When parents go to prison, their children often suffer.
That is one of the main conclusions of In the Best Interests of The Child – Strategies for Recognizing and Supporting Canada’s At-Risk Population of Children with Incarcerated Parents, a study conducted by faculty in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and School of Social Work, in collaboration with the Centre for Safe Schools and Communities at the University of the Fraser Valley. The study examines policies and practices that address the needs of children with incarcerated parents, who were found to be an invisible and vulnerable group.
The majority of men and women in Canada’s jails and prisons have children, many of whom are dependants. When a parent is incarcerated the whole family is often negatively affected from the moment of the parent’s arrest, through their incarceration, and even following their release and reintegration back into the community, the study found.
During this cycle, children often face disruption, stigmatization, and shame through no fault of their own, placing them at risk for developing emotional, physiological, and behavioural problems, including the prospect of inter-generational criminality, the study notes. Despite these risks, Canadian policies do not recognize the vulnerability of these children. Very little data and research is available to guide the development of targeted and culturally responsive programs and services to better support these children and build their resilience.
“When people are sentenced to custody, there is no protocol for considering whether they have dependent children and what effect the parent’s sentence will have on the child. Yet, it is important to consider the best interests of a child because maintaining family relationships can be an extremely important factor in reducing parents’ chances of reoffending, as well as preventing a child’s future anti-social behaviour,” observes UFV criminology professor Amanda McCormick, the lead author of the report.
In fact, children of incarcerated parents often show up in the child welfare system. When they do, the fact that one of their parents is incarcerated may not necessarily be disclosed because of the fear of social stigma associated with this form of parental separation. Educators — who typically play an important support role when children experience life challenges such as parental divorce or separation — are usually unaware of the ‘criminal’ status of a child’s parent and are therefore unable to offer appropriate supports. As well, geographical distance, strict prison visitation policies, the high costs of prison visitation and communications, among other barriers, can make it difficult for incarcerated parents to maintain a meaningful relationship with their children who remain on the ‘outside’.
The Centre for Safe Schools and Communities, led by Annette Vogt, held a one-day expert working group session to discuss the report findings with national and provincial practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers. The meeting revealed that practitioners are well aware that the needs of these children and the challenges they face.
“Ideally, supportive programs and services should activate immediately upon the arrest and remand of a parent, and should continue into post-release,” McCormick says. “Canada should follow other countries in shifting to a more child-friendly criminal justice system, one which considers the effects of parental incarceration on a child and utilizes alternatives to incarceration whenever possible.”
The study concludes that more support is needed for these children who find themselves in such vulnerable situations. However, improving responses to these situations will require more information about their specific needs, the development of specific programs and interventions, training for support providers, and improvements to inter-agency information exchange and collaboration. The authors also note that Canada may be falling short of its international legal obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in particular the obligation to ensure that the best interests of the child are considered in all decisions that affect a child. In this regard, the study recommends the creation of a national commissioner or advocate for children’s rights, with a mandate similar to those found in the UK and Australia, who can advocate on behalf of vulnerable groups of Canadian children.
In the meantime, further work is occurring. To better support the best interests and distinct needs of children with incarcerated parents, UFV faculty members Hayli Millar and Yvon Dandurand are developing a criminal justice decision-making series exploring international legal standards and promising state practices on how the ‘best interests of the child’ are considered in relation to adult criminal justice decision-making from the point of parental arrest through to release and reintegration. The Centre for Safe Schools and Communities is also convening an interested group in the Fraser Valley to establish strategic partnerships between schools, provincial government agencies, NGO’s, and the university to under the specific needs and ways to support these children and families.
Funding for the research study was provided by the Fraser Valley Family and Children Development Fund. The primary researchers were UFV faculty members Amanda McCormick and Hayli Millar from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and Glen Paddock from the School of Social Work. Criminology student Nikki Dionne provided research support. Annette Vogt of the Centre for Safe Schools and Communities managed the research project. The full report can be found here.