Areas of Work

Children of Prisoners

Children are deeply affected when a parent is imprisoned. Yet millions of affected children worldwide are overlooked at every stage of the criminal justice process, and there are no international standards on how countries should act to protect their rights and welfare.

Children can face stigma from friends and others in the community. They can experience difficulties in maintaining contact with incarcerated parents, and face financial hardship. Practice around the world varies considerably, and there is much potentially good practice, such as police officers who conduct arrests in child-friendly ways, judges who consider the impact of potential sentences on children, prison administrations that organise child-friendly visiting arrangements and schools or NGOs that support the child on the outside.

QUNO has published groundbreaking research on this issue since 2005, highlighting practices worldwide relating to children living in prison with a parent, as well as to children who remain outside during parental incarceration, and more recently on issues relating to children of parents facing the death penalty. QUNO was also a partner in the COPING Project, a three-year investigation looking at the mental health of children of prisoners.

Developing out of this research, QUNO has also pioneered work that highlights issues affecting the children of parents sentenced to death or executed. These children are the hidden victims of the death penalty, often experiencing the sentencing or execution of their father or mother as severe psychological and emotional trauma. These devastating consequences of the death penalty tend to receive little attention in criminal justice systems and the children are often left unsupported. We have published several significant pieces of research on this topic and continue to raise the issue at the international level.

Ongoing Activities

  • Developing awareness, at national and international levels, of the rights and well-being of children whose parents are in detention and of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or executed.
  • Working with the UN human rights mechanisms and treaty bodies, especially the Committee on the Rights of the Child, to further acknowledge the rights of these children and to promote good practice.
  • Disseminating the findings and recommendations of the COPING project research.
  • Convening a Child Rights Connect working group of partner organisations working on children of incarcerated parents around the world and maintaining this working group’s database of relevant Committee on the Rights of concluding observations 
  • Working with partner organisations to provide information about children detained in prison with a parent into the UN’s global study on children deprived of their liberty.


Recent Timeline Events

June 2017

Briefing the Committee on the Rights of the Child on children of prisoners

On 31st May 2017, the Child Rights Connect Working Group on Children of Incarcerated Parents held a briefing and discussion with the Committee on the Rights of the Child, focussing on the rights of children of incarcerated parents.

Laurel Townhead (QUNO) and Rachel Brett (COPE member) provided an introduction, highlighting work done so far by the Committee, particularly since the Day of General Discussion in 2011. They noted that despite significant advances in understanding on this issue, implementation remains patchy and more can be done by the Committee to ensure protection of these children’s rights.

Their introductions were followed by a discussion with members of the Committee, many of whom have a long-standing commitment to this issue. The main points raised in the discussion were:

  • The need for child rights perspectives to be taken up in cases involving separation of children from their arrested or incarcerated parent, particularly by the European Court of Human Rights.
  • Consideration of how best to protect the rights of children detained with their mothers and ensuring that their best interests are met, including in the Latin American context.
  • Alternatives to imprisonment such as home detention.
  • Good practice from South Africa based on a Constitutional Court ruling setting out a test for taking the best interests of the child into account when sentencing their primary carer.
  • Protection of children and ensuring childcare arrangements are in place in situations of arrest of a parent.
  • The lack of services available in many countries for children affected by parental imprisonment, particularly health and social services.
  • Good practice examples in protecting these children’s rights, such as the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Italian Ministry of Justice, the children’s ombudsman and the main NGO working on this issue in Italy.
  • The importance of continuing to raise this in reviews and in Concluding Observations and work done with regional networks to provide the Committee with information about the situation in countries as they report.
  • The interest and possibility of a General Comment by the Committee on this issue.



For more information please see the following documents shared with the Committee members:

  • A short briefing by the QUNO on the Committee’s work to date on this issue.
  • A longer briefing paper Committee’s work on children of incarcerated parents. L. Townhead ‘Briefing Paper: Children of Incarcerated Parents International Standards and Guidance’, (2015) Quaker United Nations Office.
  • The Italian Memorandum of Understanding.
  • Child Rights Connect Working Group on Children of Incarcerated Parents’ recommendations for States based on Italian good practice.


Related Areas of Work

April 2017

6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty: new publication and website

The Quaker United Nations Office works on children of parents sentenced to death or executed first and foremost because we believe that such children should not be forgotten and their rights should be upheld.  The 2016 World Congress Against the Death Penalty recognized that the impact of a death sentence on the children of parents sentenced to death or executed represents a powerful argument against the death penalty.

This was the message QUNO brought to last year’s World Congress Against the Death Penalty, the details of which have been brought together in a new publication and website. The 6th The Congress was held in Oslo in June 2016 and was attended by QUNO’s Human Rights and Refugees team. The Congress, convened by Ensemble contre la peine de mort (ECPM), is held every three years to bring together those working towards the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

The new report and website feature an article written by QUNO’s Laurel Townhead, highlighting the significant and often devastating impacts on children whose parents are sentenced to death or executed, and explaining why this can be a used as a strong argument for abolition. QUNO also wrote a briefing paper on children of parents sentenced to death or executed ahead of the event, which provides more detail on this issue.

QUNO continues to work to raise the profile of children of parents facing the death penalty at the international level. In particular, our written statement to the 34th session of the Human Rights Council held in March this year examines how children of parents sentenced to death or executed may be considered victims of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. We also look forward to participating in the next World Congress, due to take place in 2019.

Related Areas of Work

March 2017

QUNO at the Human Rights Council: a focus on children of parents facing the death penalty as victims of torture

On 1st March 2017, the annual High Level Panel on the question of the death penalty was held at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council. This year’s panel focussed on how the death penalty relates to torture.

During the panel, Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment highlighted the impact of the death penalty on children:

The death penalty is… first of all, in my view, a question of life and how we define ourselves as human beings, as States and as an international community. Do we really want to retain a retributive system, deliberately inflicting pain and anguish on convicts, on their parents, on their spouses, on their children?... Or do we prefer to define ourselves on different terms, focusing not only on the inherent dignity of convicts, victims and families but also on the dignity and moral authority of our human society as a whole? ”

In light of the panel’s focus on torture, we submitted a written and oral statement at this session of the Council, highlighting that the sentencing to death or execution of a parent leads to a violation of the child’s right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT) or torture under international law. 

The written statement can be found here.

The oral statement, delivered by Catherine Baker, Programme Assistant for Human Rights and Refugees at the High Level Panel, can be found at 2.09.45 on the video of the panel.

Related Areas of Work