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‘Lost’ children of inmates

Who are the children of prisoners and what policies are in place to guarantee the rights of this vulnerable group? Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Who are the children of prisoners and what policies are in place to guarantee the rights of this vulnerable group? Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Statistics on the whereabouts and well-being of each child of a prisoner are urgently required to draw up a policy for this “vulnerable group”, according to an expert in children’s rights.

It is highly probable, but unverifiable, that a large number of children are affected by parental imprisonment in Malta

Until their identification and monitoring becomes standard practice, it is unlikely they will benefit from a policy addressing their needs, says lawyer Ruth Farrugia, senior lecturer in the University’s Faculty of Laws.

In her paper, The Rights of the Child Whose Parents are in Prison, which was published in the Children’s Legal Rights Journal, Dr Farrugia puts the onus on the State to ensure that the child’s right to well-being is protected and to offer appropriate support.

The lack of knowledge of the number of these children and their individual situations is a matter for concern as policy formulation is dependent on a clear picture, she argues.

“It is highly probable, but unverifiable, that a large number of children are affected by parental imprisonment in Malta.”

Calling for regular and official data on this group, she says that once it is readily available, the State would be legally responsible for responding to each individual’s needs.

“It is bound to respect the right of the children to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents, unless it is contrary to their best interests.”

Parental obligation does not diminish through the imprisonment of one of the parents and they have to continue responding to the rights of children listed at law, she argues. Where parental authority is unable and unwilling to ensure the child’s human rights, it is the State’s responsibility to do so.

“The State has to ascertain parenthood at every stage, where detention is possible.

£Once it is established that the person charged, or sentenced, is a parent, the next step would be to establish the impact detention would have on the children,” she says in her paper.

However, she adds, the State cannot work in a vacuum and requires “reliable and current information to plan accordingly and make appropriate policy”. Apart from the dearth of statistics, Dr Farrugia also points to “reluctance” in the face of the need for data collection, saying key personnel shy away from the responsibility of creating another group of children requiring monitoring and care – something not surprising given the pressure on welfare structures.

The imprisonment of anyone has an effect on individuals other than the person being punished, and particularly in the case of children, Dr Farrugia highlights.

“Sentencing a person to prison invariably has a profound, immediate impact on the child, including the possibility of multiple changes in caregivers and addresses, loss of parental support, income and stability.”

Society has come a long way from the notion of “the sins of the father”, and research has also clarified that children with an imprisoned parent constitute a highly vulnerable group, Dr Farrugia points out.

Studies also suggest that a child-focused approach may contribute towards breaking the cycle of inter-generational imprisonment.

Dr Farrugia also argues that due deliberation has to be given to the impact of a parent’s imprisonment on the child before the decision is made.

Economic, psychological, educational, health and logistical support for these children could be a requisite, though not necessarily, she says, adding that the possibility should be explored anyway and plans put into place at the earliest stage.

Dr Farrugia suggests a State agency should be identified to be responsible for this work, with court monitoring to ensure its delivery.

Facts and figures

• In the EU, it is estimated that 800,000 children are separated from their imprisoned parent every year.

• Approximately 50 per cent are younger than 10 and a third will become adults while their parents are still in prison.

• Precise numbers in Malta are difficult to estimate, although Mid-Dlam għad-Dawl’s survey on the 78 prisoners with children revealed a parentage of at least 122, while as yet unpublished research listed 14.1 per cent of children in the care system as having a parent in prison.

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