Children are heavily impacted by parental imprisonment and greater attention should be given to their rights, needs and welfare in criminal justice policy and practice. Due to a variety of reasons such as mothers often being the primary or sole carer of children, complicated care arrangements, the likelihood of women prisoners being greater distances from home and a host of factors explored in detail in other QUNO publications, maternal imprisonment can be more damaging for children than paternal imprisonment. However, it is important not to underestimate the damage that paternal imprisonment can have on children.
Children with incarcerated fathers experience many of the same problems as those with incarcerated mothers, including coping with loss, environmental disruption, poverty, stigmatisation, health problems and all of the difficulties involved in visiting a parent in prison. It appears that there are also some difficulties specifically associated with paternal imprisonment, such as a higher risk of juvenile delinquency and strained relationships between the mother and child.
The numbers of children separated from their fathers due to imprisonment is far higher than those separated from their mothers due to the vast majority of prisoners being men (globally over 90 per cent of prisoners are male. To ignore this group would, therefore, be to neglect the vast majority of children affected by parental imprisonment.
Large research gaps exist regarding the needs of children of incarcerated fathers. Not only are statistics on the numbers of children affected by paternal imprisonment lacking, but also information on how to maintain a healthy relationship with incarcerated fathers, positive parenting by men in prisons and how to deliver and evaluate family strengthening and child support programmes aimed at this group.
One reason that the children of imprisoned fathers have been neglected in research, policy and support programmes is quite simply that they are easier to overlook. It is harder to ignore the parenting responsibilities of a pregnant woman or a woman with visible care-giving responsibilities.
Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of prisoners are male and that, certainly in some jurisdictions, most of these men are fathers with parenting responsibilities, the children of these men tend to have been "out of sight and out of mind of community organisations", practitioners and policy provisions. The meagre support that does exist for children of imprisoned parents has focused almost exclusively on female prisoners. This is legitimate but should not overshadow the contributions, both real and potential, of incarcerated fathers in their children’s lives.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasises the need to protect children from any discrimination or punishment based on their parents’ status or activities and that the child’s best interests should be a primary consideration. It also highlights a child’s right to maintain contact with a separated parent. It is important that provisions are made to care for the children of all imprisoned parents, and that work is done to protect a child’s right to contact with imprisoned fathers as well as with imprisoned mothers as long as this is in the child’s best interest.
This paper attempts to bring together available information on paternal imprisonment in order to identify the issues, raise awareness, promote further research and encourage changes in policy and practice. This should be done in ways that complement the necessary work of supporting women in prison and children of imprisoned mothers. The aim is to ensure that children are a central concern in all cases of parental imprisonment and that gender specific concerns are fully understood in order to enable effective policy creation and the promotion and protection of the best interests of the child.
Source: Child Rights Information Network