Highlighting the vulnerability of infant children of women prisoners in Australia

Although women prisoners are recognized as a vulnerable population, there is no routine data collection or reporting on the number of children that might be affected by their mother’s incarceration, or how they might be affected. A study published in Health and Justice links available administrative data in Australia in order to generate population level statistics that might help understand those children’s needs and inform service delivery.

Women prisoners are recognised as a vulnerable population who experience multiple and complex disadvantage. The range of adversity experienced by women prisoners includes child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, mental illness, alcohol and substance use disorders, unemployment, and homelessness. Exposure to such adversity in pregnancy and early life can have significant impacts on a child’s development and future health and wellbeing.

Despite the potential vulnerability of infant children of women prisoners, in Australia there is no routine collection or reporting of the number of children affected or their characteristics. This basic information is vital to understand their needs and to inform service delivery.

Despite the potential vulnerability of infant children of women prisoners, in Australia there is no routine collection or reporting of the number of children affected or their characteristics.

No (direct) data

In the absence of formal population surveillance, data linkage can be a useful means to generate population level statistics. Linked administrative data connects records of information relating to individuals across various contacts with government services and departments. For example, records of births and deaths registrations, and records of contact with services including hospitals, prisons, and child protective services.

This method is particularly useful for researching populations involved with the criminal justice system as personal identifying information is removed to ensure participant confidentiality, and coverage extends to all justice involved individuals without the need for prospective recruitment, which can introduce bias to study sampling. The method is also useful to capture rare outcomes such as infant mortality.

The effect of a mother’s imprisonment on a child

In our study we were able to identify that there were 1199 children born in Western Australia between 2001 and 2011 who were exposed to their mothers imprisonment at least once during infancy (aged 0-1 years). For children whose mothers were imprisoned in pregnancy or infancy, 56% came into contact with the child protection system by their second birthday, with around a third of children entering out-of-home care. Infant mortality rates were also increased for children with mothers who had a history of imprisonment in comparison to children whose mothers had no record with corrective services at any time. These findings clearly demonstrated the level of vulnerability of infant children of women prisoners.

In a follow up study on infant mortality, Aboriginal children whose mothers were imprisoned during pregnancy had significantly worse outcomes than children with mothers who were imprisoned only before or after pregnancy, or who had a history of community-based corrections orders without imprisonment, and no corrections record. For these children, maternal imprisonment during pregnancy remained a significant risk factor for infant mortality after taking other serious pregnancy risk factors into account.

A higher prevalence of key pregnancy risk factors

Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal infants with mothers imprisoned at any time, and particularly before or during pregnancy, experienced higher prevalence of key pregnancy risk factors related to maternal disadvantage including service contacts in pregnancy for alcohol and other substance use, mental health, and injury.

Infants have less structured contact with community services, such as schooling, where individuals at risk of poor developmental outcomes can be identified and provided with targeted supports.

Together these studies have highlighted the particular vulnerability of infants of women prisoners. Infants have less structured contact with community services, such as schooling, where individuals at risk of poor developmental outcomes can be identified and provided with targeted supports. In using linked administrative data we have shown the potential for seeing points of contact with services including when mothers are imprisoned, and also contacts with the hospital system and community mental health services, as opportunities to deliver services to mothers and infants.

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