Promotion: Detention father can have great consequences for family

  • Research stories
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The experiences of families with a father in detention can vary greatly. If a father was actively involved in raising his children, his detention can have a negative effect on the family. If on the other hand, he was violent, it can offer relief. And in a situation where the father was not very present in his children’s lives anyway, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference. Simon Venema conducted research into the role family dynamics play in the context of a father in detention and obtained his PhD on this subject on 29 January 2024.

Simon paid particular attention to what the relationship between the father and his family was like before his detention. ‘If there was a strong family connection, the family is better able to cope with the negative consequences of detention. So, family dynamics are very important. But this does not mean that a father in detention cannot have great consequences for the family. Children can have emotional problems and sometimes they do less well in school. For the mother the situation can be problematic as well, for example, if it leads to financial problems, stress or depression.’

Simon’s research ‘Paternal imprisonment, fatherhood, and family relationships’ consists of two parts. Simon: ‘One part is more academic and this is what my thesis is largely about. The other part is more practice-based and for this I worked closely together with prisons. The main idea has always been to let the two parts reinforce each other and to show that research and practice are two sides of the same coin.’

Hearing stories first hand makes an impression

Simon conducted his research within the Innovation Lab Family Approach (IWP Gezinsbenadering) of the research group Verslavingskunde en Forensische Zorg. The lab was set up after researcher Petrick Glasbergen visited a prison in Wales, which had a special programme for fathers and families. He was deeply impressed and took the idea back to the Netherlands. After research and development, a special programme started in 2018 in two Northern prisons: Veenhuizen and Leeuwarden. Elements of this family approach are, for example, a Father’s Wing in the prison and a child-friendly visiting room which looks like an ordinary living-room where families can spend time together. Simon: ‘The prisons are very actively involved, I don’t think any of this would be possible otherwise. And the direct contact with the practice has been an essential part of my research. The practical situation in Veenhuizen has made me look at it with fresh eyes. When you hear people’s stories first hand, it makes quite a change from just looking at numbers. We visit prisons, talk to fathers, talk to families. And when you experience it in practice like that, it affects you. It makes an impression. In the prisons I experienced the importance of the interaction between research and the practice, and that only comes about by working this way.’

The impact on the family is often overlooked

The IWP Gezinsbenadering is part of Simon’s research and is aimed at supporting families with a parent in detention. And this does not end after release. Simon: ‘Our research in the lab has demonstrated that families with strong connections are better equipped to cope with the negative effects of detention. The greater the involvement of the father, the smaller the chance he will fall back into criminal behaviour. Around half the men in detention have children and the impact on children and everything connected to this, is often overlooked in the justice system. Even wardens in prisons and other carers often have a limited awareness of the problems. This is why it is so important that my findings are considered in the making of effective policies. This way we can reduce the unintended and often negative consequences of a father’s detention for his children.’   

Students develop practical products

Students from Hanze UAS and the University of Groningen are closely involved in Family Approach (Gezinsbenadering). They support the research and develop tools, directly based on academic research such as Simon’s, which is immediately applicable in practice by prisons and fathers in detention. Examples of these products are a guide with tips for video calling between father and child, a workbook ‘Going home together’ that supports the reintegration process and a Fatherhood Plan to work on family targets. Every year new students start work within the IWP and new products are developed and existing ones expanded and improved. The products that have been developed over the past few years can be downloaded for free on the website Gezinsbenadering, so other prisons can use them as well.

More prisons apply the research

Simon: ‘Research has given us the opportunity to bring our story to people’s attention and to further develop our ideas. The collaboration between Veenhuizen Prison and Hanze UAS is an essential part of this. Currently three other prisons in the Netherlands are studying how to use our research fort heir own institution. Among them are Almelo Prison and the Judicial Complex Zaanstad. The prison in Leeuwarden, which was already part of the project, is now looking to further extend the programme with new applications of the programme.’

The Father’s prison wing makes fathers more positive about their role

Simon had conversations with fathers who are in the Father’s prison wing (a section of the prison which houses only fathers who are part of the programme) and fathers who are not. He saw a clear difference: ‘We see that the Father’s prison wing contributes to the involvement of the family. The fathers are more positive about their own role as a father in detention and are more nuanced and realistic about their family life. They no longer think everything will be the same when they return, for example, which at first they often do. But the fact that they see their children and talk to them gives them a whole new idea about themselves as a father. And when a father is more involved with the family, there is a reduced chance of reoffending.’ Combined with the research these insights form a crucial foundation for developing effective policies and Simon hopes his research will contribute to this. The link below leads to the special Dutch website of Family Approach in prisons.

Lees meer op Gezinsbenadering

More about Simon Venema

Simon Venema is a researcher for Verslavingszorg Noord-Nederland and is connected to the Innovation Lab Family Approach (IWP Gezinsbenadering) of the research group Verslavingskunde en Forensische Zorg of Hanze UAS. Simon Venema conducted his research as an external PhD candidate at the department of sociology at the University of Groningen, in collaboration with the Judicial Institutions Service (Dienst Justitiële Inrichtingen - DJI). Simon obtained his PhD on 29 January 2024. You will find his thesis here:

PhD thesis Simon Venema