Kids of locked-up Vic parents 'invisible'

·3-min read

Holly Nicholls remembers eating toast for dinner and going to bed hungry as her family tried to stay afloat without her imprisoned father.

She is one of thousands of "invisible" children who suffer for the crimes of their parents, according to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry.

"They serve a sentence alongside their parent, an experience which may affect them negatively for their whole lives," committee chair Fiona Patten writes in the inquiry report tabled in state parliament on Thursday.

Reflecting on growing up without her dad at home, Ms Nicholls said she and her mother found it difficult living on a single-parent income.

"We skipped a lot of dinners to be honest ... we had toast for dinner a lot," she told reporters.

"Never having nice clothes, nice shoes, never getting a new haircut - it shows. When you're a young person, other young people notice that and then you cop the bullying and all that flak."

Classmates asked her questions like 'is your dad a murderer, or a rapist' but the stigma extended well beyond school.

When Ms Nicholls was eight, she and her mother had to wait four hours in 40C heat to use the phone to call for assistance after their car broke down at the prison.

"The man just said 'no'," she said.

"He was just punishing us but my father had already been punished, and I feel that's not a situation that happens in isolation."

The upper house committee made 69 findings and 29 recommendations.

Chief among them is for the Victorian government to reduce the state's growing prison population through a combination of measures, including reviewing bail laws and the parole system.

The committee said that could involve simplifying bail tests, making presumptions against bail more targeted to serious offending and risk, and ensuring judges and magistrates have discretion to consider a person's circumstances when ruling on bail or parole applications.

Non-custodial sentencing options should be used where appropriate and social determinants for offending behaviour addressed, it added.

Both of Rachel Hambleton's parents have convictions, which in the past left her with a sense of shame.

"It took me until well into my 20s to be open about my experience, despite the fact that I work in non-profit and for-purpose environments, because it is very stigmatised."

The inquiry has shone a light on the "invisible issue", Ms Hambleton said.

Ms Patten said there are about 7000 children with parents in jail at any one time and the fastest-growing cohort of prisoners in the state is Aboriginal women.

"They're being incarcerated for breaches of bail, shoplifting, for nonviolent crimes," she said.

"We do need to reconsider locking people up, remanding people in custody, particularly when they have children at home."

The Victorian government has also been asked to consider establishing a dedicated body within the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing to respond to the issue and systematically collect data on kids affected by parental incarceration.

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