The Three P’s

(From: Jan C.M. Willems (ed.), Developmental and Autonomy Rights of Children: Empowering Children, Caregivers and Communities, Intersentia: Antwerp/Oxford/New York, 2002, pp. 191-207 (90-5095-224-0; read the full text here.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child has not yet become a living charter for children of imprisoned parents. The shift from prisoners’ rights to those of the child of the prisoner has not been made in most countries. On the other hand some signals are heard, for example of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). Also Great Britain gave attention to these children in its reports to monitoring bodies of human rights treaties. 1

In other countries, according to family law and/or penal law some progress is made on a national level. 2

Legislation however can only be effective if it is grounded in good practice. Especially when integration with external socio-economic structures is problematic: 3

‘(…) drafting and implementing integrated programmes between “inside and outside” becomes an arduous task. These drawbacks are also variously related to cultural differences and diversities of approach, which become a source of mutual misunderstanding and rejection unless they are faced and discussed.’

Provisions in a wide range are necessary to limit the damage for children when one or both parents committed a crime. I will give some examples, some derived from existing ‘good practice.’

Limiting the damage of separation:

  • By a contextual approach at any stage of the criminal process each time that decisions need to be taken with great implications for family life. The care for children at the time of arrest needs specific attention. A system of cohabitation should be discussed in the preliminary detention stage, since the first stage often determines the care facilities in case of continued detention. If possible, detention must be prevented at all stages. Sentences that can be served outside the prison should be preferred.
  • By taking into account the interests of care-dependent children, for example by hearing ‘a person of trust’ and if possible by hearing the children themselves if decisions have to be made that may affect their daily lives.
  • By using ‘a person of trust’ as mediator between the primary caretaker and the child(ren), especially if care-arrangements have to be made. This person could also give adequate information about facts, rules, rights and needs.
  • By creating all possible information resources for the relatives, including a web site.

The improvement of visiting facilities inside prisons:

  • By setting up child-friendly visiting areas and waiting rooms in all prisons.
  • By facilitating visits for children which enable them to see where the parent lives when possible (the cell).
  • By creating the possibility to visit a parent a very short time after the arrest.

The improvement of all communication between the child and his or her parents:

  • By providing telephone cards and all other modern means of communication, especially to overcome physical obstacles to contact between imprisoned parent in foreign countries and their children at home.
  • By covering travelling costs for the child.

Parental responsibilities:

  • By taking into account the parental responsibilities of the prisoner at the time of arrest and in any subsequent proceedings.
  • By offering a rehabilitation programme, including knowledge and skills on parental responsibilities.
  • By raising awareness and knowledge of family issues with prison staff.
  • By counseling prisoners’ partners, especially on how to inform and help children. This could be done by anonymous telephone.

In case of an imprisoned former primary caretaker:

  • By arranging frequent contacts with the parent, the child and the actual caregiver.
  • By, before release, offering the parent, the child(ren) and the actual caregiver the opportunity to spend time together with each other (triangulation).

In my view ‘participation’ is an underestimated issue, but one difficult to handle, because of the mistrust and isolation of the target group. Prisoners and their children have to be put into a real context that allows them to speak for themselves. It is a pity if research and assistance is only based on romanticising or demonising the family life of prisoners and their children. 4

In the UK study, the young people stated it would be beneficial to them to have someone available to talk to who is independent of the prison system and their family. Brown: 5

‘A number of young people said they would like to see the development of resources such as a book of stories, a web site aimed at teenagers or a young people’s forum for debate on issues concerning them about the prison system. Other ideas included: support for mums, help with holidays/excursions, development of self-help groups for young people and family rooms to be available within prisons for private time with relatives.’

Successful projects are those in which ex-detainees and their families are involved. That is also often a guarantee for the continuity of projects. The work of Hoffman in Israel is a good example. For instance, the hostel is run in co-operation with ex-detainees and the project works with student-volunteers as buddies of the children of imprisoned parents: 6

‘The main idea is that, although I am orthodox in religion, in every other thing we have to be irreligious, unorthodox, because we have to think every time if what we do is good and stands in the examination of the daily life (…).’

Also in the Report on social and family effects of detention by a Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe examples are given: ‘A vital element in APAC and in Kairos is the active involvement of inmates, their families and Christian “partners” both inside the gaol and where the families live.’ 7 The UK researchers on young people (aged 12-18 ) complained several times that adult gatekeepers, also professionals, were often concerned about the distress that might be caused to the young people if they took part in the interviews: 8

‘Adults deciding on behalf of young people, or not allowing them to decide for themselves whether to participate in a research project, is both patronising and dis-empowering for young people.’

On the other hand some mothers especially encouraged their children, or accompanied them, to take part in interviews although many found it extremely difficult to talk about how they felt. It is also important to raise awareness of the situation of children and families of prisoners in professional workers in the home environment of the children, such as teachers, social workers, sports coaches, police-officers: 9

‘Many young people mentioned that they had lost friends and family, that school teachers had acted differently towards them, as had their neighbours and communities. Police and prison officers were also mentioned in this context.’

It is also important to pay attention to the impact on teenagers of the imprisonment of a brother or a sister. Adults often don’t recognise the needs and difficulties of the siblings 10 One should not overestimate professional assistance. Lots of families have a profound distrust against government related ‘help.’ In The Netherlands, for example, the generation from the sixties and seventies especially may have been confronted in their own lives with separation of their families as a kind of ‘pedagogic policy’ under supervision of the Board of Child Protection. It will not be easy to find ‘support persons’ for children of imprisoned parents, but the work with volunteers in the home environment (as in France, Israel and The Netherlands) has given hopeful results. 11


  1. CCPR/C/95.Add. 3; CRDU/94, 39. ‘Lack of money for visits, distress experienced during visits, the frequency and unsatisfactory nature of contact all add up to a picture of a very clear failure to acknowledge the rights of children whose parents are imprisoned. The current arrangements fail to take account of children’s best interests (Article 3), of children’s rights to maintain contact with both parents (Article 9) and of their right not to be discriminated against because of the status of a parent (Article 2),’ in: E. LLOYD, Prisoner’s Children; Policy and Practice, Save the Children, London, 1995, 13.
  2. European Action Research Committee, o.c.
  3. BIONDI, o.c., 37.
  4.  T. PÖSÖ, ‘Family relations of women in detention,’ in: Proceedings of the International Seminar on Women in Detention; Perspectives for hange, Noordwijk, 1992, 104-108; S. BARNHILL, ‘AIM: Aid to children of imprisoned mothers,’ Family and Corrections Network Report, Issue 27, Special on the Jerusalem 2000 Seminar: Rehabilitation of Female Offenders: Mothers with their Children, 8-9.
  5. BROWN, o.c., 52.
  6.  AVRAHAM HOFFMAN (Prison Rehabilitation Authority) at the Jerusalem 2000 Conference, in: Family Corrections Network Report, Issue 27, 3.
  7.  Report Social and Family Effects of Detention, 8.
  8. BROWN, o.c., 16.
  9.  BROWN, o.c., 71.
  10. BROWN, o.c., 72
  11.  E. AYRE, They won’t take no for an answer: The Relais Enfants-Parents, Early Childhood Development: Practice and Reflections, Number 11, Bernard van Leer Foundation, The Hague, 1996; VAN NIJNATTEN, o.c., 136-141.

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