Children Officers improve conditions for children of imprisoned parents
[15-05-2012]A successful new DIHR pilot project shows that Children Officers in penitentiary institutions can improve conditions for children of imprisoned parents. DIHR now recommends a permanent and country-wide solution.
By the editor
The Danish Prison and Probation Service is currently considering whether to introduce children officers in all penitentiary institutions. This is due to the results of a pilot project in 2010-2011 in two prisons and two remand centres concerning how penitentiary institutions can improve the ways for children to keep in contact with imprisoned parents. The prison service has continued the activities in the four institutions in 2012 while considering future initiatives.
- Every child has the right to maintain a regular and personal contact with a parent in prison by virtue of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Traditionally, however, prisons and remand centres have not been designed or adapted to accommodate the needs and rights of children, says Project Manager of the project at the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), Lise Garkier Hendriksen.
The pilot project has focused on introducing simple measures to improve children’s contact with their parent as well as their experience when visiting in the penitentiary institutions. Activities have included improvement of visiting facilities, different measures to help imprisoned parents deal with parenthood and information to colleagues on how to handle children visiting the institution.
The project has recently been concluded with a comprehensive report on the activities and results of the project.
See the report here (in Danish only)
- Our hope is that the report will serve as an inspirational guide for other prisons and remand centres as to which initiatives or activities could be introduced in that particular institution, says Lise Garkier Hendriksen.
Social Welfare Consultant, Hannah Hagerup, from The Danish Prison and Probation Service states, that the Children Officer project has shown, how the children's conditions can be put in focus in a good and effective way
- The children officers have taken many fine initiatives in the different institutions. The Prison and Probation Service is considering the potential for a possible children officer arrangement in all institutions under the prison service, she adds.
Surroundings important to child/parent contact
- If I was the prime minister, I would decide that we would eat together in the prison and for a few hours pretend that we were an ordinary family. This is how Shilas, child of an inmate, describes being a child of an imprisoned parent to the magazine of the Danish Prison Service (September 2009). According to Lise Garkier Hendriksen, Shilas’ story is not unique:
- Every year thousands of children find themselves in a very difficult situation, when their father or mother is imprisoned. Many of these children are regular visitors in penitentiary institutions when they come to see their imprisoned father or mother. The children learn how contact via phone or mail with an imprisoned parent must comply with certain rules and procedures in the prison or remand centre. The prison service thus has a significant role to play when it comes to ensuring suitable conditions for contact between child and parent, Lise Garkier Hendriksen says.
The six children officers (one or two in each institution) in the four project institutions attended a course on children’s rights and the special needs of children of imprisoned parents and initiated activities and improvements in the institutions under different areas:
- Information to colleagues about the special situation of children of imprisoned parents, including how to receive visiting children in the institution in a child-friendly manner.
- Improvement of visit facilities, e.g. suitable and child-friendly interior, decoration, toys to children in different age groups. New “family visiting rooms” have been established in some institutions, and the possibility of children getting to see their parent’s room has been considered and introduced in some institutions.
- Contact between inmates and their children, e.g. by being available for questions and by establishing “children’s groups” where inmates can engage in discuss the relevance of visit and contact procedures etc. with the children officers.
- Establishment of parent conversation groups, facilitated by the children officers, where inmates with children can exchange views and experiences of how to conduct parenthood while being imprisoned.
- Planning of child-friendly events and initiatives which can help make the children feel safe and happy about visiting their parents. Different initiatives were introduced, including photo albums for visit rooms with photos from the institution, personal photo books with photos of mum or dad in the prison, information booklets to visitors, and parent’s recording of a bedtime story to the child.
DIHR: Children Officers in all penitentiary institutions
All the different children officer initiatives have resulted in very positive feed-back. Whereas no children have been interviewed during this project, their reactions to the initiatives have been reflected by their imprisoned parent or the children offices. On the background of the project’s results, DIHR recommends to the prison service that children officers are appointed in all penitentiary institutions and that a range of considerations must be made in that regard:
- That attention should be paid to the situation internationally, including the solutions chosen by Sweden (children officers administratively introduced) and Norway (bill prepared to be introduced to the parliament later this year) as well as the recommendations of the UN Committee on the rights of the child.
- That design and interior of visit facilities in all institutions are brought to similar standards.
- That focus is put on continuous knowledge sharing between children officers on a regional level.
- That, where appropriate, more than one children officer is appointed in each institution, since experience from the project’s experience indicates great benefits by being two.