WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(Marisa Montes)

15 May 2019 | Commentary

Groundbreaking Regional Report Explores the Impact of Drug Policy on Children of Incarcerated Parents

The Convention on the Rights of the Child includes two principles which establish the child as a subject of rights—as opposed to being merely objects to be protected—the principle of the child’s best interest and the obligation of listening to the child in all decisions that affect her or him. According to Article 3.1 of the Convention, “In all actions concerning children (…) the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” This involves assessing the impact on children of any measure implemented by the State and considering their voices while designing and implementing public policies.

An estimated 2 million children and adolescents have one of their parents deprived of their liberty in Latin America and the Caribbean. Of them, almost half a million live in this situation due to the incarceration of people for minor, non-violent drug offenses. In the vast majority of cases, the incarceration of a parent negatively affects the development of the child, and children suffer many forms of harms when their caretakers are imprisoned.

To evaluate the impacts of current drug policies on children and adolescents of incarcerated parents, the Church World Service (CWS) released a groundbreaking report, Childhood that Matters: The impact of drug policy on children of incarcerated parents in Latin America and the Caribbean. The study was launched on April 29, 2019, at an event organized by the CWS, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) of the Organization of American States.

The first-of-its-kind investigation focuses on a rarely-examined crossroads: the rights of children, drug policy, and incarceration. It summarizes and compares the information contained in eight country reports: Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, and Uruguay. Based on fieldwork conducted in each country, the report provides comprehensive quantitative data on people incarcerated for drug offenses and estimates the number of children of incarcerated parents. In addition, it provides personal testimonies of 70 girls and boys whose parents or primary caretakers are incarcerated. WOLA Senior Fellow Coletta A. Youngers was an advisor to the investigation.

The testimonies and the ample evidence provided in the report are conclusive: Punitive drug policies negatively impact the children of incarcerated parents. Children are exposed to multiple forms of violence, including the psychological effects of separation and discrimination, and they face situations of social exclusion and vulnerability. Therefore, States should place children’s rights in the center of their public policies, involve children and youth in discussions on laws and policies that affect them directly or indirectly, and incorporate a gender perspective into research on incarceration and its impacts.

Read the Report

Watch the Event