[Editorial] Children of incarcerated parents – The need for a child-centric approach

Context: The Government of Odisha recently issued guidelines for the welfare of children of incarcerated parents. It is a welcome step to address some of the adverse effects of parental incarceration on the well-being and rights of their children who, for no fault of theirs, are denied many rights and necessities and face societal stigma.

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Why do children of incarcerated parents need special attention?

  • The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, makes the state responsible and accountable to ensure a safety net and support for children in difficult circumstances.
  • Children do live with their parents in many Indian prisons. Many also live outside when their parent(s) or primary caregivers are in jail.
  • Such children face massive stigma and therefore need special and focused interventions from the state to realise their rights.
  • They need additional care, emotional support and protection as they are likely to suffer adverse effects on their socio-psychological development.
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The recently issued guidelines by the government of Odisha

Children residing in prison:

  • Children up to six years, who live in prisons with their incarcerated parents, have been categorized as ‘children residing in prison’ according to the new guidelines issued by the Government of Odisha.

Children of incarcerated parents residing in the community:

  • Children whose parent(s) have been incarcerated for at least 60 days and are staying outside the jail, have been categorized as ‘children of incarcerated parents residing in the community’.

Provision to provide the supplementary nutrition and immunization facilities:

  • Children in the age group of 0-6 years residing in prison will be linked to a nodal Anganwadi centre (AWC) near the jail and will be provided with supplementary nutrition and immunization facilities in accordance with integrated child protection schemes.
  • A temporary AWC can also be set up if more children are housed in any prison.

Counselling services:

  • Appropriate counselling services will be provided to the children and parents by the district child protection unit.

Child in Need of Care and Protection (CNCP):

  • Children residing outside the jail will be produced before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC).
  • If the CWC considers the child as a Child in Need of Care and Protection (CNCP), she/he will be provided security and support under different institutional and non-institutional care mechanisms.
  • Children in jail aged six years will also have the same support.

Support to continue education:

  • The guidelines also state that necessary support will be provided to continue education in government institutions.

Juvenile Justice Fund:

  • Necessary support may also be leveraged from the Juvenile Justice Fund for this purpose based on the recommendation of the district magistrate concerned.

What is the national situation in this regard?

Prison Statistics India Report 2020:

  • The latest Prison Statistics India Report 2020 states that as of December 31, 2020, there were 1,427 women prisoners with 1,628 children among the total 20,046 women prisoners countrywide.
  • Of this number, 1,184 women prisoners were undertrial prisoners accompanied by 1,345 children and 214 convicted prisoners, were accompanied by 246 children.
  • Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of female inmates living with their children i.e., 397 women with 452 children, followed by Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.
  • Data indicates that the majority of the women in prisons with children are undertrials.

Directive of the apex court:

  • The Supreme Court had also directed that the lower courts dealing with cases of women prisoners whose children are in prison with their mothers, be given clear priority and their cases are decided expeditiously. Sadly, the reality is quite different.
  • These children of incarcerated parents are often referred to as ‘hidden victims’ facing multiple challenges including psychological strain, exclusion from schooling, economic hardships and the like.
  • The apex court has advised the state legislatures to pass the necessary legislation, wherever necessary, for the realization of the rights of these children.

Way forward

  • Many steps have been taken by different states to reform prisons following the Supreme Court verdict. However, the new guidelines issued by the Women and Child Development Department of Odisha have brought a child-centric approach to this discourse.

Mechanisms to identify, track and provide necessary care and protection:

  • The new guidelines provide that no female prisoner shall be allowed to keep a child who has completed the age of six years.
  • The new guidelines provide mechanisms to identify, track and provide necessary care and protection to such children who are outside the jail.
  • These provide for institutional and non-institutional care of such children if considered as CNCP by the CWC.
  • The state has been urged to explore options of foster care and sponsorship support, with a rider that institutional care is considered the last resort.

Community-based care for children:

  • Community-based care for children is a welcome step.
  • But some important hurdles are yet to be cleared. Low allocation against the requirement for sponsorship is one.
  • Similarly, the readiness for foster care is yet to be witnessed in our country.

Options for availing foster care:

  • In a situation where the identified orphans are yet to be rehabilitated either through foster care or by sponsorship support according to the Juvenile Justice Act, options for availing of foster care may remain a distant dream for children of incarcerated parents to avail.
  • Focused awareness campaigns, substantive financial allocations and responsiveness of the implementing mechanisms will be needed to overcome such hurdles.

Speedy disposal of cases:

  • Most of the women prisoners having children are undertrials. Hence, the speedy disposal of cases with a maximum one-year time will determine the fate of such children.
  • Increased coordination among the police, doctors and judiciary to facilitate the process can make it possible.
  • The district legal service authority needs to show some more proactiveness in facilitating bail to those eligible as an interim measure.

The need for sensitivity:

  • Committees set up to visit jails under these guidelines need to act with sensitivity.
  • The members of the committee need to be sensitized enough on the issues of children and available provisions for support.
  • This would assist them in effectively monitoring and holding accountability.

The need for child-friendly approaches:

  • The responsibility rests with the police or/and the jail administration to collect information and analyze care provisions for children while taking the mother/parent into custody in the case of children living outside jails.
  • Such authorities will also be responsible for intimating district child protection units and producing children before the CWC.
  • Orienting police personnel towards child-friendly approaches at regular intervals will be a step forward in enhancing their sensitivities.

Local mechanisms at the level of Panchayats:

  • For ensuring child-friendly foster care and support, local mechanisms at the level of Panchayats are needed.
  • Currently, the entire structure of child care and protection is focused on the district level.
  • Sensitive personnel at the level of the Gram Panchayat for identification of foster parents, ensuring the safety and well-being of children and monitoring needs and progress at regular intervals will help realize the welcome intent of the guidelines for realization on the ground.

Practice Question for Mains

  1. The new guidelines issued by the women and child development department of Odisha for children of incarcerated parents have brought a child-centric approach to the issue. Examine. (250 Words, 15 Marks)
Referred Sources

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