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Children with parents in jail are also victims of crime, whose needs and interests have so far received very little attention from the justice system.
One of the announced motivations behind many of the changes in criminal justice in the last decade or so in Canada has been to help victims of crime. Whether victims are actually helped by harsher sentences is doubtful, but victims do deserve concern. Victims of crime can suffer a wide variety of harms, from physical injury to psychological stress to lost time from work, to ongoing health and other costs ; their families and friends can also suffer serious negative consequences.
In the concern for victims, though, one group is rarely mentioned – the families of those who commit crimes. They, too, can suffer negative repercussions very similar to those of other victims. Children are particularly vulnerable to suffering in this way from actions for which they bear no responsibility, and surely that is the definition of a victim.
The challenges of separation from jailed parents
A recent article in Policy Options addressed this issue. The author, Sophie de Saussure, says that although nobody knows the exact numbers, given more than 35,000 Canadian adults in jail at any given time, there must be tens of thousands of children who have a parent in jail either on remand or as the result of a criminal sentence. A 2007 report by the Correctional Service estimated more than 350,000 children in Canada, or nearly 5% of all children, were affected. Some of these parents may only be in jail for a short time – though others will be there for many years – but the damage of separation, especially for a young child, can be very great even from a short separation, as we have recently seen with children in the US separated from their parents at the border.
Prisons are also very unfriendly places in terms of helping parents maintain connections with their children. Canadian prisons often make it difficult or impossible for mothers of newborns or very young children to keep their babies with them in jail. Visiting can be very difficult due to factors such as limited visiting hours, frequent cancellations of visits due to lockdowns, the enormous emphasis on security over family connections – which results, as one example, in many provincial jails having all visits happen behind glass, distance of jails from where the family may live, and poor transportation. Many jailed fathers have spoken about how hard it is to stay connected to their children under these circumstances.
Harm to children is serious
How serious is the harm to children? In 2009 the Campbell Collaboration conducted a review of all the research on this issue . This review covered 16 studies, conducted in a number of different countries, all of which compared children of imprisoned parents to other similar children. Outcomes for children included a variety of potential problems such as poor progress, dropping out of school, involvement in delinquent behaviour, and depression which they grouped as ‘antisocial behavior’ and ‘poor mental health’.
To simplify the conclusions of a sophisticated and complex review, the researchers found that “Children of prisoners have about twice the risk of antisocial behaviour and poor mental health outcomes compared to children without imprisoned parents. All except one of the studies suggested that parental imprisonment might cause an increase in these outcomes for children…”. The full review goes into much more detail in terms of the issues they considered and the variation in results across the various studies.
Canadian system does not consider welfare of children
Despite this evidence, de Saussure writes, children of jailed parents ‘are invisible in Canada, both on the political stage and in the media. Worse still, they are also neglected by social policy. Currently, no public policy provides targeted support for these children, who are particularly vulnerable.’ And the same is true of the criminal justice system. In civil law, the interests of the child must be considered in cases such as divorce or child welfare, but in criminal law there is no requirement, and indeed little precedent, for a judge to give any attention to children when a parent is sentenced, even though the UN has recommended that alternatives to jail be used in cases where young children are involved.
Victims of crime and their families have the right to make victim impact statements to the court prior to sentencing; no such right exists for family members of those being sentenced. And given the disproportionate jailing of Indigenous and Black people in Canada (link), current practice presents an additional risk for children who are already much more likely to be separated from their parents and families by the child welfare system.
If we are truly serious about helping victims of crime, we could make progress by using alternatives to jail for parents of young children, by allowing mothers to keep babies with them, and by making visiting easier and friendlier. But more importantly, we could build concern for children into the sentencing system as something judges should consider, just as they consider victim impact statements.