By Francis Ssuubi
When a parent is arrested in the presence of a child, it traumatizes the child and later may lead to a mental disorder, and in Uganda the arrests are usually violent. For a child, this is disastrous because a child looks at his father or mother as a hero, an anchor, the strongest dependable person, and now seeing your hero being treated like that is so disturbing to the child. Other causes of mental disorders in children of prisoners include growing up in homes where there is violence (fights, beatings and abuses), sexual abuse, child labor, physical abuse,poverty, and when they take long without seeing their parents they worry a lot. All this can lead to a serious conflict in the child’s mind.
If this man’s son or daughter saw him being arrested like this,it can cause mental illness to the child.
The situation is quiet different for children whose parents are on death row, because when children begin to think that their parents are going to be killed that breaks them. In Uganda, when someone is sentenced to die by hanging, people think that the person is going to die the next day. And what makes it worse; such prisoners are taken miles away from their home areas, so the relatives never get to hear about them. Whenever I visit homes of death row inmates the children keep asking me whether their parents are still alive, because people on the village have already told them that their parent is dead. One girl Betty 16 years, told me that although she was alive, she was a walking dead body, she resurrected when she saw her father in prison after 8 years. That explains why children should not take long with out seeing their parents even though they are in prison. Also if children are visiting their parents in prison, it should be in a child friendly environment. Wells of Hope has achieved this, although for only 105 children, yet in Uganda there an estimated 90,000 children with a parent in prison. When our children visit, we accompany them and their parents are brought to them in a room, they are able to hold them, cuddle, kiss them and lift them and talk with them.
Rhoda 15 years is one of the children at Wells of Hope Academy. I met Rhoda in 2007 while tracing Children of Prisoners. She had one Dress, and she would walk four miles to go to school, she would have one meal a day, and that was in the evening when she would return home.
Since the year began she has been sad, and depressed, we did not know that this would degenerate serious mental sickness. She is currently admitted in Psychiatric ward in Old Mulago Hospital.
The doctor attending to her said that she has Conversion disorder, a psychiatric disorder, It is thought that this problem arose in response to difficulties Rhoda experienced while her mother was imprisoned for 14 years .Together with Julius 18, whom we also support with school fees in a secondary school elsewhere, they asked me if their mother was alive the first time I met them when in Mpingire village, Serere Eastern Uganda. Even when we brought them to Kampala to join Wells of Hope Academy, they came primarily to meet their mother and then to benefit from the education support. Their mother was released from prison in April 2011, and when she went back to her village, her husband the father of Rhoda and Julius chased her away from home, since he had remarried and he did not want to associate with an ex-prisoner. This scenario also hit Rhoda badly.
The doctor told me that, from his five year experience he has observed that Children growing up in violent environments are likely to get a conversion disorder, he gives an example of a home where a father keeps beating his wife in the presence of their children. He goes on to explain that, this disorder presents itself as a result of a conflict in the child’s mind. So they start behaving in an awkward way, they pass this physical symptom to psychiatric symptoms, so as to win attention. This problem affects mainly female between 14 to 20 years.Some of all of these effects show up later in life.
This is very evident at Wells of Hope, out of the 105 children we have, we see this problem in 16 children. Only that in some of them it is severe. Other problems we see in this children that are related to the trauma they have experienced include truancy, sleeping disorders, clumsiness, low esteem, stunted growth and aggressive behavior.
Having said all this we still have children who are extremely bright, talented, ambitious and with impeccable manners and above this they are normal children just like other children who do not have parents in prison. And our intervention, in helping them cope with parental imprisonment has created a huge difference.
Having said that, generally children even those whose parents are not in prison are all affected by violence and mistreatment. That explains why we should be friendly to children and promote a violence free environment for Children.
Children at Wells of Hope Academy,when they received a donation of shoes in May 2012