Doctor wants more done for children of prisoners

600,000 kids have a parent behind bars, and Belgian psychologist says they need help in the form of care centres with national standards

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 4:22am

A Belgian psychologist in Beijing who has devoted the past 15 years to safeguarding the welfare of children of convicts is helping authorities develop national standards for child-protection centres.

He is also designing protocols to place unattended children in the care of these centres.

The number of children across the country with a parent in prison is overwhelming - 600,000 by the Ministry of Justice's last count in 2008. But according to Dr Koen Sevenants, that is not the whole story.

"It's not only the number - the pain these children are suffering is tremendous," Sevenants said.

"They have been subjected to violence, their development is disrupted and many think it's their fault that their parents are in prison. How can you be accepted by your peers when you are constantly bullied and feel ashamed of who you are?

"So it's not the number - an individual child is enough to warrant an organisation."

A child was also six times more likely to go to prison if he had a parent in prison, the doctor said.

Sevenants is general director of the Morning Tears Alliance, a non-governmental organisation specialising in the care of children of prisoners. More than 1,000 children have benefited from the group, which provides family-like care centres and training for caregivers in partnership with all levels of government on the mainland.

Sevenants' team is working with authorities at both the national level and in Zhengzhou , Henan , on a three-year project that began in December to assist these children.

"We hope to get to a point where all of these children are in the hands of government authorities," he said, adding that if private organisations met official requirements, they might receive a licence to operate such child-care centres.

The organisation is also designing protocols for the government to assist in the referral of children to such centres.

"We already work with the government, and the decision to do this was not from us, but from the authorities, which shows that they are very serious about it," Sevenants said.

Earlier this month, seven children died in a fire at an unlicensed foster home for abandoned children in Lankao county, Henan. Sevenants noted that "things always move more quickly" after such high-profile tragedies.

"Now it shows there is an urgent need" for both such child-care centres and qualified caregivers to work in them, he said.

"They have the hardware in place - the buildings and the budget," Sevenants said.

"The big problem is the education level of caregivers, especially for children with special needs - children with disabilities or traumatised children."

Another problem was finding qualified psychologists to help the children, the doctor said.

Many children of prisoners have been traumatised or abused, and they feel partly responsible for what happened, as well as confused and scared.

Sevenants said his centre wanted to raise "resilient children", children who were better able to recover from hardships.

"There are many little things to help children become resilient children, and the most important one is that they love themselves, so that they can overcome bad times in their lives."