Challenges abound for US kids who’ve had a parent in prison

27 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Challenges abound for US kids who’ve had a parent in prison.

Five percent of the global population lives in the United States, but nearly a quarter of the world’s inmates are locked in American prisons. Now almost 10, she’s a confident, popular student, and ace recruiter for the program that helped her, says Daniel Howell, a case manager for New Hope Oklahoma.

An estimated five million U.S. children have had at least one parent imprisoned—representing 1 in every 14 children under the age of 18—according to a report released by Child Trends today. We know our incarceration rate, among the highest on the planet, is costly — and reports show the staggering number of people behind bars hasn’t significantly reduced crime. When playing games like cops and robbers most children wave their hands frantically in order to play the role of the cop; young ones do not like the prospect of being the robber and going to jail, even if it is just a game.

And now a new study, published Tuesday, adds a new perspective to the national debate over how to punish non-violent offenders: The health and well-being of their children. The causes of this trauma are varied, but in all cases the incarceration means a child is far more likely to experience additional adversity in the crucial years of their development. More than half of children who have seen a parent go to prison have also lived with someone with a substance abuse problem (compared to less than 10 percent of those without a parent in prison).

Children living in rural areas are also more likely than those in metropolitan areas to have had an incarcerated parent. “Certainly if a parent poses a danger to the child, parental incarceration can have positive effects,” said David Murphey, a senior research scientist at Child Trends and co-author of the report. “However, most research finds negative outcomes for these children, such as childhood health and behavioral problems and grade retention. New Hope Oklahoma offers activities for those with parents behind bars, hosting after school programs, weekend retreats, and summer camps on a regular basis.

After accounting for effects associated with demographic characteristics such as income and race, Child Trends found that parental incarceration was associated with: the child’s having experienced a greater number of other major, potentially traumatic life events—stressors that are most damaging when they are cumulative; Parental incarceration is among several major, potentially traumatic events known as “adverse childhood experiences,” which also include witnessing domestic violence, having parents who are divorced, and others. Research indicates that many of the children face increased risk of problems with behavior, academics, self-esteem and substance abuse — in some cases resulting in criminality passed from one generation to the next. Among these children: The report highlights the importance of families, schools, and communities in providing greater support to children who experience parental incarceration. Of course, it’s hard to definitively say how many nonviolent offenders are stuck in the criminal justice system at any given time — or that peddling heroin is truly less violent than, say, a burglary motivated by starvation.

Still, at least 331,000 adults were incarcerated in 2013 for drug offenses, or a crime that could have been as simple as carrying a pouch of marijuana, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Suggestions include improving communications between parent and child, making prison visits less stressful, and educating school teachers on how they can help affected children overcome stigma. “Progress has been slow,” said Child Trends researcher David Murphey, the report’s lead author. “This is a vulnerable group of kids that is often hidden from public view. Part of this is simply due to stigma: “Having an imprisoned parent is an example of a loss that is not socially approved or (often) supported,” the report states, “which may compound children’s grief and pain, leading to emotional difficulties and problem behaviors.” In many cases, family trauma starts—and ends—with the tendrils of the prison-industrial complex. The report, “Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?,” warns that kids temporarily or permanently separated from parents more often develop health problems, miss school and, eventually, break the law.

Washington state has won plaudits for establishing child-friendly visiting areas in all its prisons; so has a program in southeast Michigan that facilitates playful, 2-hour visits between imprisoned parents and their kids. It’s unclear from the Child Trends data if this is correlational or some level of causation, but longitudinal research on the relationship between socioeconomic status and ‘dysfunctional’ family structures shows the two are certainly intermingled. Some outcomes are intuitive: They receive less parental supervision, they tend to live in households with below-average income and they face higher rates of anxiety thanks, in part, to the emotional trauma and social stigma of losing a parent to the justice system. The result is that lower-income single-parent households are perpetually stuck in poverty (45 percent of children without fathers, either in jail or otherwise, are living in poverty), and are naturally predisposed to traumas like domestic violence and mental illness. Child Trends used data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health—a phone survey where a parent or other knowledgeable adult answers questions about a child in their household.

Visiting areas are decorated and stocked with playthings, and music is provided for twice-monthly play-oriented visits for perhaps a half-dozen families at a time. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission tackled one obstacle by slashing the cost of prison phone calls, which can reach $14 for a brief conversation. Linda VanderWaal, the agency’s associate director for family re-entry, noted that some jails in Michigan don’t allow contact visits, while other facilities insist that child visitors remain seated. “We move the chairs back so there’s room to throw a ball,” VanderWaal said. “It’s fine if a dad wants to toss his kid in the air or wrestle on the floor. It’s a true play date.” When the program started 12 years ago, some corrections officials were hesitant, she said, but the wariness dissipated as they saw how participating parents adjusted more positively after they were released. Some prisons, mostly women’s prisons, have introduced special visitation programs, allowing kids to bond with their parents without enduring strict security procedures.

The opportunity should be equally extended to fathers, Murphey said, so they also have the opportunity to preserve family relationships and offer emotional support to their kids. Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced it would release 6,000 inmates early from prison, the largest one-time release of federal prisoners, in an effort to curb overcrowding and free drug offenders who received particularly harsh sentences over the last thirty years. Officials estimate the change in sentencing guidelines could result in the relative freedom of 46,000 of the country’s estimated 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison.

The action followed President Obama’s plan to grant clemency to certain drug offenders, which has so far spurred the early release of 89 prisoners. But you’re not viewed in the same heroic way.” Jody Becker-Green, a deputy secretary of Washington’s corrections department, says one goal is to break the intergenerational cycle by minimizing the emotional damage to children whose parents are imprisoned.

Unlike most states, Washington has a child-friendly visiting area in each of its 12 state prisons — supplied with books and games, cartoon characters painted on the walls. In another innovation, the corrections department inaugurated a three-day summer camp in June for children of inmates, with department personnel serving as counselors.

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