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Improving the Lives of Children by Delivering Family Dispute Resolution into New Zealand Prisons

Approximately 20,000 children at any one time will have at least one parent in prison and statistics tell us that a staggering 70% of these children will end up in prison themselves if there is no intervention.

The loss to a child when a parent suddenly drops out of their life is enormous. The hope is that by providing a way for a parent and child to remain connected, that will decrease the likelihood of that child ending up in prison themselves, as well as reduce the rate of reoffending. This is a huge benefit to the State and to society as well as to those children and parents directly affected.

The balance of punishment and rehabilitation that prisons try to achieve should include the ongoing responsibility of being a parent.?This fits with New Zealand law and understanding of child development and attachment.

The Family Dispute Resolution Act (the FDR Act) is part of the suite of legislation designed to protect and support children. Coming into force barely two years ago it has been one of the biggest changes to the family justice system in 30 years. It has enabled the delivery of Family Justice Services to develop in very flexible ways to meet the needs of the families it serves. Our family dispute resolution (FDR) providers engage with families in the places that work best for them. Mediations have been held in a milking shed, via Skype (particularly if one parent is overseas) via telephone, in people’s homes, on a marae, in offices, in churches and in prisons.

FDR enables parents (including those in prison) and caregivers to make a plan as to how the children can continue having contact with the parent in prison. When a parent’s arrest has happened suddenly there may have been no time to make any arrangements. The flexible process of FDR can mean that the wider family group can be involved in formatting a plan to support all of those raising children: support the parent in prison to be a parent, support the parent with day to day care, and support the children. Not only does this approach value the child as taonga it also fulfils the holistic approach encouraged by New Zealand’s legislative framework.

When a person goes to prison, from a practical level, they can no longer be an active parent at any meaningful level. Nevertheless, imprisonment in itself?does not remove the rights and responsibilities of a parent to make decisions about their child’s care.?Not all father or mothers who go to prison have been bad parents especially if the crime is not related to family violence. Many may have been poor parents but for those who were actively involved in their children’s lives it means there are at least two broken hearts when a parent is imprisoned. By offering this service an opportunity is created to increase the connection between children and the incarcerated parent and turn the feelings of shame and disempowerment into hope and a sense of belonging.

FDR will not always be suitable for example when there has been violence or for some other reason.?The Ministry of Justice’s Operational Guidelines state that prisoners “may” be exempt from attending FDR. There may be situations where it is better for a child to have no connection with a parent. However, every person has an innate need to know where they come from and where they fit, and the importance of this knowledge is reflected under s5(f) of Care of Children Act 2004, whereby a child’s identity should be preserved and strengthened.

We has been involved in a number of FDR mediations which have involved a parent in prison. From these mediations come valuable learnings, such as:

  • Setting realistic expectations around what a good agreement looks like

If a parent outside of prison only had 15 minutes a month to speak to his or her children this would probably not be considered as a success. But in fact this outcome can have a huge impact as a parent and child now have a point of contact. The first time a dad in prison receives a Father’s Day card from his children cannot be undervalued.

  • The value of meeting with all parties including the prisoner face to face
  • Allowing prisoners time to prepare for the mediation – undertake Family Legal Advice Service and participate in Preparation For Mediation
  • The venue isn’t the most important thing; it is about connecting and engaging with people
  • Reality testing each part of the agreement

If a parent is now allowed to write to a child, is the parent literate? ?And if literate, do they know how to begin the daunting process of connecting or reconnecting?

  • Prison cases take much more mediator time due to a number of factors

The sessions really need to be broken down into small steps and multiple phone calls or contact points; prisons are busy places with multiple staff priorities including sudden lockdowns and changing staff rosters. Meetings that have been organised weeks in advance can be suddenly cancelled. It can be hard to find the right person inside the prison to make sure these telephone sessions occur in a confidential manner.

  • Both parents need practical support in honouring an agreement
  • All parties need to be well supported leading up to and following mediation

Sometimes the focus can just be on the parent on the outside, but the incarcerated parent needs support too – especially if they are heading back to their cell, serving a long sentence, and nothing they had hoped for has been achieved at mediation.

Any person who wants to engage in FDR where there is one party in prison goes through a rigorous assessment. We are vigilant about safety and do everything in consultation as appropriate. We are also very aware that FDR could be used to re-victimise a person and our antennae are up for signs of process abuse. Safety is a very big issue for everyone – for the parent on the outside, the children, the lawyers involved, and our mediators going into the prisons. Our starting point is that the joint mediation sessions should take place over the phone, and that the mediator should, as with all our FDR cases, meet face to face with both parties individually before the joint session.

We have a small group of mediators who do this work and who have had, in different ways, experience working with people in prison. At any point, if the mediator feels that they should not continue with FDR, they can call a halt to the process and exempt the parties. We all take advice; no one is doing this as a Lone Ranger. ?

We have also agreed to work closely with the prisons and in each case with a specific prison officer who is working with the prisoner.?We are aware of the crime that has been committed or alleged and of any previous criminal offending history. The other parent is also encouraged to get legal advice before proceeding, and involve any social support organisation they may be currently working with. We put the parent in touch with an organisation which provides support for families with one parent in prison and also provides mentoring for children of prisoners.

Although FDR is really just a small cog in a big wheel of ways in which our children, tamariki and our mokopuna can be supported, it is a significant opportunity for children to maintain connection and therefore have realistic relationships with their incarcerated parent.

As New Zealanders, we share a social responsibility with the knowledge, skills and resources we have to support, empower, love and equip the next generation, especially?Including those whose lives are touched by the cold steel of prison bars.


Keri Morris

Keri is the Manager ODR at the Domain Name Commission She has many years of experience in dispute resolution and is passionate about creating opportunities for agreement. Keri is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators UK and a Fellow of Arbitrators and Mediators Institute NZ. MORE >

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