COPE began a series of meetings in Portugal in early December 2015, aimed at further developing the COPE network and gathering information on the situation of children with imprisoned parents. Over the course of three days, COPE met with national bodies, such as the Provedor de Justiça, as well as with academics, researchers and social workers. COPE also met with UNICEF to gain better insight into the general child rights situation in Portugal.
Like most European Union countries, Portugal does not systematically collect data on children of prisoners, which can make it difficult to ascertain the scope of problems facing them. Those children who are affected by parental imprisonment in Portugal find little in the way of systematic or organised help. Dr. Raquel Matos, of the Universidade Catolica Porto, and Dr. Rui Abrunhosa, of the Universidade Minho, Braga, bemoaned the lack of widespread schemes to assist children in visiting their parents in prison or specialised visiting areas for families and children. For the most part, visiting rooms are plain and sterile, and children are subject to similar screening and visiting procedures as those for adults. Despite generally good relations between staff and prisoners, there is often confusion surrounding the right to visitation and how to organise visits.
Sofia Freitas, a social worker based primarily in a disadvantaged area of Lisbon, echoed these conclusions. Freitas often works with children of prisoners in state care and supports these children during their time with their parents when the latter are on leave. She has observed, however, that the system often overlooks children who are not in care, offering them no support to visit their parents in prison, leaving them to fend for themselves, exposing them to long, difficult journeys and prohibitive costs, which were cited consistently throughout the three-day mission as deterrents to family contact.
Children in Portugal can live with their mothers in two of the three women’s prisons in Portugal, generally only until the age of three (officially until the age of five). The “Casa das Mães” (Mothers’ House) at Tires prison in Lisbon allows ten to fifteen mothers to live in specialist accommodation with their young children within the prison grounds. On leaving the Casa das Mães, children without alternative care arrangements can move to the Casa da Criança (Children’s House), which is just outside Tires prison; this is not, however, a dedicated care facility for children of prisoners and it houses other children in state care.
Despite the absence of organisations dedicated to working exclusively with children of prisoners in Portugal, some organisations do work either indirectly or on a limited scale with children whose parents are in conflict with the law. COPE met with Antonio Dores and Ricardo Loureiro of ACED (Association Against Exclusion for Development), who are currently beginning to explore the issues facing children of prisoners in Portugal, and COPE welcomed the chance to discuss the difficulties facing children and the possibilities for future development and action.
The Provedor de Justiça was also open to future engagement on the issue of children of prisoners. The Ombudsman has previously investigated issues facing children of prisoners but is not currently working on any projects expressly related to them. Miguel Coelho of the Right to Justice and Security department and João Portugal of the Rights, Liberties and Guarantees department, encouraged COPE to submit a complaint to the Ombudsman regarding the status of children of prisoners in Portugal which could then provide a platform for further, formal discussion and investigation.
As such, there is considerable scope in the future for further advocacy and development work in Portugal. Despite a context of often limited budget resources and little nationwide attention for the issue of children of prisoners, COPE’s meetings with both state and third sector organisations opened the way for further communication. COPE particularly welcomes the recommendation from the Provedor de Justiça that the network make submissions to the Ombudsman’s office.