Children of Incarcerated Parents
Children of Incarcerated Parents’ was the topic for the 2015 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Day of General Discussion (DGD), held in Geneva on Friday 31st September of that year. This was the first time that any part of the UN system had looked in detail at the issue of children affected by parental involvement in the criminal justice system, and it attracted unprecedented interest and engagement. This was the first time that any part of the UN system had looked in detail at the issue of children affected by parental involvement in the criminal justice system, and it attracted unprecedented interest and engagement.
Fifty-one written submissions from thirty-nine sources were made, while over 200 people took part in the discussion on the Day itself. An exhibition of children’s experiences and good practice (also named ‘Collateral Convicts’) accompanied the DGD, while workshops took place before and after the Day to explore the issues in more depth. This paper draws on all these sources, plus other important and relevant resources.
Unfortunately, children of incarcerated parents are too easily ignored in the criminal justice system, which deals with identifying and responding to individual guilt or innocence. Children interacting with the criminal justice system (for example when visiting incarcerated parents) are ‘reduced to a security risk assessment, [while] within the broader community they are silent and silenced’. Only rarely do ministries responsible for children see them as a group of children exposed to particular challenges, meaning children of incarcerated parents often fall into the gaps between government agencies.
Children of incarcerated parents exist in developing and developed countries all around the world, with certain experiences and features common to many such children. For many, the removal and detention of a parent is a negative experience, with implications for their future wellbeing.
The risks associated with parental incarceration have been categorized into five main areas:
1. Risk of deprivation of basic necessities and opportunities
2. Risk of danger of secondary victimization and depersonalization
3. Risk of deterioration of overall situation of a child
4. Risk of distance from incarcerated parent
5. Risk of descent into antisocial behaviour
More specifically, children may experience impacts including:
- physical and mental health impacts related to separation and other aspects of parental incarceration;
- a risk of relationship breakdown;
- the possibility of having to move house or be taken into care;
- financial difficulties;
- problems at school (educational and behavioral); increased vulnerability to neglect, abuse and victimization;
- and difficulties in visiting;
In the UK, these children suffer from serious mental health problems at three times the rate of their peers. ‘Finally it increases the risk of a child’s own prospects, as they fear or distrust authority, fail to receive the help they need, live in impoverished and unstable circumstances, and begin to accept prison as “normal” – or as the only place they can be with their mum or dad.
Guiding principle: Statistics about children of incarcerated parents should be routinely and consistently gathered, to help develop policy and practice.