The death penalty: a child rights issue and a public health issue

“I’d never thought about any of these people having a family (…) it was like they were hatched and grew up in isolation (…) Now I wish people could understand that everyone who is executed had a mother and a father, maybe brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends, whatever, and that each one of these people have been hurt and impacted by the execution.”

Irene Cartwright, whose son was executed in 2005, in Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights Reports, Creating More Victims, 2006

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There is a striking lack of research on the impacts of a parent’s death sentence or execution on their children. Across the range of perspectives in the death penalty debate, people generally give little thought to those left behind. In practice, the individualism of criminal justice systems around the world means that the voices of offenders’ children are routinely unheard.

This article explores the multidimensional harm that these children endure. It draws on interviews with psychologists, lawyers, social workers and activists from around the world, citing examples of good practices. It calls for a more holistic understanding of capital punishment systems, including the social, economic and psychological impacts on lives that were never intended to be the targets of death penalty laws.

Homelessness and alternative care
In some countries, especially where the death penalty is applied in cases of death by domestic violence, children may lose both parents. Poverty and stigma combine to mean that these orphans often end up on the street. No one knows how many children are left to fend for themselves when a parent is sentenced to death.
Shuqin Zhang was a supervisor within the Chinese prison system and a journalist focusing on prison-related issues. “I realized that many children were left without a carer after a parent was convicted and sentenced. I saw that these children were threatened by hunger, disease and death, often turning to begging or crime to survive.”
Shuqin or ‘Granny Zhang’, as the children call her, established the first Sun Village in 1996 to provide foster care and education to children who were left without a carer when their parent was executed or imprisoned for life. Now there are six Sun Villages across China. Since 1996, the Sun Villages have supported over 2000 children.

Emotional and behavioural consequences
Grief and loss are always experienced in a social context. When that context is not supportive, the pain of the bereaved is not validated. Grief counsellors and therapists have found that when grief is hidden and unsupported, the bereaved often express intense anger, guilt and shame. Grieving is prolonged and healing is more difficult. Perhaps unsurprisingly, psychologists working with children and families of those sentenced to death or executed in the USA have found that many experience this peculiarly difficult type of ‘disenfranchised grief’, leading to depression, severe anxiety, self-induced isolation, somatic illnesses, withdrawal, sleep disturbances and emotional problems.
In the People’s Republic of China, social workers observe that children of executed parents often suffer from tremendous and irrational guilt. They emphasise the importance of “talking it out of their heads – repeatedly and radically”, observing a range of stress-related symptoms: “bed-wetting, short attention spans, denial, flashbacks, self-harm.”
Contact is allowed and children can sit on the parent’s lap. Wells of Hope staff also pointed out that, in Uganda, families are not usually notified of a loved-one’s execution or upcoming execution. Director Francis Ssuubi noted “When someone receives a death sentence, many people assume that they have already been put to death and so the children may not even be aware that their parent is still alive.”

Human Rights Council Panel, September 2013
These children have recently been put on the agenda at the United Nations. 2013 saw the first ever Human Rights Council panel discussion dedicated to this issue. Panellist Associate Professor Sandra Jones of Rowan University in the USA spoke of research into the grief, trauma and internalised shame that these children endure. Francis Ssuubi, Director of Wells of Hope in Uganda, addressed the need for criminal justice systems that facilitate contact between the child and their incarcerated parent. Member of the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child, Jorge Cardona, spoke of the need to consider the best interests of the child when arresting, sentencing, imprisoning and executing a parent. In the ensuing discussion, some States requested further information, including reliable statistics on the numbers of affected children. It was noted that this issue is relevant to children in both retentionist and abolitionist countries, as many States continue to apply the death penalty for drugs-related offences. As a consequence, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of foreign nationals who are facing the death penalty. No government can be sure that one of its citizens will not receive the death sentence and that their children will not be affected.

A child rights issue and a public health issue
All the evidence indicates that children are left traumatized, grieving and angry when a parent is given the death penalty.
Moreover – beyond the individual children – attention to the trauma, grief and exclusion suffered by a child whose parent is sentenced to death or executed compels us to connect the injustices suffered by these children with much wider structures of violence and discrimination. In turn, attention to larger social problems usually directs attention to situations in which adults are suffering alongside children in the households and communities where they live. Perhaps more than any other category of rights-bearers, a child’s well-being is enmeshed in the social, economic and cultural contexts in which he or she exists. Attention to the welfare of children is essential for its own sake, but a child rights perspective also invites us to go beyond the individualistic focus of conventional criminal justice.
The interconnectedness of the child invites us to explore both the extent of the web of harm caused by a death sentence or execution, and the complex social reality in which the offence originated.

Helen Kearney
Helen Kearney is an Advocacy and Communications Consultant, based just outside Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to this, she was Plan International’s UN Advocacy Officer, and Project Officer at the Quaker UN Office (where this research began). Helen’s interest in child and adolescent mental health stems from her time as a Youth Worker in the UK and Guatemala, where she worked primarily with young offenders. Helen holds a degree in Modern Languages (Politics and Philosophy) from Cambridge, and a Masters in Human Rights from Sussex. She is also a part-time Psychology student with the Open University.