27 March 2014

Adele Jones - children whose parents are in jail have rights too

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A common policy across Europe would provide consistency in recognising both the condition and the rights of this vulnerable group of children.

The children of prisoners are one of the largest vulnerable groups of children in Europe. They carry the stigma of their parents’ deeds. And some of them are exposed to social exclusion. In the first attempt of its kind, a EU funded project, called COPING, completed in 2012, gathered evidence from more than 1,500 children and adults in UK, Germany, Sweden and Romania. The countries represent different social and cultural traditions. They have different incarceration levels and penal policies.  And they also have different levels of support services for the affected children.

The project identified the basic needs and challenges faced by children of prisoners, independent of culture or nation. Project coordinator Adele Jones, director of the Centre for Applied Childhood Studies at the University of Huddersfield, UK, talks to youris.com about how the project team is trying to convert the relevant findings into a set of regulations, applicable at the pan-European level.

What kind of benefits has your research brought to these children?
This is one of the under researched groups. They are invisible in terms of policy at the government level, in any country. In other words, when people are imprisoned, in very few countries, are questions asked about who is caring for the children, except in some of the Scandinavian countries. Or about how hard they are impacted by the parental imprisonment.

We can see some immediate benefits of the research. Some of them are at the very local level. For instance, some NGOs in each of the four countries are using the findings of the project to introduce small changes in their programs for children. These include a tool kit to address the stigma and discrimination in schools, made by a major NGO in the UK. But the kind of change that will happen is going to take some time. A research project like this will not lead to an immediate policy change.

What steps have been taken towards achieving a set of regulations?
We have managed to convinced the United Nations that this group of children are vulnerable. Thus, they are now included in the world’s list of most vulnerable group of children. Of course, it does not change anything for any particular child. But, because the UN has taken this position, it means that we have more people to listen to us.

We also have some European parliamentarians who have said that they will address this issue within the Children’s Rights mandate, within the European Parliament. UNICEF, World Health Organisation, the European Parliament have made commitments to support these children’s needs. But not necessarily to draft legislation. There is already the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The point is that it is not implemented in respect with the children of prisoners. In addition, each country that has participated in our study has the responsibility to raise this issue and to convince its government to recognise the issue. In many countries there are no services specifically for this group of children. But I think that the first step is to recognise that they exist. Then we have more chance of creating services and programs to meet their needs.

What aspects are relevant to improving the condition of this group of children?
Some of them are about changing attitudes. Then you can improve practice. Even without more money, the conditions in prisons could be improved. But most of the requirements really do require some resources. What we would argue is that prison officers should be trained in such way that they can understand the implications of parental imprisonment on children. And be more supportive in relation to visits and contact. We do not know, because we do not have the research evidence. But our research suggests that, actually, the behaviour of prisoners would improve if the conditions of family visits are improved.

The majority of fathers really want to have a relationship with their children. And they do not want them to be exposed to some of the worst prison conditions. Sometimes the children themselves do not want to visit the parents because of the invasive body searching. Or because of the conditions of the meeting rooms. If we cause a disruption in a relationship, it is very hard for the rehabilitation of the prisoner. It is a matter of training, raising awareness, changing attitudes and values. And yes, some money is required to improve facilities for children.

In which way will a common legislation at the EU level help children to cope better?
It would mean that any country that is the member of the EU should take steps to improve things that need to be addressed. Every professional involved in the criminal justice process needs to have this question asked: “Is there a child involved?” and have an answer. Having a unified legislation or policy across Europe will actually help to get some consistency in the condition and recognition of the rights of the children.

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