New Study Finds Children of Incarcerated Parents in Latin America and the Caribbean Face Violence, Social Isolation and Discrimination

April 29, 2019


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Washington, D.C.— Church World Service today released a new study titled “Childhood That Matters,” which details the harmful impacts of drug policy on children of incarcerated parents in Latin America and the Caribbean. The study finds that children of incarcerated parents (COIP) are often exposed to multiple forms of violence, are made invisible by drug policy and face stigma, social isolation and discrimination in their communities. The study makes 23 recommendations aimed at safeguarding the rights and health of children and reforming the criminal justice system in the region.

“Disproportionate drug laws in Central America and the Caribbean have led to increased levels of incarceration and longer sentences, which have serious adverse effects on the children of incarcerated parents along with their families and communities,” said Church World Service’s Luciano Cadoni, who conducted research for this study. “Governments and service providers must come together to reform these policies and provide a more comprehensives support system to safeguard the rights of these marginalized children and families.”

Research for the study draws upon interviews with more than 70 children and their caretakers  in eight countries–Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Uruguay and Panama–and was conducted by experts on drug policy, the penal system and policies directed toward children.

The study estimates that between 1,710,980 and 2,307,048 children in the 25 countries in the region have at least one parent in prison. Of these children, approximately 500,000 have parents incarcerated specifically for drug crimes—a trend that, without profound and timely changes, will continue to increase.

“My family has been destroyed because of my dad’s incarceration. My mother and the rest of us have had to work so hard, so much that we had to move from the town we lived in, because my mom couldn’t support us… I wouldn’t have gotten married as a teenager, but I didn’t want my mom to be burdened by my brothers and me… I couldn’t bear to see my mother with so much pressure and without any money,” said Chanel, a 17-year-old study participant from the Dominican Republic.

Key recommendations for government and service providers include:

  • Involve children and youth, including COIPs, in all discussions, implementation and evaluation of public policies, legislation and decisions that affect them either directly or indirectly.
  • Guarantee that the sons and daughters of foreigners who live in the country where their parent is incarcerated do not lose their legal status, and that they aren’t discriminated against due to their caregiver’s situation.
  • In educational institutions, include teams of psychologists, social workers and intermediaries with state institutions, who are trained accordingly, and can provide care for children and their families.
  • Implement participative social integration programs focused on childhood and gender where COIP are included.
  • Consider the impacts of drug policy on COIP in discussions and meetings of international and regional drug-control bodies, thus ensuring the visibility of the children of incarcerated parents.
  • Develop and disseminate quantitative data about children and youth with incarcerated caregivers, broken down by gender. Make this information public and accessible, setting out the facts of the case.
  • Ensure that the least damaging sentences or cautionary measures be applied, for the well being of the children of the accused, adopting a case-by-case methodology and favoring alternative measures to incarceration.
  • Ensure that the caretaker is held in the prison closest to where his or her children live, according to Article 9 and Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Childhood That Matters” is available online in English and Spanish. For more information or to speak with Luciano Cadoni contact