By Church World Service
This study places itself at a rarely-examined crossroads: drug policy, incarceration and the rights of children and youth. Its focus is the specific toll that having a parent in prison for a minor, nonviolent drug offense has on children and youth. The research is both qualitative and quantitative and comes from across Latin America and the Caribbean. The research for this study was conducted in eight countries: Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Uruguay and Panama. Each study involved relevant experts on drug policy, the penal system and policies directed towards children. Some of the questions that guide this study are: How does drug policy affect children and youth when their guardians are in prison? What do children think of drug crimes and the authorities’ response to them? What are these children’s feelings, worries and experiences? In what way are international policies and agreements taken into account when designing, applying and monitoring public policies specifically oriented toward children and youth? In what way should public policies regarding children, drugs and incarceration inform and transform each other in order to ensure the most important factor, the child's ultimate wellbeing?
Through the voices of 70 girls and boys with incarcerated parents, as well as those of their caretakers, we offer answers to these questions. We also offer tools that may be useful for organizations working with children, attempting to influence drug policy in the region and creating or implementing public policies related to the rights of children, incarceration and drug legislation.
The predecessor of this report was the study Invisible No More: Children of Incarcerated Parents in Latin America and the Caribbean. Case Study: Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Uruguay. As the title indicates, Invisible No More was an exploratory study on the impact that a parent or relative’s incarceration has on children and youth. It also reached a preliminary estimate of how many Children of Incarcerated Parents, or COIP, exist in Latin America and the Caribbean. It found the number at that moment to be between 1,500,651 and 1,868,214.
This study updates the estimate and finds that between 1,710,980 and 2,307,048 children in the 25 countries in the region have at least one parent in prison. Of these children, between 359,305 and 484,480 have parents incarcerated specifically for drug crimes — a trend that, without profound and timely changes, will continue to increase.
In general terms, drug laws in the eight countries in this study share certain traits: the application of mandatory minimum sentences, the disproportionate use of criminal law and a preference for incarceration over other alternatives. There is also a tendency toward increased sentencing and, as a result, increased levels of incarceration.
This study summarizes and compares the information contained in the eight country reports. In each of these, we analyzed policies on children’s rights and how these link to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Despite any legislative progress, the problems identified in the region relate to the implementation of current provisions related to children. As well, we identified a lack of coordination between the agencies responsible for safeguarding children's rights. Another important problem is the inadequacy of quantitative data. There is a dearth of public information related to the numbers of children with incarcerated parents in all these countries.
The COIP testimonies are the heart of this study. These are organized into several key topics:
a) Violence. COIP are surrounded by multiple forms of violence. In general terms, children and youth report that arrests and raids are profoundly violent experiences. They witness their spaces and possessions being destroyed and their mothers or fathers manhandled. Sometimes they themselves may be victims of beatings and threats. In addition to this violence from authorities, the children can experience violence in their neighborhoods stemming from rival criminal groups jostling for control of the drug market.
b) Impacts of incarceration on the daily lives of children and youth. In regard to the roles and arrangements of caring for children, the detention of a guardian impacts the whole family. It affects the incarcerated person, his or her children and the people (usually women) who will now care for the children. The prison sentence is, ultimately, a sentence that transcends families. Both in cases where detention comes as a surprise, and in those where crimes and incarceration are routine experiences, COIP report feeling a certain hopelessness and resignation. They are faced with something out of their control but that they must helplessly suffer the impacts of.
c) Stigma versus support. A child’s feelings of loss, abandonment, sadness and rebellion can either be amplified by stigma or mitigated by support from his or her family, community and/or school.
e) Prison visits and security searches. Children often have mixed feelings about prison visits. On the one hand, if the COIP has a good relationship with his or her imprisoned parent, the child will want to see and spend time with him or her. On the other hand, the time and costs that the visit entails, as well as the treatment of visitors — especially during examinations — discourages them from wanting to visit.
e) Perception of drug-related crimes. Children and youth perceive drug crimes as a way to face poverty in a context of social exclusion. There is also criticism; selling drugs is seen as an activity that damages others and negatively affects the sons and daughters of the sellers. COIP also mention the normalization of this activity in certain places, and how it can increase a person's status within the neighborhood. They express ambivalent feelings, just as they do in most other categories of this analysis, that combine affection with anger for what their parents have done.
f) Perception of state authorities. In regard to the authorities, the COIP mostly refer to the police and to raids. They perceive the police as a source of violence and corruption, where police officers detain only the minor players in the drug trade or even "plant" drugs to frame their victims, while drug trafficking leaders can act with impunity through corruption.