A new study has looked at the impacts on children when a parent goes to prison.

The Telethon Kids Institute report found children with an imprisoned parent are significantly more likely to have poor development outcomes – yet many risk being overlooked because there is no standard system in place to identify and support them.

Young children of convicted parents were found to be more likely to be developmentally vulnerable, with poorer social, emotional, language and other outcomes.

The risk was higher for children whose parents had gone to prison rather than receiving a community-based order, and remained even when other sociodemographic risk factors were taken into account.

“The results suggest that, although children of convicted parents experience a higher incidence of sociodemographic risk – such as low educational levels, unemployment, substance abuse, unstable relationships and other factors – their parents’ criminal activity constitutes an independent risk factor for their development,” researcher Megan Bell said.

The study used data from the Western Australian Department of Justice, which enabled researchers to see which of more than 19,000 children born in WA between 2003-04 had parents who had served periods of community service or incarceration.

The researchers found 1402 of the children (7.35 per cent of the cohort) had parents who had been imprisoned or given a community order within the period of the study.

Records of parental convictions were merged with the children’s scores on the Australian Early Development Census, a teacher-reported measure of children’s physical, social, emotional, communicative and cognitive development.

“We looked at children aged 0-6 years and identified parent contacts with justice from birth up to the end of the child’s first year of school (pre-primary),” Dr Bell said.

“We found that if parents had been sentenced to incarceration or a community order, the child was significantly more likely to be developmentally vulnerable when they started school compared to children whose parents had no convictions or had received only a fine.

“We also found that children whose parents are incarcerated seem to have an even greater risk than children whose parents served community orders. From the information we have available it’s hard to say why that is, however this does suggest there may be something about the separation from the parent, over and above the parent’s criminal activity, that is creating a risk for the development of the child.”

Although previous research has suggested outcomes are worse for children when it is the mother who is incarcerated, the researchers found it did not matter which gender the parent was.

“We found both mum and dad’s criminal activity is associated with the risk to the child’s development,” Dr Bell said.

She said despite the increased risk of poor outcomes, a lack of standard procedures in Australia – at the point of arrest, sentencing or reception into prison – to determine which offenders had dependent children and what was happening to those children while the parent was in prison, meant there were no hard data on how many children were in this position.

“Currently the safety and wellbeing of children of convicted parents is not seen as the responsibility of any one government department,” Dr Bell said.

“These children form a somewhat ‘invisible’ group who, for the most part, are not adequately identified, assessed, or supported by either child- or adult-oriented services.

“Some of these children may be involved with child protection services, however given there is no standardised follow-up it’s impossible to know exactly how many of them are falling through the cracks, because we’re not tracking it.

“At the moment, we have to rely on the person saying ‘yes, I’m a parent’ and giving information on those children, but that’s difficult because parents often feel concerned child welfare will get involved so they may not say anything.

“All the research shows the intergenerational cycle of crime is perpetuated by kids not having a good education, and what we’ve shown is that these kids are starting school way behind their peers,” Dr Bell said.

“If we’re not properly supporting them there’s potential for them to struggle as they go along, with poor academic achievement, poor attendance and risk of drop-out – and all of these things are related to delinquent behaviour in adolescence.”

Dr Bell said a critical step in improving the response to the needs of children of convicted parents was the establishment of procedures for identifying offenders who are parents.

“There also needs to be appropriate resources available to respond to those children,” she said.

She said the linked data used in the study provided an opportunity to follow the outcomes of the children concerned – now aged around 14 years – further down the track.

“Given that the highest imprisonment rate in many countries is for individuals of child-rearing age, it’s imperative that we develop a better understanding of the outcomes of children affected by parental incarceration.”