Protecting children when their parents are detained

05-10-2011 Interview

Mary Murphy, an ICRC adviser working in support of the organization's detention-related activities, talks about the risks children face when they or their parents are detained, the responsibilities of the detaining authorities and the activities the ICRC is carrying out to help improve the situation.

What kinds of risks are children of detainees exposed to?

It is well known that detainees are vulnerable to abuse, especially in situations of armed conflict or where violence occurs in connection with civil unrest and political instability. In these circumstances, abuses of all kinds are more likely to occur. Poor detention conditions, insufficient or inappropriate food and water, inadequate access to health care and lack of contact with the outside world can severely affect prisoners mentally and physically.

But there are additional, hidden consequences of detention that go beyond the person held behind bars. Entire families or even communities are affected, among them children, who are of course particularly vulnerable. Whether they are held with their detained parents, as is common in certain countries, or apart from them in institutions or with other kinds of caregivers, their security and well-being are under threat. And despite being entitled to specific kinds of care and protection, the forgotten nature of their plight means that they are all too often exposed to neglect and the risk of abuse.

What are you doing to improve the situation of children whose parents are detained?

Let me first stress that the responsibility to ensure that people are held in decent conditions and treated humanely lies primarily with the detaining authorities. The best interests of children should always dictate the decisions taken. However, often those decision-makers are not even made aware that the fate of children depends on the decisions they take in relation to adults. In the case of the courts, the child's very existence is probably not taken into account by the prosecutor or sentencing judge. The first time the detaining authority knows of the child may be when a mother arrives at the prison gates with one or more children who will have to enter with her because they have nowhere else to go. In countries suffering economic hardship it is unlikely that the place of detention will be given the resources to meet the needs which arise.

The impact of detention on children is something that we at the ICRC have been observing for a long time. We have long experience visiting detainees, including children. Our detention-related activities take place both inside and outside places of detention, and involve people with a wide range of roles.

Inside detention places, our visits aim to ensure that all detainees are treated humanely and in a dignified manner. We monitor the conditions of confinement, paying particular attention where children are detained with family members, to ensure that those held there are safe and have enough space, light and access to fresh air.

Small children held together with their mothers in prisons are of particular concern to us. The needs of infants require special attention. Where necessary, we offer assistance. In Yemen, a Yemen Red Crescent Society project supported by the ICRC has enabled mothers detained with their babies to attend courses in sewing, literacy and other subjects. The increased level of activity, mental stimulation and contact with volunteers from the outside world improve the atmosphere for everyone. In the prisons with the largest number of accompanying children, the Yemen Red Crescent provides children with opportunities to play and to receive a basic education. When the children are occupied in this way, it also becomes easier for their mothers to take part in educational activities.

Outside detention places, we maintain close ties with the families in order to better understand the circumstances of detention and to meet the families' needs, which can sometimes be as critical as those of the detainees themselves. For example, when a breadwinner is detained, the impact is felt by all members of the family. In Iraq, a woman left without a male relative lacks economic, physical and social protection and support. Through micro-finance initiatives and by other means, the ICRC helps women heading households to feed and care for their children.

Can you give us a few examples of what the ICRC can do to help detainees and their children maintain contact?

Whether it is the child or the parent who is detained (or both), contact is crucial to psychological well-being. Regardless of where detainees are held, their children must be able to maintain regular contact with them through face-to-face visits, telephone and videophone conversations and written messages. But nothing can replace face-to-face visits.

When Khaled, a 13-year-old Afghan, was detained in Iraq at the age of 11, his parents were being held in a different Iraqi detention facility. When the ICRC intervened, the authorities arranged for him to visit his mother.

Jumana, a Palestinian girl in Gaza, has been less lucky. She told our staff how it feels to grow up without a father – a man she has seen only twice, the last time in 2006, because family visits have been suspended by the Israeli authorities for the past four years. The suspension has deprived both the detainees and their relatives – about 700 families – of an essential lifeline, and has cut off the detainees from the outside world. (See the film: Gaza: broken family ties)

In many places around the world, the ICRC arranges visits for children and other family members who otherwise could not afford the cost of transportation. For detainees held in Bagram, Afghanistan, and their families it set up video-conference call centres both at the Bagram facility and in the ICRC's offices in Kabul. (Read the interview: Afghanistan: reflecting on another decade of protecting the vulnerable)

In southern Thailand, which has been disrupted by violent unrest since 2004, the ICRC enables families to make the long trip to Bangkok to visit relatives held there in connection with the violence. The visits are often emotional journeys for all concerned, as they offer a chance for detainees and families to speak to one another freely and for much longer than the standard visiting times. For most detainees, many of whom are married and have children, these visits are a rare opportunity to see how their families are faring. Since the visits started in 2005, 90 families have made the journey to their detained relatives. (See the photo collection: Families from Thailand's deep south visit jailed relatives in Bangkok)

How does the ICRC work together with other organizations and with States to bring about improvement?

Because the problems relating to children when they or their parents are detained cannot be solved only inside prisons or with the families, the ICRC also works with various authorities to improve national legislation and practice, for example with regard to issues such as the sentencing and sentence management options available in cases involving parents with dependent children.

We are also pooling efforts with other organizations to raise awareness among States and to provide them with guidance on how they can amend their policies and practices in order to better uphold the rights of children when their parents are detained. On 29 September 2011, we participated in a special day of discussion with members of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, other experts, States and NGOs. The discussions focussed specifically on children affected by the detention of their parents in the context of the criminal justice system (rather than other forms of detention), and on the particular rights and needs of these children.

The participants considered the impact on children of a parent’s involvement in all stages of the criminal justice process, including arrest, investigation, pre-trial measures (including pre-trial detention and other restrictions), trial and sentencing, imprisonment, release and reintegration into the family and community, as well as potentially coping with the death of a parent when the death penalty is carried out. Participants offered examples of good practice from a variety of contexts around the world and made recommendations for change.

But a lot remains to be done. Only concerted efforts by everyone involved, and real political will, can bring about change ensuring better protection for the children concerned. We will continue to work to raise the authorities' awareness of their responsibilities and to assist them wherever necessary.


What kind of measures should the authorities take to better protect detained children and their parents?

Where parents are incarcerated, the ICRC, on the basis of many years of practical experience, views a number of actions as essential in ensuring the physical and psychological well-being of the child, and the well-being and social rehabilitation of the whole family.

Upon the arrival of new detainees, the authorities should identify those who have parental responsibilities, and register any children accompanying them. This is a way of protecting the children, as it helps prevent them from becoming separated from and losing contact with their parents. When children are born to imprisoned mothers, the authorities have a clear responsibility to register their births.

The authorities should also see to it that children accompanying detainees have appropriate food, water, clothing, medical care, education and access to recreational activities. In addition, they should provide satisfactory sanitary conditions for all detainees and make available separate accommodation and other facilities suitable for women with babies or small children.

When children who accompany incarcerated parents to prison can no longer be accommodated there (for example, when they reach the maximum age allowed), the authorities have a responsibility to ensure that suitable alternative arrangements are made.

The authorities must also do what they can to ensure that children and their detained parents are not separated unnecessarily or for an unnecessarily long period of time. In particular, they must make legal assistance available, facilitate access to non-custodial alternatives wherever possible, and ensure that procedures for pre-trial detainees are timely.

See also:



Mary Murphy

Basra, Bucca camp. A little girl and boy who came with their mother to visit their detained father. 

Basra, Bucca camp. A little girl and boy who came with their mother to visit their detained father.
© ICRC / H. Hassan

Gaza. Jumana carries the portrait of her detained father, who she hasn't seen since 2006, when the Israeli authorities suspended family visits. 

Gaza. Jumana carries the portrait of her detained father, who she hasn't seen since 2006, when the Israeli authorities suspended family visits.

ICRC office, Kandahar. Relatives talk to a detainee via a video telephone link. 

ICRC office, Kandahar. Relatives talk to a detainee via a video telephone link.
© ICRC / K. Holt / v-p-af-e-01782

Thailand. Families board a train for the 18-hour journey from Yala Railway Station to Bangkok to visit their detained relatives. 

Thailand. Families board a train for the 18-hour journey from Yala Railway Station to Bangkok to visit their detained relatives.

Colombia. The child of a detainee at the El Buen Pastor prison for women. 

Colombia. The child of a detainee at the El Buen Pastor prison for women.
© ICRC / C. von Toggenburg

The child of a detained woman. 

Nepal. Pokhara, Kaski Jail. The child of a detained woman.