Parenting from prison - Czechs get help in maintaining bonds to children

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In the Czech Republic parents who are in prison are getting some help in keeping up a close bond with their children while serving out their time. The Czech Helsinki committee has a project which should provide a lifeline to the hundreds of young children who - through no fault of their own - find themselves in a strange and friendless environment.

Twenty-eight-year-old Andrea is serving a two-year prison sentence with 14 more months to go. She marks the passing of every day that brings her closer to seeing her children again. Four of them are in her mother’s care, two are in a foster home. Andrea says that she dreams of seeing her kids again but is afraid of what her long absence from their lives will mean.

“I am afraid what it will be like when we come face-to-face. I don’t know if they will know who I am. I am terrified they might have forgotten me.”

Under current prison regulations, parents are allowed to spend three hours with their children a month in the presence of their temporary guardian. In about 40 percent of cases there is no other parent or relative to look after them and the children are placed in children’s homes for as long as their mother remains in custody. Some mothers don’t see their children for the entire prison term. Zuzana Baudysova, head of the Our Child Foundation says that the sudden loss of a mother can have far-reaching consequences.

“A child’s strongest bond is to its mother and if that bond is unexpectedly severed the child can be psychologically scarred for life.”

Only two Czech prisons allow mothers with children under age three to keep their children with them – reportedly because they alone have the right facilities. The age limit has been set at the recommendation of child psychologists who claim that children under three need their mothers more than anyone else, while for older kids contact with other children and grown ups is considered essential. The Czech Helsinki Committee is now involved in helping children between age three and 18, whose contact with parents in prison is restricted. Katerina Matulova of the Czech Helsinki Committee is the project coordinator:

“We are focusing on children who end up in institutional care because one or both parents are serving time in prison. Our primary goal is to help these children overcome the trauma of their circumstances and maintain a bond with their parents. Some of them have not seen them for months or years and we want to help renew the parent-child relationship where possible, by giving both the parents and children counseling and arranging visits. We want to see what can be done for them.”

Very little has been done in this field in the Czech Republic and the Czech Helsinki Committee says that a recent international conference on the subject has helped to outline a few long-term goals: a hotline for both children and parents who find themselves in similar circumstances, clubs for children who are stigmatized by having a parent in jail, improving the prison environment where parents and children meet and eventually enabling more frequent visits which would help maintain the bond between parents and children during this traumatic time in their lives. Katerina Matulova says she knows this is not going to happen overnight but the Czech Helsinki Committee is determined to make it happen as soon as possible.