Czech Helsinki Committee helping children with jailed parents

At the present time there are close to 30,000 children in the Czech Republic whose parents are serving time in prison. Due to the country’s legislation and rooted prejudices family bonds are severed in the worst possible way –the maximum time these children are allowed to spend with their jailed parent is three hours a month – the less fortunate ones are simply told that mummy or daddy went away. The Czech Helsinki Committee is fighting to improve these children’s lot arguing that the restrictions in place can do irreparable damage. I spoke to Monika Bunžová of the Czech Helsinki Committee about the NGOs Invisible Children campaign.

Photo: Jason Nelson, Stock.XCHNG
“We are trying to highlight the fate of children with imprisoned parents because it is obvious that no one cares about them.”

When you say no one cares – in what way do you mean? Where are they living with their relatives or in orphanages?

“They often live with their grandparents or are in foster care but the point is that they are not in regular contact with their parents. We are the only organization in the Czech Republic which is trying to change that – to help provide that contact. Because if their grandparents or whoever is looking after them does not want the children to meet with their parents than the children are helpless. Contact with their parents depends on the goodwill of whoever is taking care of them.”

How many children does this concern and how much of their parents do they see on average?

“We do not really know the exact number – there are no reliable statistics in this respect, but we believe it is around 30,000 children. According to the law they have the right to see their parents for just 3 hours a month. Or rather the jailed person has the right to 3 hours set aside for visitors.”

So if these children are lucky they get to see their parent for 3 hours a month but many of them are not, is that what you are saying?

“That’s right.”

And how are you helping?

“We are trying to provide the opportunity for them to spend 3 hours a month with their parents in a good environment. We bring some toys, we provide the food and create a family background or at least a nice environment for these meetings. But it is very difficult to do in a prison house, as you can imagine.”

Do you often have problems with the people who are looking after them –such as their grandparents? Is there a general feeling that children should not be taken to prison?

“Yes, there is. These people .... the situation is very difficult for them. Sometimes it happens that they do not want to bring the child to see its mother because they think that the mother did something really bad. Or they themselves may have been hurt by her. So there may be many factors involved. But basically they do not want it. They do not want it.”

Do you have a hard time getting permission for the children to go to prison to see their mum or dad?

“Well, usually we take the time to talk to these people and after a while they come to realize that it is good for the child to maintain a close relationship with its parents. That it is not good for them not to see their parents for seven or eight years. So when they realize how important it is they usually say yes.”

What about the management of jailhouses or the Justice Ministry – are you not pushing for longer than the given 3 hours, because surely that is too short a time for a child to spend with its parent in the course of a whole month....

“That’s true, but that’s the problem – no one cares, no one is trying to change it. We started this project in 2007 and have been trying to improve the situation since. We are lobbying to get the law changed because it is a very difficult situation not only for the kids but for the parents as well.”

Are you getting help from child psychologists – what do they have to say about this?

“Yes, they are present at these prison visits and act as mediators and there are also social workers helping.”

So basically part of what you are doing is trying to educate the public as well to children’s needs?

“Yes, that’s right.”

You have just presented a new book –a book called “Mummy’s in jail” –which is to help children understand and come to terms with what’s happening. Can you tell me about it?

“Yes, it is just out this week and it is a picture book intended to help children understand. The book is about a little boy called Honzik and what he does all day. Always one side of the page is devoted to Honzik’s activities and the other side shows what his mummy is doing in prison. The book should also help grown-ups who are in charge of these children to broach the subject and help them understand.”

Do these children get any help at all in coming to terms with what’s happened?

“Not really, not really. When something like this happens in neighbouring Austria for instance the whole family gets support. But in the Czech Republic there is no such support line, no such service.”

Monika Bunžová
So basically the children are left in the hands of someone willing to care for them and nobody helps them to understand why their mum is suddenly missing from their lives ...

“I don’t want to generalize. I would say that the grandparents or whoever is going to be looking after them probably provides an explanation of sorts, but it is not anything professional and few people instinctively know how to best explain such a thing to a small child.”

And in many cases, as you mentioned, they are most likely too ashamed to talk about it?

“Yes, that happens. We found in many cases that they did not tell the child what happened. They said - mummy left. Or mummy doesn’t want to live with us anymore. The do not tell them the truth because they do not want to hurt the child or they think the child is too small to understand.”

Obviously this is an uphill task. You’ve been working on it since 2007 –what would you say is your biggest achievement to date and, in an ideal world, how would you like to see things work?

“We would like for some other organization to join us in trying to help these kids. And we would be very happy to see a change of the respective law because as we said 3 hours is not enough. And also the environment – we would like to educate prison employees and prisoners about how to behave under such circumstances because sometimes there are uncomfortable situations for the kids.”

So your biggest achievement to date is providing as many children as possible with the opportunity to see their parents – to the 3 hours they are entitled to?

“Yes, but it also depends on how much money we have. If we have enough money we can provide a lot of visits, but they are very expensive. Getting five kids to visit their mothers in prison costs around 20 thousand crowns and of course transport is one of the biggest expenditures – as chance would have it the kids are usually at the other end of the country from the respective prison. So we would welcome if that could change as well– if they could put prisoners with children closer to their family.“