Areas of Work

Children of Prisoners

Children are deeply affected when a parent is imprisoned. Yet millions of affected children worldwide are overlooked at every stage of the criminal justice process, and there are no international standards on how countries should act to protect their rights and welfare.

Children can face stigma from friends and others in the community. They can experience difficulties in maintaining contact with incarcerated parents, and face financial hardship. Practice around the world varies considerably, and there is much potentially good practice, such as police officers who conduct arrests in child-friendly ways, judges who consider the impact of potential sentences on children, prison administrations that organise child-friendly visiting arrangements and schools or NGOs that support the child on the outside.

QUNO has published groundbreaking research on this issue since 2005, highlighting practices worldwide relating to children living in prison with a parent, as well as to children who remain outside during parental incarceration, and more recently on issues relating to children of parents facing the death penalty. QUNO was also a partner in the COPING Project, a three-year investigation looking at the mental health of children of prisoners.

Developing out of this research, QUNO has also pioneered work that highlights issues affecting the children of parents sentenced to death or executed. These children are the hidden victims of the death penalty, often experiencing the sentencing or execution of their father or mother as severe psychological and emotional trauma. These devastating consequences of the death penalty tend to receive little attention in criminal justice systems and the children are often left unsupported. We have published several significant pieces of research on this topic and continue to raise the issue at the international level.

Ongoing Activities

  • Developing awareness, at national and international levels, of the rights and well-being of children whose parents are in detention and of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or executed.
  • Working with the UN human rights mechanisms and treaty bodies, especially the Committee on the Rights of the Child, to further acknowledge the rights of these children and to promote good practice.
  • Disseminating the findings and recommendations of the COPING project research.
  • Convening a Child Rights Connect working group of partner organisations working on children of incarcerated parents around the world and maintaining this working group’s database of relevant Committee on the Rights of concluding observations 
  • Working with partner organisations to provide information about children detained in prison with a parent into the UN’s global study on children deprived of their liberty.


Recent Timeline Events

November 2019

Global Study on Children Deprived of their Liberty

For over a decade, QUNO has worked to draw attention to the rights of children of incarcerated parents and to strengthen standards and guidance to better protect their rights.

QUNO Geneva has warmly welcomed the publication of the full version of the UN’s Global Study on Children Deprived of their Liberty, following their significant contributions to its contents.

The Global Study – officially launched during the UN’s conference for the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – contains a chapter on ‘Children Living in Prisons with their Primary Caregiver’, children who are de facto deprived of their liberty.

This chapter provides an important step in work on this area, on which QUNO Geneva’s Human Rights and Refugees programme has worked for several years, including input to this chapter. With little previous focus on their situation and rights, the chapter offers some initial data collected from States and outlines some of the key concerns regarding these children’s development, as well as analysing the legal framework applicable to them.

Importantly, the Global Study provides a series of recommendations to states. QUNO Geneva particularly welcomes the recommendation that ‘a presumption against a custodial measure or sentence for primary caregivers should apply’. This presumption reflects the detrimental impacts upon children of both separation from their primary caregiver and of living inside a prison. 

QUNO is looking forward to the implementation of the recommendations put forward in the Global Study, which provide a valuable contribution to the development of the rights of children with incarcerated caregivers.

The full Global Study is now available online here.


Related Areas of Work


October 2019

QUNO welcomes the launch of UN Global Study on Children Deprived of their Liberty

The Child Rights Connect Working Group on Children of Incarcerated Parents, which QUNO co-convenes, welcomes the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of their Liberty. We particularly welcome the Study’s detailed discussion on the rights of children living in prison with a parent, and the research which has been undertaken on this crucial subject.

Laurel Townhead, Human Rights and Refugees Representative for the Quaker United Nations Office and co-convenor of the Child Rights Connect Working Group on Children of Incarcerated Parents said:

After more than a decade working on the rights of children incarcerated parents, we welcome the conclusions and recommendations made in the Study on the issue of children living in prison with a parent. We are pleased to see the recognition of the fundamental importance of treating these children as rights-holders and ensuring that their best interests are a key consideration in decision-making.

The Study has made significant inroads in terms of reliable data collection concerning children deprived of liberty, both quantitative and qualitative. The emphasis on non-custodial responses is a very welcome endorsement of the relevance of a child’s rights when sentencing their parent. The Study recommends:

When a primary caregiver of a young child is convicted of a criminal offence, judges should prioritize non-custodial solutions.

We regret that the Study’s scope was too general to articulate the fact that many detained children are also parents and thus have a unique set of experiences and needs which must be considered. Similarly, the study does not mention the fact that children living in institutions may also have a parent in prison, a situation which again deserves particular attention and approaches. Follow up and further work should take account of the impact that race, ethnicity and membership of other minority groups has on experience of the criminal justice system and incarceration.

We would also like to draw attention to the existence of the many children of incarcerated parents who do not live with them in prison. While we recognise that these children fall outside of the Study’s remit, they remain profoundly linked to this discussion, particularly as some of these older children have experience of living in prison in their infancy. The Council of Europe’s recommendation on children with imprisoned parents provides a useful set of guidelines for States on a rights-based approach to these children.[1]

The presentation of the Global Study is a considerable milestone in the understanding of the scale of children deprived of liberty and trends in the data. The Study can also be thought of as the first step in improving more consistent, reliable data collection and working towards implementation of the Global Study recommendations, an area in which Civil Society has a key role to play.


[1] Council of Europe, Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)5 of the Committee of Ministers to member States concerning children with imprisoned parents, 4 April 2018.

Related Areas of Work

October 2019

World Day Against the Death Penalty

10 October marks the World Day Against the Death Penalty which this year focuses children of parents sentenced to death or executed with the title Children: The Unseen Victims of the Death Penalty.  The World Day will draw attention to the impact on children of parental death sentences and executions.

Since 2011 QUNO has worked to better understand these impacts, how these harms can be mitigated and how the rights of this group of children can be upheld. Our 2013 report Lightening the Load explores the harms for children and what steps can be taken to ameliorate them. This year we published an expert legal analysis to examine how the existing international legal framework provides protection for the rights of children who face the loss of their parent in this way.  

The Human Rights Council has:

Acknowledge[d] the negative impact of a parent’s death sentence and his or her execution on his or her children, and urge[d] States to provide those children with the protection and assistance they may require; (read full document here)

The Committee on the Rights of the child recommended to States:

Take into consideration the existence of children and their best interests when considering the death penalty and provide psychological and other support necessary to children whose parents have been sentenced to death; (read full document here)

The Human Rights Committee is clear:

States … should … refrain from executing … parents to very young or dependent children. (read full document here)

To help translate these and other standards into change for children we have produced a set of Briefing Tools for different professions which have duties towards children of parents sentenced to death or executed.

Across the world on World Day Against the Death Penalty people are joining together to say that we see these children, we see the damage the death penalty can do in their lives and we call for an end to the harms they suffer.

Related Areas of Work