After dinner one night, a friend of my mother’s shared a story that has stayed with me. She had been shopping at the local mall with her kids when police officers stopped her and took her in for questioning. She matched the description of a shoplifter they’d been looking for.
As it happened, she had a solid alibi and was released within a few hours. But her kids had gone through a terrifying experience. They had seen their mother treated with disrespect by police—the very people we tell kids to seek help from. They had felt afraid and abandoned. She had not even been allowed to make arrangements to get them home safely.
Fortunately, a neighbour had also been shopping at the mall and was able to take the children home. These kids were relatively lucky. Many children go through experiences like this and worse. Children are often overlooked victims when their parents or caregivers come into conflict with the law.
“Every classroom in the country would include a child with a parent who is incarcerated right now.”
We don’t actually know how many kids go through this sort of ordeal in Canada. Generally, no one asks someone who has been accused of a crime whether or not they are a parent, or if so, how many children they have. This information may be volunteered by parents during the legal processes, but it is neither required nor officially tracked. Parents may be reluctant to mention their children for fear of having them taken away by child welfare authorities. Families and children rarely mention that they are affected by a loved one’s incarceration, since it carries a stigma.
CFSC estimates that at least 200,000 children across Canada have an incarcerated parent. This is based on the number of people incarcerated, combined with sample data that allows us to estimate how many of them are parents, and then guess how many children they are each responsible for. But these calculations are unreliable, and so this estimate is almost certainly far lower than the actual numbers.
Even our 200,000 estimate would mean that, if they were distributed evenly, every classroom in the country would include a child with a parent who is incarcerated right now. Of course, even more children have been affected by this at some point during their childhood.
The numbers are far worse among Indigenous people, who are vastly over-represented in Canada’s jails and prisons. Despite the focus on reconciliation, the Canadian criminal justice system continues to systematically separate Indigenous parents from their children.
Canada signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, and it was ratified in 1991. Based on the fundamental principle that children have human rights that must be respected, the Convention explicitly lays out principles to protect these rights.
Among other things, it says that: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by…courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3, Part 1.)
The Convention also includes clauses upholding a child’s right not to be separated from their parents except in the child’s best interests, and to be heard in any judicial proceeding that affects them.
Although the experience I heard about was only one anecdote, available data and research (PDF) show that Canada has done very little to ensure that the best interests of children are taken into account when their parents come into conflict with the law. This is seen in the actions of police officers (as in my story), but also of lawyers, judges, and other legal representatives.
When a government signs on to a United Nations convention, there is a process through which the UN regularly reviews and assesses how the country is implementing that convention. Canada is currently going through this process with respect to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In March 2019, Canada produced a self-assessment report. Civil society was invited to respond to this with their own “alternative” reports, highlighting areas of concern. The UN committee will read all of the reports and produce a list of issues that they will make public this summer. In the fall, Canada will have an opportunity to respond.
CFSC submitted an alternative report (PDF) to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. We highlighted ways in which Canada has neglected its obligations to respect the human rights of children whose parents are incarcerated, and made recommendations for much needed improvements.
Canada has no rules or guidelines to encourage judges to avoid incarcerating parents whenever possible, so that the parents can continue to care for their children. This is tremendously harmful. Prolonged separation from a parent (particularly due to imprisonment) is one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that have been linked to many negative outcomes in life. Studies have also shown that children who have gone through ACEs are more likely themselves to come into conflict with the law.
Canada’s laws and regulations also make it hard for incarcerated parents to maintain strong relationships with their children. Visiting and even phone calls are expensive, difficult to arrange, and the required processes are often described as demeaning to inmates and to their families.
We hope that our alternative report, and the forthcoming UN report, will encourage Canada to do a better job of recognizing and respecting the human rights of vulnerable children. As a signatory to the Convention, Canada needs to live up to its commitment to make the best interests of children a primary consideration in our criminal justice system. No child should be put through an experience like the one my mother’s friend shared with us.
Joy Morris, Calgary Meeting, is a member of CFSC’s criminal justice program committee. Learn more about this work at https://quakerservice.ca/justice