The impact of incarceration on the child-parent relationship: European Recommendations

How can a parent in prison be responsible for their child? What are some of the parenting difficulties that can occur when a child is separated from their parent in prison? How can families broach the subject of parental imprisonment with children?

These, among others, were some of the questions addressed by the varied panel of experts present at the conference hosted by the Fédération Internationale des Relais Enfants Parents on 30 November at UNESCO in Paris.

This conference was organised to consider the impact of incarceration on the child-parent relationship, through an exploration of a selection of articles from the recent Council of Europe Recommendation CM/Rec 2018(5), and a review of initiatives across Europe working to improve awareness on the need to support the child-parent relationship while a parent is in prison.

The conference was moderated by Alain Bouregba, psychologist, psychoanalyst and President of the Fédération Internationale des Relais Enfants Parents. Mr. Bouregba spoke of the importance of ensuring that children with parents in prison are not stigmatised, and to keep in mind that they are children like all other children, merely living and having to contend with unusual circumstances. When speaking of parents in prison, Mr. Bouregba reminded us that there is often humiliation in prison, which has an effect on the parent, and can impinge upon their sense of self and responsibility. There is little affection in prison, and without the ability to be responsible for oneself, parents have difficulty being responsible for their child. To emphasise the above, the film produced by COPE Papa Plus: Supporting the bond between children and imprisoned dads was screened. This film provides a lens for understanding the challenges faced by parents in prison. Solutions need to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Bernard Gastaud, member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, highlighted article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which States Parties shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests. Sentencers need to take the child’s opinion into account when sentencing parents, and consider the impact of their decision on the child’s life. Mr. Gastaud also highlighted the possibility of infants living in prison with their parent as a potential option to protect the child-parent relationship. This can be considered as the best option for infants and young children, though it is important to highlight the difficulty of separation once the child reaches the age where they must leave the prison.

Child participation was discussed by Margaret Tuite, former Child Rights coordinator at the European Commission, as a means of combatting the isolation, loneliness and exclusion that children with parents in prison can experience. Ms. Tuite mentioned that children need to understand the content of the Recommendation and that the fact of parental incarceration should not define children or their future. If children are able to understand the Recommendation, they will be more aware of their rights, know they are not alone and have more agency.

Ms. Tuite also spoke about the importance of listening to children with parents in prison, and involving them in decisions that affect them. She highlighted the need for better data and feedback from people working in prison. In many countries the number of people in prison with children is unknown, meaning that the question of children with parents in prison becomes one of ‘no data, no problem’. Ms. Tuite discussed the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study that took place twenty years ago – this study identified incarceration of a parent as one of 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that can have a lifelong impact on a person. Imprisonment of a parent is often hidden and unacknowledged by the community and it has been found that being ‘ACE aware’ can help support workers and adults in general to heal trauma in children. Experts in the field of ACEs are focusing on improving care. There is strong evidence to support having one strong, compassionate, caring adult in the life of the child. The presence of a caring adult is a protective factor, a means of resilience.

Nathalie Boissou from the Council for Penological Co-operation at the Council of Europe presented Council of Europe Recommendation CM/Rec 2018(5), including the context and reasons for this publication. For the Council of Europe, child protection is at the centre of their focus – the aim is to eradicate all violence against children. Previous measures in place were cited as being insufficient and the need for changes made in favour of children who live in prison with their parent was emphasised, to ensure that their living conditions are similar to those of children living outside of prison. Ms. Boissou spoke of the added value of the text published in April, saying that this recommendation highlights the child-parent relationship as a right that children are entitled to, rather than a tool to prevent recidivism. Ms. Boissou discussed the importance of civil society’s role in supporting and advocating for children who have parents in prison. The implementation of Recommendation CM/Rec 2018(5) is a win-win for those impacted by the imprisonment of a family member – the child, the parent and society as a whole.

Romain Peray, from the French Prison Service, gave examples of initiatives that are being put into place in response to the publication of the Recommendation, actions that consider how to best support parents in prison. Mr. Peray mentioned the initiative of presenting parents in prison with their children’s report cards to keep them updated with their child’s progress, and organising regular phone calls. There is a plan to move towards having a phone in each prison cell, allowing for more frequent and spontaneous contact with families. The work of the Prison Service is supported by all of the work that is done by different volunteers and partnerships.

A selection of articles from the COE Recommendation were discussed in the latter part of the day, with Viviane Schekter (Director of REPR in Switzerland, Vice-President of COPE) discussing the 2018 COPE campaign and working with children to rewrite the Recommendation into child-friendly language. Ms. Schekter explored article 29 of the Recommendation, which focuses on the importance of children being able to see the inside of prison, to have a better understanding of the day-to-day life of their parent in prison. She spoke about the parent-support programme that has recently been put into place in partnership with Swedish NGO Bufff, where parents are supported in explaining prison to their children, and in thinking about what it means to be a parent.

Lia Sacerdote (President of Bambinisenzasbarre in Italy) referred to her experience in Italy and discussed article 7 of the Recommendation, which suggests that a training programme covering policies, practices and procedures related to children with parents in prison should be available to all staff members in contact with children and their parents in prison. Ms. Sacerdote spoke about a training programme in Italy that takes place in prisons, where Bambinisenzasbarre explains why it is so important to maintain the child-parent relationship, and what prison staff can do to make prison more welcoming for children. Ms. Sacerdote highlighted that it is up to NGOs and civil society, those that are experts in the subject, to create tools that will be useful in supporting the child-parent relationship, to keep moving forward.

Charlotte Fossoul and Andrea Manca from the Relais Enfants Parents Belgium spoke about article 20 of the Recommendation, which emphasises the need for child-friendly spaces in prisons, where children feel safe, welcome and respected. Ms. Fossoul and Mr. Manca discussed the ‘tri-lieux’ spaces that have been implemented in prisons in Belgium. The idea behind this initiative is to improve the prison environment and contribute to a quality visit when children come to see their parent in prison. The three different spaces include a sensory-motor space, a relaxation space and a creative space. Each of these spaces has been designed with the interests of different children in mind, allowing them the opportunity to engage with the activities that speak to them.

Over 250 attendees were present at the conference, and the full schedule allowed for a thorough exploration of the significance of Recommendation CM/Rec 2018(5), and initiatives that contribute to implementing this publication. The Recommendation is a crucial document in advocating for the rights of children who have a parent in prison, on a national, European and international scale. Alain Bouregba closed the conference by emphasising that it is important to remember that every person is an enigma, and even though we may be sitting across from someone, we cannot know everything about them and their experience. This should be kept in mind by all of us working with children and families affected by parental imprisonment, to ensure that we really listen to the child: what they are saying to us, as well as their silences.

Author: Children of Prisoners Europe