Children are humans. They have human rights. On the international stage, Canada has agreed to uphold these human rights. Yet we are concerned that Canada is not currently protecting children’s rights with integrity.
A major focus of CFSC’s work is the human rights of children whose parents have been incarcerated. CFSC works to promote international standards and practices that uphold the “best interests of the child” in Canada, including standards enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules), and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (1955) and revised Mandela Rules. These laws and standards protect the human rights of children and their parents in custody.
In January, we hosted a dialogue with experts in a variety of disciplines, each sharing a concern for the children of parents in trouble with the law – children who are often invisible to the public. I attended that dialogue, listened to the conversation, and spoke to others working on this issue. I asked myself, “What can I do as a non-expert in this? How do I make sense of the dialogue experience and what do I take away from it that could be useful?”
At times it felt overwhelming. New to the specific issues myself, I was shocked by how far from our integrity we are in the Canadian criminal justice system. Our criminal justice system predates the human rights agreements we have signed onto, and needs to be updated.
Really, it was the stories about lived experience that made the two days so emotionally intense. Looking back on it, that’s probably the reason the dialogue seemed overwhelming at the time. There were times that the emotion felt thick in the room: grief, sadness, shame, rage, assertive anger…
A passionate advocate told the story of a woman who gave birth in prison. I had spoken to this advocate earlier and admired the work she was doing. I listened with interest and increasing horror as she recounted this woman’s experience of going into labour in prison, being told to be quiet when she cried out in pain, and then being ignored. It wasn’t until the baby’s leg emerged that her need for urgent medical help was recognised. The baby died. I had no words. I felt a sense of helpless rage imagining what that must have been like for her. Human rights violations like this one are acts of domination that trigger intense shame and its companion, shame-rage.
Because of my job as a therapist, I make sense of my experiences by understanding emotion and the brain. Empathising with this story triggered the fight, flight or freeze part of my brain. I was ready to fight and I noticed myself looking for a “bad guy” in the situation. I noticed others doing this too. It’s what we do. Our brain senses danger and suddenly everyone is either “with us or against us.” As a mother, I naturally empathized with the woman in the situation. Then I considered the right of the baby to have proper medical care during its birth and a fair chance at survival. However, what I didn’t imagine until I sat down to write this article was the perspective of the prison staff.
Prison staff are public employees. I imagine the vast majority have good intentions and are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. I don’t know their perspectives in this case. They may have been mentioned, but I was too deep in fear-mode to hear it. Did the prison staff know this woman was in labour? How might the staff on duty at the time have felt afterwards, when they realised what had happened?
I wonder how many individuals silently shoulder the guilt of systemic problems.
What I realise from my response to this story is this: we need our emotions to alert us to threat, but we can’t let that part of our brain be in charge when it’s not needed. If we want things to be different, we need to engage the reasonable, competent part of ourselves – the part that knows how to seek first to understand and engage in respectful dialogue. Only then will we be able to arrive at shared goals and a plan to work toward them.
The antidote to shame is respect; self-respect and respect for others. We earn self-respect when we stand up for ourselves and others without hurting, dominating, or disrespecting anyone else. It gives us the power to transform cultures of domination into cultures of respect.
So I’m on the side of respect. Respect for myself and respect for others. That means I commit to standing up for myself and others without putting anyone else down or thinking less of other people or groups. Even when I don’t agree with them. Even when I’m really worried that the consequences of their actions will be bad for the people or groups I care about. I will seek out the perspectives of people on the “other side” of conflicts and consider that I may not always be right.
I’ve discovered that doing this takes self-awareness. I turn inward and check if I subtly think I’m better than others or if I dismiss their perspectives. If I do, I’m not respecting them. But it goes both ways. I also check if I think they are better than me or if I devalue my own perspective. If so, I’m not respecting myself.
I think this relates to the needs of children of incarcerated parents because respect is a way to break the shame-blame cycle in order to end social stigma. I want a society where everyone is treated with respect, so I challenge myself to show respect at the times when it’s hardest to do so. That means respect for everyone, not just people I agree with. That’s why I’m standing up for respectful dialogue.
At the dialogue, the participants ranged from academic researchers and policy organisations to direct service providers and grassroots organizations. There were representatives from child welfare, aboriginal legal services, legal aid, and the office of the correctional investigator. There were representatives from provincial child advocates, social policy researchers, non-profit service organisations, and grassroots advocacy groups. Many of those present had lived experience of the impacts of incarceration: they had either personally been incarcerated or a family member had been.
It was the first time that a group sharing a concern for the impacts the criminal justice system has on children had ever come together in Canada, so the issues and recommendations that emerged to start off with were big and high-level. These included the harmful impact of social stigma on children, the need to make links to colonialism and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, and the need to comply with international human rights frameworks. Then, over the course of the dialogue, we unpacked many of these issues and looked for ways forward. A coalition has now formed as a result of the dialogue, and members continue to work together on the next steps for action.
If you are interested to learn more about the dialogue, a report will be published shortly titled Breaking the Silence: Dialogue on Children of Incarcerated Parents. Additional information about CFSC’s work on children of incarcerated parents is also available on our website.
Daisie Auty, Toronto Meeting, is the Clerk of CFSC’s criminal justice program committee and a Registered Social Worker, Psychotherapist in private practice.