A single father – the sole parent to a child or several children – is in trouble with the law. He’s arrested, charged and put into the justice system’s pathway of court, remand and, eventually, prison. What happens to the child or children, and what happens to the man’s role as a father to them once he’s locked up?
These are the questions Monash criminology and social work researcher Dr Tess Bartlett asks in a series of co-written 2018 papers and also in her recent PHD thesis that focused on the experiences of incarcerated primary-care fathers during arrest and imprisonment in Victoria.
Despite an estimated 11 per cent of male prisoners in the state being primary carers – a very conservative estimate, Bartlett says, of about 650 men – there’s no data collected on their experiences, circumstances, motivations, challenges or feelings.
Much more is known about female primary carers in prison because a higher percentage of women in prison are mothers. There’s also data on fathers in prison, but not fathers who are primary carers.
“They’re forgotten,” Dr Bartlett says. “I wanted to find out about their experiences to give insights into what actually happens to them to provide a knowledge base, ultimately so the process becomes easier for them and their children.”
She interviewed 39 men in Victorian prisons between 2012-2013 on topics ranging from the logistics and usefulness of contact with their children during visiting hours and by telephone – specifically how those things work or don’t work – to more universal ideas around masculinity.
Conflict of identity
Dr Bartlett describes a “conflict of identity” for primary-carer fathers in prison – the tough guy (the prisoner) versus the soft guy (the father) in an artificial environment that’s “liminal” and “in-between”.
In an abstract from a February 2018 paper, she writes: “We aim to address a gap in research and theory by providing new insights into fathering and conflicting constructions of masculinity within the prison as seen in ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ selves, and by exploring how fathers perform fathering within this space.”
Dr Bartlett's primary PhD supervisor was Dr Catherine Flynn. She said a "clearer focus" on fathers in prison was timely because of "wider community attention to related issues such as healthy and respectful relationships, and masculinity and fathering, along with an understanding of the important role played by fathers in their children’s lives and, subsequently, the impact of absent fathers".
The moment of arrest usually happens at home and it can be “chaotic”, Dr Bartlett writes. Children can often be present and police are often unaware of their presence or not concentrating on them. These arrests can often be violent.
“When arrested in the home, most of the children were in the house but not necessarily visible,” she says, “but they were there.
“The discussion around primary care and who was going to take care of the kids doesn’t always take place. The arrests that were characterised by violence or multiple police officers were always in the home and the kids were predominantly present, and obviously there’s a reason for the force, but the kids are there.
“If they know the kids will be there, is there a way to limit that trauma or that effect of having such an intense arrest procedure with young kids present? There needs to be something in place to limit the impact on children.”
After arrest, contact with children is difficult.
“When being received into the prison system, what did people in the system ask about children? What supports do men get in prison with regard to their children? Are they fathers or prisoners?
“A lot of the time, what I found was that even when police were aware the man was a primary carer, very few followed it up and asked who would be looking after the children. That might be a gender assumption, or an assumption someone else would step in and care for the child.”
Dr Bartlett found grandparents, neighbours, relatives or older siblings – “in a very ad-hoc and informal way” – took over primary care of the child or children.
“There are guidelines around children in police protocols, but nothing specific about primary-carer parents who are being arrested,” she says. “It’s open to interpretation.
“Ideally, you would have services working to provide guidelines or processes that are formal, and independent from police and separate to the arrest procedure so that it’s not overlooked.
“Some fathers I spoke to said they didn’t have anyone to look after their child or children so they went to stay with a mate – and the father didn’t know for several weeks where they had gone.”
Dr Bartlett says that by nature, a father who is a primary caregiver is quite hands-on with their child or children pre-arrest. They would regularly play with their child or do homework with them, for example.
But prison visits force the father and their child into a situation of “just talking”, which can be difficult and different to what they’re used to.
Less chance of reoffending
Dr Bartlett says the most important aspect of her research is that being able to continue parenting in a reduced but still meaningful way while in prison could mean the men are less likely to reoffend.
“How does a man in prison nurture their fathering identity and hold onto it when they’re given very limited opportunities to actually do it? Having that identity is very important in terms of not offending again. It’s a very positive aspect of the experience for a father.
“Surely the idea is that if people go to prison, they don’t go back in again? So focus on things that help do that. The prison is the punishment for the crime. Fathers shouldn’t be punished in other ways that affect their fathering identity.”