Children of Parents Sentenced to Death

Chapter 7
Children of Parents Sentenced to Death1

Helen Kearney

No one has studied how the execution of an immediate family member impacts children. We don’t even know how many children have an immediate family member on death row in the US. Worse, we don’t know the effect that having a parent executed will have on their impressionable lives and the cost society may pay for that impact. (Meeropol, 2005)

Robert Meeropol’s parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed by the USA government in 1953, under the Unconstitutional Espionage Act. He was six years old. (Meeropol, 2003)

Little attention has been given to the children of those sentenced to death or executed. Globally, a small but growing body of evidence indicates that such children suffer a uniquely traumatic, profoundly complicated and socially isolating loss. In some countries, especially where the death penalty is routinely used in cases of domestic violence, the parental death sentence often means the start of a life on the street. As social workers from Uganda and China report,2 these children may lose both their parents.

For children in other countries, the parental death sentence means a violent and isolating bereavement, with a subsequently unsupported grieving process and likely long-term repercussions. Recent studies document the serious emotional and psychological distress experienced by the children and families of death row inmates, characterized by symptoms corresponding with post-traumatic stress disorder, ambiguous loss, and complicated and disenfranchised grief (Beck, Britto and Andrews, 2007; Jones and Beck, 2006; King, 2005; King, 2006; King, 2007; Long, 2011; Sharp, 2005).

In 2011, the UN Committee for the Convention on the Rights of the Child devoted its Day of General Discussion to ‘Children of Incarcerated Parents’. Amnesty International prepared a written submission raising awareness of the impact of a parent’s death sentence on children (Amnesty International, 2011). It focused on situations that occur in violation of existing international standards on the use of capital punishment, namely secrecy surrounding detention on death row and execution. Over the course of the day, this topic generated considerable interest. It became apparent that the perspective of the children of those sentenced to death or executed had been neglected, by retentionists and abolitionists alike.

In early 2012, UN Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/RES/19/37 was adopted without a vote (19 April 2012). It calls upon States:

To ensure that children whose parents or parental caregivers are on death row, the inmates themselves, their families and their legal representatives are provided, in advance, with adequate information about a pending execution, its date, time and location, to allow a last visit or communication with the convicted person, the return of the body to the family for burial or to inform on where the body is located, unless this is not in the best interests of the child.

Furthermore, mindful of the fact that States do not regularly collect data on children of incarcerated parents, including the children of parents incarcerated on death row, paragraph 5 of the Resolution ‘encourage[s] States to develop and strengthen the collection, analysis and dissemination of data for national statistics, including … children of incarcerated parents’.

In the absence of statistics on this forgotten group of children, it is none the less clear that the damage inflicted by the capital justice system is significant. Over 60 per cent of the world’s population currently live in countries where the death penalty is used. At the end of 2011, at least 18,780 people remained under sentence of death (Amnesty International, 2012). This figure does not include the many thousands of executions carried out in China, where exact numbers remain a state secret.3 Nor does the figure account for the probable extent of the death penalty in the Islamic Republic of Iran (Amnesty International, 2012). Moreover, the effects of this unusual punishment reach far beyond the head count of a single year, both in terms of the quantity and the quality of the harm inflicted.

In the light of these recent developments, it is clear that there is an urgent need to examine the effects of the capital punishment system in its entirety. This includes the social, economic and psychological impacts on lives that were never intended to be the target of death penalty laws. This chapter begins to explore the diverse and multifaceted impacts of the death sentence on the children of the accused.

A wide range of access, methodological and ethical issues make research into this topic exceptionally difficult. However, existing studies are not simply lacking the appropriate scale and rigour. The impacts on the children of the accused seem to have been almost entirely overlooked. In criminal justice systems that are primarily concerned with identifying and punishing the individual offender, and secondarily with his or her welfare, the perspective of the offender’s child as rights bearer and victim is routinely omitted. With regards to capital punishment, when this routine neglect is compounded by the complex mechanisms of shock, shame, stigma, repression and isolation, the innocent child becomes completely invisible.

In the absence of any study with representative samples, well-validated measures and appropriate comparison data, the hypothesis that parental death penalty causes psychosocial difficulties for children seems reasonable. This chapter will raise awareness of some of the issues facing the child. It will consider and elaborate on each of these issues in as much detail as the current literature permits, highlighting directions for future study.

Primarily, the aim is to raise awareness among civil society, and to encourage and enable States to take responsibility for the full impacts of their criminal justice systems. Understanding the repercussions that the death penalty has on the children of the accused is essential to identifying what interventions, assistance or policy changes could prevent and/or mitigate their suffering.

While the focus of this chapter remains the impacts of the death sentence on the children of the accused, it is important to consider how far the repercussions extend out into communities, over generations and beyond the children immediately impacted by the loss of a parent. Capital punishment has a huge symbolic significance. Studies have repeatedly shown that children’s exposure to violence can predict attitudes justifying their own use of violence (Spaccarelli, Coatsworth and Bowden, 1995; Carlson, 1991; Jaffe, Wilson and Wolfe, 1986). What attitudes do children living in societies using the death penalty develop regarding conflict and the use of violence?

Existing Research on the Impacts of the Death Sentence on the Children of the Accused

Like the vast majority of death penalty scholarship, the few studies that do exist are based on experience in the USA. This author has not located any formal study of the impacts of the death penalty on children and/or families from any other country in the world. In order to supplement existing research, this chapter draws on limited anecdotal evidence: the opinions of people working with the children of long-term prisoners or those sentenced to death, short videos taken with hand-held cameras and posted online, newspaper articles and reports.

All existing studies are descriptive accounts, based on availability (convenience) samples, where no comparison groups were used and no baseline data was collected (Beck, Britto and Andrews, 2007; Jones and Beck, 2006; King, 2005; King, 2006; King, 2007; Long, 2011; Sharp, 2005; King and Norgard, 1999; Vallejo, 1995; Smykla, 1987; Radelet, Vandiver and Berardo, 1982). All consider the effects of death sentences and executions on the families of condemned prisoners. To the best of our knowledge, this chapter is the first publication to specifically raise awareness of the child as rights bearer and victim. It draws on evidence of the impacts on families in order to explore the impacts on children.

A child’s well-being is undoubtedly enmeshed in the well-being of the families, households and communities in which he or she lives. When a mother, uncle or sibling suffers a violent bereavement, it is unlikely that the child will not suffer too. However, this chapter focuses on the child, and aims to raise awareness of his or her need for special care and protection, especially when a parent’s death sentence means the start of a life on the street. Children experience grief and emotional and psychological trauma differently from adults, and are likely to need special assistance (see Dyregrov, 2008; Cohen, Mannarino and Deblinger, 2006).

Studies to date have all used qualitative research methods and in-depth interviewing techniques. This is appropriate to such an emotionally charged and sensitive topic, but there are limits to an exclusively qualitative approach. Because of the sample size and lack of random sampling methods, generalizations cannot be made. In-depth interviewing is also more prone to interviewer bias, perhaps especially around such a controversial issue as the death penalty, so interviewers must be aware of their own preconceived ideas about how children experience the capital justice process, and attention must be given to designing data collection instruments and conduct interviews in order to minimize bias.

This chapter suggests that some quantitative research is also required in order to seriously address the needs of this neglected population. A balance should be struck between allowing the ‘forgotten victims’ to tell their stories, expressing their own unique experiences, and the more quantitative counting, measuring and evaluating of impacts.

Issues to Consider

The Scale of the Impacts

How many children are directly affected by a parent’s death sentence and/or execution? How many people are sentenced to death and/or executed, and how many children do they have? Beyond the immediate children and family, how wide does the circle of affected people extend? Are the effects limited to those living at the time, or do the impacts reach into future generations?

Impacts on Children

Detailed research into impacts of the parent’s death sentence on children is needed. How does it affect the child emotionally and behaviourally? How does this vary according to age and developmental stage? How is the child’s development affected (emotional, behavioural, cognitive)? How does the death penalty affect families more generally (caregivers and family systems), with indirect implications for the child’s well-being?


How do children grieve and process their loss? How long does this grieving process last? What assistance or interventions might best support their grieving processes? It will be necessary to track such processes over time, interviewing subjects on more than one occasion.4

The Nature of the Crime

How does the child’s experience vary according to the nature of the (alleged) crime? Is the parent a political prisoner? Does the child believe his or her parent to have been wrongly convicted? When parents are convicted of the same crime in different cultural contexts, how do children’s experiences vary?

Comparison Groups

No existing study has used comparison groups, so there is a need for research with the methodological sophistication to distinguish the effects of parental death sentence from the effects of other factors in these children’s lives. It is likely that there are pre-existing differences between the children of parents on death row and their peers, which may contribute to their difference in outcome; indeed, the few studies on the backgrounds of condemned prisoners in the USA indicate that they frequently suffered childhoods fraught with poverty and high levels of violence, neglect, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and other dysfunctions (Haney, 1997; Lewis et al., 1998).

Evidence repeatedly suggests that other condemned prisoners from around the world have at least their extreme poverty in common with these North American prisoners.5 Their children presumably share this underprivileged position.

How do the experiences of these children compare with:

1. the experiences of children whose parent has been given a long term prison sentence;

2. the experiences of children whose parent has been murdered; or

3. the experiences of children whose parents have died of natural causes?

Representative Samples

In order to speak authoritatively about how the death penalty affects children and to work more effectively to recognize, support and consider their needs, a study that is representative of all those accused of a capital offence within a country is needed. Studies thus far have been unrepresentative, for two main reasons (besides the fact that they have all been based in the USA). First, all have been limited to children and family members who maintain contact with the parent on death row. What about children whose families break contact? Indeed, how frequently do children stay in contact with a parent on death row? Second, participation in studies has been limited to family members who choose to participate and be identified as related to someone either convicted or accused of a capital crime. It has been observed that those who volunteer are often those who are actively involved in campaigning or advocacy. Commenting on the unrepresentative nature of her own study, Susan Sharp notes that most participants who came forward were white, despite the fact that nearly half the individuals on death row in the USA are African-American (Sharp, 2005, 21). She suggests that African-Americans are less likely to become activists for economic reasons (proportionately more African-Americans are from lower socioeconomic groups, where more time must be spent meeting basic needs, and fewer people have access to a computer and so on), and that families from such groups are less likely to remain in close contact with the prisoner due to transportation difficulties (Sharp, 2005, 21–2).

In addition to the economic and practical reasons highlighted by Sharp, there may also be cultural factors meaning that family members from some ethnic, racial, religious and socio-economic groups are more likely to become involved in activism. Moreover, there is an element of interviewer effect. The majority of researchers have been white and based at universities, which could influence who feels sufficiently comfortable to come forward and speak about such a sensitive and personal issue. Finally, it may be that the belief in the family member’s innocence and determination to fight, rather than accept, the sentence makes participants more likely to come forward.

Children of Parents Sentenced to Death or Executed Compared with the Children of Long-term Prisoners

An expanding body of research suggests that parental incarceration is associated with a range of significant negative outcomes for many children (see Murray, 2005). It is likely that children with a parent accused and/or convicted of a capital crime also experience many of these negative effects, possibly to a greater degree. Part of the reason for some States’ increased interest in the children of prisoners is the recent attention to the connection between the maintenance of incarcerated parents’ ties to their children and a number of positive outcomes, for both the prisoners and the wider criminal justice system. Established outcomes include reduced disciplinary problems when in custody, reduced mental health problems both during imprisonment and after release, greater likelihood of family reunification, and reduced recidivism (Social Exclusion Unit, 2002). However, children are not merely ‘ties’ to be maintained in order to facilitate offender management and reintegration. The case of children whose parents are sentenced to death highlights the inadequacy of this purely instrumental approach. Since there will be no release or reintegration, these parent–child relations may be seen as a ‘lost cause’. These children have their own rights and needs, which should be recognized and fulfilled.

The literature on the children of the incarcerated around the world makes frequent mention of the stigma, discrimination and shame that these children suffer. In the light of historically high global incarceration rates, it could be argued that this is likely to be attenuated as parental incarceration becomes more ‘normal’, even ‘cool’ and ‘tough’ in some cultural contexts (Schwartz and Weintraub, 1974). Conversely, it could be suggested that stigma may increase because those communities with the highest incarceration rates are often also those which suffer from the highest crime rates (Braman, 2004).

However, the stigma of the death penalty is particularly strong. It is the ultimate punishment that a society can inflict. In the People’s Republic of China, a social worker remarked: ‘children of convicts are considered themselves to be criminals. These children bring bad luck. No one wants to take care of them and they end up on the street’ (Morning Tears, 2011).

Media Attention

In many countries, execution attracts disproportionate media attention, which can add to the child’s and family’s feelings of exposure and humiliation. In the People’s Republic of China, Interviews Before Execution was a hugely successful prime-time reality television show on the Henan Legal Channel for the past five years (it was cancelled in March 2012). With a following of 40 million viewers every Saturday night, it followed a familiar chat show format, showing glamorous presenter Ding Hu interviewing prisoners. She encouraged them to review the violent details of their crimes and they often begged for forgiveness before being led away for execution. In one episode, a convict in his twenties fell to his knees before his parents (who, unusually, had been allowed a final visit). He pled, ‘Dad, I was wrong. I’m sorry,’ and his distraught mother apologized for beating him once as a child. Then the guards pushed her aside and dragged him away to be executed.

In the USA, the sister of a man who was executed said ‘there were blurbs on the television for the entire ten years. I can’t tell you the hell it put my mother through and is still putting her through’ (Sharp, 2005, 36). The death penalty remains a relatively unusual punishment with an enormous symbolic significance. In many countries, its comparative rarity coupled with its heightened media attention compound the stigma.

In States parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the child has the right to be free from all forms of discrimination based on the status of his or her parent(s) (Article 2). Given the strong stigma attached to capital punishment, this right may be violated when a parent is executed or incarcerated on death row.

Children of Parents Sentenced to Death Compared with Children of Parents Who Died of Natural or Accidental Causes

While the death of a parent or relative is often a painful loss, the knowledge that the death was caused by the deliberate actions of another human being(s) is distinctly traumatic and difficult to deal with, especially for a child.

In a short video taken with a hand-held camera and posted on the Internet, Iman Shirali says: ‘it’s been 27 years. Me and my family have lost someone not due to a driving accident but due to a bullet shot by this regime’ (Shirali, 2009). His father was executed in 1982, when Iman was just nine months old, for opposing the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Addressing the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Marlene Young, President of the World Society of Victimology, quoted statistics on victimizations around the world and then observed: ‘these numbers do not take into account the families and friends who will also suffer loss, pain and trauma as the result of the violation of a loved one’ (Young, 2006). Young is referring specifically to the impact of a loved one’s murder as compared to dying of natural causes. Lu Redmond, homicide grief expert in the USA, has estimated that there are seven to ten close relatives – not including significant others, friends, neighbours and co-workers – for each victim (Redmond, 1989). Redmond refers to those left behind as ‘homicide survivors’, suggesting that their relationship with the primary victim will cause them to suffer for the rest of their lives (Redmond, 1989).

This chapter suggests that research should be done to estimate the numbers of children, relatives and people in general who are affected by a death sentence or execution.

Victims in Need of Recognition and Support

‘Jason’, the brother of an executed man in the USA, observed: ‘there are two sets of victims – the victim’s family and the family of the person on death row’ (Sharp, 2005, 39). Kon Wei, a social worker at Morning Tears Children’s Village in the People’s Republic of China,6 which caters for children whose parents have been executed or given life sentences, remarked: ‘once the parent got caught, really nobody want [sic] them – even the families, the relatives, the neighbours’ (Morning Tears, 2011).

In some countries, death certificates of the executed list ‘homicide’ as the cause of death.7