Case study from: Brazil, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua & Uruguay; By Enrique Saavedra, Paula Lappado, Matilde Bango & Federico Mello

Over the past two decades, the number of people incarcerated in Latin America has skyrocketed, with more than 1.2 million prisoners overcrowding correctional facilities across the region. Accompanying this, we estimate that the number of children with an incarcerated parent in the region is currently around 1,5 to 1,9 million (see Appendix A for more details).

This marginalized and vulnerable group of young people has been neglected by, and remained virtually “invisible” to public policies, programs and civil society.

In order to assess the situation and needs of these children, and following the recommendations made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child during its Day of General Debate in 2011, CWS, with the technical leadership of Uruguayan NGO Gurises partnered with organizations in Brazil, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua to conduct the first regional study of children with incarcerated parents.

The participating organizations surveyed 193 children with an incarcerated parent (or adult referent), and 50 of these children and 46 of their caregivers or guardians were interviewed. 23 government officials and regional experts working in child protection were also surveyed. The results of this study demonstrate the profound impact that the incarceration of a parent has on the life of a child. Families face increased financial strains which force many children to work outside the home or assume adult roles in their household. Children undergo emotional changes, becoming sad, withdrawn or sick, and they face social stigmatization and discrimination in their communities. Their experience with police and the justice system typically creates a negative perception of these authorities, and these elements combine to alter the development of childrens’ self-identity, leading some to develop identities based on resistance to existing social structures. Research confirms that maintaining the child-parent relationship during the incarceration is one of the best ways to help children cope with such difficulties. However, it is difficult for families to maintain such relationships when their only face-to-face interaction is through prison visits, where children must endure unhealthy prison conditions, invasive body searches, and mistreatment from prison guards.

Government officials and experts working in the area acknowledge the vulnerability of this group of children, and provide important insight into their situation. They describe the justice and penal systems as “adult-centric,” looking at matters only from the perspective of the adults involved. In fact, no country in the region even systematically documents or registers the number of children of prisoners. Without any idea of the scope of the problem, it is nearly impossible to create policies and programs to address it. Likewise, the judicial system does not account for the best interests of related children when it decides appropriate punishment for those convicted of crimes.

While the legal rights and responsibilities of fathers and mothers are identical, some experts prioritize the issue of incarcerated mothers, particularly those whose children live with them in prison. It appears that the incarceration of a mother has a more dramatic impact on family dynamics and significantly increases vulnerability of children. Whether it is the mother or father that is convicted of a crime, the use of alternative punishments (eg. open and semi-open prisons) would lessen the negative impact on children. Likewise, improved coordination between state actors involved in the justice system and child protection would improve services and support to children of incarcerated parents.

It is clear that governments are the main responsible of protecting the rights of all children, and that they should, in coordination with civil society, begin to develop policies, programs and initiatives that support and empower children of incarcerated parents.