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.

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.

The report, Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?, reveals that 1 in 9 black children have experienced parental incarceration, and children who are living in poverty are more than three times more likely to have a parent in prison than those from higher-income families. 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. 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. 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. 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.

Incarceration rates in the United States are higher than those of any other reporting country, including Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Australia, and others. 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. 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. Long distances are a deterrent: A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative calculates that 63 percent of state prison inmates are confined more than 100 miles from their families, often requiring a full day just to make a brief visit. 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. “These kids are overlooked and invisible in our society,” Becker-Green said. “They feel shame, they feel guilt in having a parent incarcerated.” 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. Applications for spots at the camp were submitted by the imprisoned parents themselves, and Becker-Green said there were plenty of tears at the camp’s closing ceremony when children read portions of those applications in which the mothers and fathers expressed devotion to their kids.

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