27 March 2014

How can we better care for the children of offenders?

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The unprecedented number of children across Europe separated from an incarcerated parent could serve as the basis for a new aid policy. Yet, making it happen at the EU level is going to take time.

It is estimated that 800,000 children throughout the European Union have an imprisoned parent. The real number is not known, because in no country do prisons systematically record data about the children of offenders. Yet, such children are exposed to financial hardships, stigma and secrecy, impacting their social life. But, now, thanks to an EU funded project, called COPING, completed in 2012, the psychological repercussions of this child-parent separation are better known.

The project studied the mental health needs and resilience of this social group in four countries: UK, Germany, Sweden and Romania. “Changing attitudes of policemen during the arrest and of judges during the judicial proceeding is the first step to improve the plight of these children,” Adele Jones, director of the Centre for Applied Childhood Studies, at the University of Huddersfield in the UK, tells youris.com. Based on the project’s research, all NGOs involved developed services in the four countries. But changing EU policy is likely to take some time, according to Jones who is also the project coordinator.

Incarceration of parents causes severe problems for their children. “The children not only have integration and communication setbacks, but also mental health problems,” says Cristina Gavriluţã, from the University Alexandru Ioan Cuza, one of the project’s partners in Iaşi, Romania. The United Nations included this group in the world’s list of the most vulnerable group of children.

Many things could be done to rectify this vulnerability. ”Even without more money, the conditions in prisons could be improved, but most of the requirements really do require some resources,” explains Jones. The money would be used to improve the conditions of meeting rooms or to create additional spaces in jails, where families could spend time together.

New rules to include child oriented behaviour of policemen and prison staff are needed. “Prison officers should be trained in such a way that they can understand the implications of parental imprisonment on children and be more supportive in relation to visits and contact,” Jones tells youris.com. In addition, judges should ensure that the children’s needs are taken into account, when sentencing offenders.

But political change is also needed. Representatives of the European Parliament have made commitments to support these children’s needs, but not yet through new legislation. “There already is the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The point is that it is not implemented in respect of the children of prisoners,” Jones tells youris.com. Now, the partner organisations are disseminating research findings and are raising awareness at the EU level, in a hope to prompt some regulatory changes, which would better protect these children.

However, some believe that a European initiative would only have “a big symbolic value” and doubt the initiative would lead to substantial changes. “I think the EU can rather help if it could encourage and support the member states with model projects to try out and hopefully implement in their own way family-sensitive enforcement,” comments Klaus Roggenthin, manager of the Federal Working Group for Offenders (BAG-S), in Bonn, Germany, a delinquent-focussed NGO.

Another expert resonates the lack of concern by magistrates of their sentences on offender’s children and their families. “They deem, these are not their issues, but the State’s.” explains Ioan Durnescu professor of Sociology at the University of Bucharest, Romania.

But there is belief that the EU can play an important role, even if there are some obstacles to overpass. “It will be a long and difficult process of negotiation and consensus building in criminal matters among the member states” Durnescu tells youris.com.

Others believe that lack of awareness about their high number is why these children’s needs have not been included in strategic planning by professional agencies. There is need of “a national requirement that the number of children is accurately recorded, their needs assessment made and services offered when appropriate”, Tim Carter, of the children’s charity Barnardo's in UK tells youris.com. He sees future EU common regulations on this topic as being possible.

Image credits to: Richard Heaven

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