A new study highlights the impact on children of having a father in jail - from domestic upheaval to their academic performance.
Of the 23 participants who took part in the study, conducted by Ashling Ryan-Mangan of Trinity College Dublin, six were fathers in jail for crimes such as murder and possession of illegal substances, with some on life sentences. Between them they have 21 children, 12 of whom are attending primary or pre-school. Five of the participants are mothers or carers, four others are professionals who have dealings with children of incarcerated fathers and six participants are primary school teachers.
According to the study, the majority of children experienced some form of upheaval in addition to the jailing of fathers, including changes relating to family structure, moving homes, changing schools, experiencing the death of a parent, parental separation, witnessing crimes committed by (and/or the arrest of) a father, and visiting prisons. The three main issues linked to academic performance are maintaining the father-child bond, discipline, and specific school-related voids left by absent fathers.
Seven of the 11 parents/carers interviewed during the course of this research decided not to tell their children, either initially or at all, that their fathers were going to or in prison. Their children subsequently found out or were told the truth. According to one mother: "He thought he worked for Santy…"
No parent reported any negative outcomes of schools having been informed of the situation but teachers describe children who appear to be preoccupied with concerns about their fathers. Almost all missed their fathers. In some cases the jailing of the father is seen as a threat to the family's security or "a shameful secret". Behavioural issues range from children squabbling, to smoking, to watching porn videos on smartphones.
"Children’s behaviour in school varied greatly," it said. "Eight participants reported cases of challenging or aggressive behaviour, described variously as ‘kicking off’, ‘acting out’, ‘running amok’, ‘lashing out’ and the like. Specific instances of inappropriate behaviour included a four-year-old kicking and exposing herself to her teacher (and explaining that ‘her body told her to do it’), a five-year-old flooding a school toilet and a six-year-old pulling pictures off the classroom walls and turning tables and chairs upside-down." Some were said to have threatened teachers while other children became withdrawn. As for homework, "there was a general consensus that it was a ‘big problem’ or, at best, ‘hit and miss’."
According to one teacher who has taught 27 children of imprisoned fathers, education can compare poorly with the apparent allure of a criminal lifestyle: "She went on to say that a lot of the boys in her school had 'Post Office accounts where the gangs would put money in and… they get little... scooters... and they run drugs. And they get maybe €50 a week for that. I mean €50 a week when you’re seven or eight… [would] buy a lot of tracksuits… So… they’re running drugs at seven and eight.'"
However, in a smaller number of cases teachers see huge potential in children who have a father in prison and the study makes a number of recommendations on how families and children can be better supported.