Date of Submission



With the rising numbers of prisoners in Australia and the recognition of prisoners as parents across policy and academic domains, an increased interest in children affected by parental incarceration has emerged. Such interest focuses on three areas of inquiry: psychological impacts of parental incarceration on children and young people; links to intergenerational crime; and current responses to children and young people with a parent in prison. Much of this research about children has been undertaken with adults; it is often unclear whether researchers spoke with children and young people about the issues they reported on. Where children and young people have participated in research, it generally focused on data collection from surveys and other measurement tools. Research that explored children and young people’s experiences of parental incarceration, as perceived by them, is limited. A small number of international studies, predominantly from the United Kingdom (UK) and United States of America (US), have spoken with children directly about this issue; however, there is a considerable gap in research that considers the Australian context, particularly the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). This study aimed to fill this gap. It explores the self-reported experiences of children and young people living in the ACT who have or have had a parent in prison. All participants experienced paternal incarceration; three experienced maternal incarceration. This thesis analyses the results of qualitative interviews with children aged 8–18. Employing a childhood studies framework, this research highlights the voices of children and young people, emphasising their own perspectives and meaning-making. A reference group comprising five young people provided guidance at the commencement of the study. Sixteen children and young people participated in semi-structured interviews. Participants were recruited from a range of services across Canberra, including prison, statutory child protection services, youth work services and other non-government services. Data were analysed using an interpretative phenomenological analysis approach. This approach illuminated the complexity of the meanings children and young people placed upon their experience of parental incarceration. This analytical method also ensured that children and young people stayed at the forefront of the findings. The findings highlight that, when a parent commits a crime, the adult criminal justice system institutes a process in which the children of prisoners may, or may not, actively participate. From the point of arrest to the release of their parent, children and young people describe how their everyday lives were influenced by the criminal justice system and how they in turn managed and responded to the challenges that arose. Children and young people spoke about a diverse range of experiences at different points across the criminal justice process, which lasted for different periods of time. Children and young people described how the adult criminal justice system frequently created or exacerbated experiences of instability and uncertainty across specific life domains. They reported challenges with family relationships, housing, caring responsibilities, finances and education. They also described distinct differences in the types of relationships they had with their parent before, during and after incarceration. Consistent with childhood studies, children and young people described how they would meet these challenges and work to change them. Children and young people also experienced a range of emotions. Feelings of loss, stress, disconnection, shame and stigma were present for many participants. The feelings they described were not necessarily associated with the level of involvement they had with their incarcerated parent. In exploring children and young people’s understanding of parental incarceration, this research adds to the emerging body of work about children of prisoners in the Australian context. Children and young people’s participation has allowed their experiences of parental incarceration to be considered beyond the criminological and developmental psychology perspectives that have traditionally dominated much of the research in this field. This thesis provides a theoretical contribution by considering the tensions that exist in how children enact agency and the way they influence and are influenced by the social process and structures around them. In better understanding the experiences of children and young people, this thesis makes an important contribution to the development of sensitive and appropriate policy and practice within social work and more broadly so that children with a parent in prison may be better responded to.


School of Allied Health

Document Type


Access Rights

Open Access


439 pages

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Faculty of Health Sciences

Included in

Psychology Commons