DAY OF GENERAL DISCUSSION 2011: Children of Incarcerated Parents

[GENEVA, 30 September 2011] - The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child 2011 Day of General Discussion (DGD) is under way in Geneva.  More than 200 participants are attending the DGD, making it the biggest to date. 
This year’s discussion is dedicated to the theme of ‘Children of Incarcerated Parents’.  

The event, opened by Jean Zermatten, Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, aims to remind governments of their obligations to protect and promote the rights of these children as outlined in Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  

First to take the floor in the morning session was Mr. Abdullah Khoso, National Programme Manager on Juvenile Justice at the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC). Mr Khoso outlined the conditions faced by children with mothers in prison in Pakistan - which are also applicable to a wider context - including overcrowding, health issues such as scabies, poor diet, and the lack of a natural setting and play space. Children up to six years old are kept with their mothers in prison in Pakistan although there are reports of some children aged 10 who continue to be detained with their mothers.

Many children in this situation are abandoned by their father when their mother is imprisoned and no one comes to visit these children, he explained. Children who do not stay with their mothers in prison need alternative care, but there is no such system for these children so they have to stay far from the prison and can not see their mothers frequently, Mr Khoso added. 

Mr Khoso set out some recommendations to fulfil the rights of children of incarcerated parents, including: to establish a legal framework to lay down a procedure for the protection and wellbeing of children; make more use of alternatives to detention; employ more female probation officers; allocate funds for free legal aid to women in this situation; provide resources and a suitable environment into which children can return to the community; prevent stigma and discrimination; and make arrangements for children who need alternative care, ensuring that they meet minimum standards and that facilities are near the prison. The situation of children who are detained in other countries must also be considered, he added. 

Director of the Centre for Child Rights in South Africa, Ann Skelton focused on how to minimise the incarceration of parents, questioning whether this is really necessary. She highlighted the competing rights of the best interests of the child versus the community’s right to be protected from crime, asserting that the best interests of the child should always be paramount, unless the risk to the community is very grave.

Children should not be 'umbilically destined to sink or swim' with parent

Ms Skelton highlighted that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is not specific on this issue which is included only as a general provision within the right to alternative care. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child on the other hand has a clause specifically dedicated to children of incarcerated parents (article 30). She cited two cases brought before the South African Constitutional Court (S vs M and MS v S) - in which the Centre for Child Law acted as amicus curiae - and in which the judge determined that children should not be considered as an extension of their parent in cases where the parent is incarcerated, as the child is not “umbilically destined to sink or swim with them.”  Finally, Ms. Skelton highlighted that when considering the issue of children with an incarcerated parent, the gender of the parent should not be a primary concern, but rather whether the parent is the primary care giver.

Head of the Social Psychiatry Division at the Federal University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Isabel Altenfelder Santos Bordin presented the findings of her study on prison inmates, drawing distinctions between the internal and external signs or manifestations of the effects on children of having an parent in prison.  

Finally, two youth representatives from the United Kingdom:  Sian, 13, and Raheel, 17, from the COPING Project - both of whom have a parent in prison - shared some of the questions that pass through the minds of children in their situation. Why don’t prison staff treat us like human beings? Why don’t we have any privacy? Why aren’t there support groups for children going through similar things? Why don’t prison staff speak to families and get to know them?

 They concluded by offering some advice to other children who find themselves in similar circumstances – the three Is. Isolation: do not feel left out, as others are in the same situation; Information – seek out available information relevant to your circumstances; and lastly, Inspiration – use your own experience to inspire positive change, perhaps through an NGO.

The meeting then split into two working groups: working group 1 to discuss babies and children living with or visiting a parent in prison, and working group 2 to discuss children left ‘outside’ when their parent is incarcerated.



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