To mark the 17th World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October 2019, this expert blog by Oliver Robertson, an expert on abolition of the death penalty and rights of children whose parents are in prison, reflects on the impacts of having a parent sentenced to death or executed. The World Day 2019 is dedicated to raising awareness on the rights of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or executed.
I remember the first time I thought about children whose parents were put to death by the state. It was during the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Day of General Discussion in 2011, on children of incarcerated parents. The representative of Amnesty International spoke about children of parents sentenced to death, and you could almost hear the intake of breath in the room as everybody thought “My God, why have I never thought of this?”
Depending on how involved you are with penal affairs, you might be reading this thinking “My God, why have I never thought about what happens to the children when a parent goes to prison?” The answer is “lots, and often quite bad”. For children of parents sentenced to death, the answer is “lots, and almost always very bad”. Just as the death penalty is a unique punishment among punishments, so are children of those facing death unique among children of prisoners.
According to Amnesty International, at least 19,336 people in the world were on death row at the end of 2018. Behind this statistic, we can only guess how many of those individuals have children and conversely how many children have had a parent who has been executed. This final number is difficult to obtain and lacking those figures may also explain part of the reason why those children who are faced with this problem lack support they could, and should, legitimately receive.
Children are affected at all stages of a parent’s involvement in the criminal justice system, from arrest through the trial, keeping contact during imprisonment and return to the community. When the death penalty is part of the picture, then the reaction can be more intense. In all cases, the judgment and sentencing is often a particularly hard moment, because that is when it becomes clear that the parent isn’t coming home. But for children of parents sentenced to death, it can hit that their parent is never coming home. There are cases where children didn’t have the reality of the situation explained to them and assumed that their parent would be killed instantly, whereas there may be years of appeals and the possibility of exoneration.
Maintaining a relationship with a parent sentenced to death can be very difficult. Phonecalls, letters and in-person visits to death row are often less frequent and more restrictive than for other prisoners. Many examples of good visiting practice, like allowing families to be able to touch and play or make things together, are simply not available; non-contact visits, where the parent is kept behind glass or net partitions, are more common. Children may be barred from visiting without an accompanying adult, but the stigma of visiting a condemned prisoner can make it harder to find someone willing to go. Positive examples, like NGOs that accompany children and explain what to expect on death row, can make a massive difference to children’s experience.
“Namulemo Rehema is my name and I am 17years old in senior three at Wells of hope high school. My father was sentenced to death when my mother was 8 months pregnant, this is what she told me and she doesn’t want us to talk about it… […] ‘I feel scared and at times stressed when I start thinking about the fact that one day my father will be hanged in prison and I feel sad that I will not have that opportunity again to even share a meal with him…” Testimony shared by Wells of Hope Ministries and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative
The time around the execution is especially difficult. The practice of execution without advance notification, as happens in countries including Japan, has been linked to a sense of grievance and unresolved loss among children.
Final visits, which may be the first time in years that children have been permitted to touch their parent, can help the child say goodbye and be able to grieve the parent. It is essential that these visits are not cancelled, as happened in one US case where the prisoner refused to leave their cell to be executed and had their final visit with family revoked as punishment.
Children often don’t witness executions, either because they’re not allowed to or there is no adult willing to take them. Where there is the option, attending and not attending can be distressing: witnessing the trauma of killing (often with hostile other witnesses) or feeling like they have abandoned the parent in their final moments.
After an execution, children have to continue living, having experienced a death unlike any other, one that is deliberate and premeditated, and that may be seen by the state and public to be good. In cases where the children and family have been supported by anti-death penalty activists, this can drop off after execution as campaigners move on to trying to save another life. This can seem like another abandonment, in a situation where the children feel isolated from most of society. Indeed, the stigma may be lifelong, with now-adult children not telling even their spouses, or finding that others recoil if they find out, even decades later.
A particularly tragic situation is cases of domestic murder, where one parent is executed for killing the other. Here, the state is deliberately orphaning the children, who often find that support systems from the wider family are strained, with the family of the murder victim not wanting to associate with the children because they are related to the killer.
There are some small instances of good practice related to children of parents sentenced to death or executed, like the parents who prepare documents or recordings for children to keep a link after death, or mourning rituals where families of the executed come together to remember their loved ones. But these are very small mitigations of a great and enduring harm. These children have committed no crime and shouldn’t suffer for the crimes of others. Their needs and their rights, including the right to have their best interests taken into account in all actions concerning them, argue powerfully against the imposition of a parental death sentence. Countries that still retain the death penalty should stay their hands, for the children’s sake if no other.
For more information on World Day Against the Death Penalty please click here.