Public Defenders

Incarceration of a Parent or Caregiver

Executive Summary

(Use links at left to download full chapter)

Parental incarceration may have impacts upon a child's emotional, behavioural, and psychological development, educational performance, delinquency and offending.1

Emotional and behavioural impacts on children may include:

  • relational problems, problems with emotional regulation, and antisocial behaviour;2
  • depressive symptoms in young adulthood;3
  • discipline problems;4
  • internalising behaviour problems (such as withdrawal);5
  • externalising problems (such as hostile behaviour);6 and
  • a higher risk of developing substance abuse problems.7

In the case of children of a sole carer, parental incarceration can mean entry into the substitute care system.8 Studies have shown that children who become state wards are at high risk of homelessness, drug abuse and entry into the juvenile justice system.9

These potential impacts may have particularly damaging consequences for Indigenous children when cumulative with other forms of disadvantage.10 Even short periods of incarceration of caregivers can have long-term cumulative and intergenerational effects resulting from disruptions to family life, housing, cultural responsibilities, children's education, children's health, and housing, as well as dislocation from communities.11

Children whose mothers spend time in prison are more likely to have a disrupted education, poor health and unstable housing, leading to a heightened risk of entry into child protection or juvenile justice systems.12

The potential relevance of evidence of the incarceration of an offender's mother, father or caregiver in sentencing proceedings includes an assessment of moral culpability; moderating the weight to be given to general deterrence; and determining the weight to be given to specific deterrence and protection of the community.


[1] Megan Bell, Donna Bayliss, Rebecca Glauert and Jeneva Ohan, 'Using Linked Data to Investigate Developmental Vulnerabilities in Children of Convicted Parents' (2018) 54 Developmental Psychology 1219, 1220.

[2] Danielle Dallaire, Anne Ciccone and Laura Wilson, 'Teacher's Experiences with and Expectations of Children with Incarcerated Parents' (2010) 31 Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 281, 288.

[3] Holly Foster and John Hagan, 'Maternal and Paternal Imprisonment in the Stress Process' (2013) 42 Social Science Research 650, 663.

[4] Joseph Murray and David Farrington, 'The Effect of Parental Imprisonment on Children' (2008) 37 Crime and Justice 133, 180.

[5] Ibid 653.

[6] Ibid 653.

[7] Ibid 664.

[8] Standing Committee on Social Issues, Parliament of New South Wales, A Report into Children of Imprisoned Parents (Report No 12, July 1997) 53.

[9] Ibid 57.

[10] Susan Dennison, Anna Stewart and Kate Freiberg, 'A Prevalence Study of Children with Imprisoned Fathers: Annual and Lifetime Estimates' (2013) 48 Australian Journal of Social Issues 339, 357.

[11] Human Rights Law Centre and Change the Record, Over-represented and Overlooked: The Crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Growing Over-imprisonment (Report, 2017) 13.

[12] Ibid.