Maori prisoners' children 'forgotten'

CLIO FRANCIS
Last updated 05:00 20/02/2012

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Government agencies are failing the children of Maori prisoners, leaving them traumatised and ill, and creating a new generation of offenders, a report says.

Associate Education Minister Pita Sharples has announced he will launch a review in the wake of the report to see what can be done to help inmates' children.

"They are the forgotten children. The cards are stacked against them in so many ways," Dr Sharples told The Dominion Post.

At any one time, more than 20,000 children in New Zealand have a parent in prison.

The Te Puni Kokiri study – the first of its kind in New Zealand – used research data collected by charity Pillars, which surveyed 217 Maori prisoners, men and women. The report criticised police for arresting many offenders in front of their children and prisons for subjecting children to stringent searches when visiting their parents in jail.

The children involved in the study exhibited serious health problems including eczema, asthma and psoriasis, and emerging behavioural and mental health problems.

"Many of the children are angry, lying and into petty crime. Some are quite violent to others. Very little support is available, even when it is sought."

Many other children suffered nightmares, bed-wetting and other stress symptoms, likened to a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"It is concerning that a number of caregivers tend to view even quite extreme problems as normal and thus not seek treatment.

"The agencies of health and education do not appear to have the capacity to resolve these problems. The result is that the society is condemned to continual increases in prison numbers, with many tamariki Maori set to populate those additional places."

Dr Sharples said schools could take a more active role in assisting children of prisoners. The proposed review would assess what, if any, systems were in place in the education system to help the children of prisoners.

The report said in nearly half the cases reviewed, children were present when their parent was arrested.

"We think further work can be done to improve arrest procedures when children are known to be present.

"At every juncture where the justice system touches the lives of children, it should be fair, educative, compassionate and kind."

A police spokesman said there was clear procedure around the presence of children when arrests were being made and search warrants executed.

"This states that the safety and well-being of children must be considered and planned for to ensure they are not unnecessarily exposed to harm or trauma.

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"However, the ultimate responsibility is on parents and caregivers to ensure that children are not in environments where unlawful activities are taking place which necessitate a police response."

Corrections general manager of prison services, Jeanette Burns, said the department understood the importance of prison visits for maintaining family and social relationships, but visits posed security issues.

"We have a commitment to preventing contraband coming into prisons, and visitors are one of the primary ways in which contraband enters prison.

"In the past visitors have been caught bringing in items of contraband in children's clothing, which is why any visitor may be required to be searched."

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills said children of prisoners were often very similar to children in care.

"They often have the same kinds of issues, they've witnessed parental violence, parental addictions, drug and alcohol abuse, criminality, they're often very poor. They are families who are marginalised."

The CYF care model would be perfect for children with a parent in prison, he said.

LIFE WITH FATHER INSIDE

Ben, 14: "My dad went to jail for five years and he should be out this year but he will probably just go back inside after he's released. I was totally gutted when he went to jail. I was 10 then and there was no-one there to stop me shoplifting and s.... Any s... goes down in [town] they blame me. I am in the Crips gang and all my friends are, too. We do [drugs] and [alcohol] to chill out. But that is what makes you do it [crime]. They say I have an anger problem because I put holes in the wall. I did time in Rolleston and then home detention. My mother says I'm the worst youth offender in the South Island and they say I am just like my dad. But I'm not like him, he is in a white gang and I'm in the Crips – we're black."

Lucy, 12: "Me and my brother live with our Nan and Koro. Our dad is in prison now. He used to be in prison lots of times. It was really hard when our mum died and he went to prison again. We didn't go to school so much before, but we do now. Our dad doesn't phone us because [his new partner] won't let him. She sends him phone cards so he calls her and talks to her kids but not to us. He didn't call my brother on his birthday. My brother waited all day."

- Wellington

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