphone). "My dad, my hero, has been my whole life. I used to try to kill my mother and brother because I only wanted me and Dad in the house. But now it's different, they are all I have.

"I still love you, Dad but you cannot keep thinking we will respect you if you do crime. If you take drugs, if you go back to jail, this is all I have to say: 'Just remember who you are affecting, us'."

*Names have been changed.
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