The other side of incarceration: What happens to children left behind?

27 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

1 in 14 US Kids Have Had a Parent Behind Bars, Study Shows.

More than five million US children have experienced one parent serving time, according to research from Child Trends, which used the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health to look at the rate of parents serving prison time and how their children are affected. 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.A recent study has shown that 1 in 14 kids from the United States have had a parent behind bars, and that figure is almost twice as high when it comes to African-American children. 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. According to the experts, whose primary mission is to provide insight into the well-being of kids and teenagers, the purpose of the study was to investigate “the prevalence of parental incarceration”.

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 ultimate aim of the report, entitled “Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children”, was to determine the consequences of parental incarceration on the kids’ emotional development and comfort. “We feel it’s important to put this on the radar screen” and allow people to “realize there’s more to it than the adults themselves”, explained David Murphey, co-author of the report and senior research scientist at Child Trends.

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. Children living in poverty are more than three times as likely to have experienced the incarceration of a parent as children in families with incomes at least twice the poverty level. 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). According to study authors, the number has grown because although the overwhelming majority of incarcerated parents consists of males, there are currently more female prisoners than before, many of them being behind bars after having reacted to instances of domestic violence. Child Trends found that parental incarceration was associated with other potentially traumatic life events, more emotional difficulties, and low school engagement.

Overall, more than 5 million young people have had to deal with this sort of situation at one point in their lives, and the impact has been devastating. New Hope Oklahoma offers activities for those with parents behind bars, hosting after school programs, weekend retreats, and summer camps on a regular basis. Experts who study these children, or work with them, say parental incarceration is distinguished from other childhood woes by a mix of shame, stigma and trauma.

The Prison Policy Initiative recently found that distance is a deterrent, calculating that 63 percent of state prison inmates are behind bars more than 100 miles from their families, often requiring a full day just to make a brief visit. 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. Such changes are significant even in the 6-to-11 age group, children in this category experiencing shame, depression and multiple difficulties of adjustment in school. Child Trends suggests reducing the stigma associated with having an imprisioned parent, and making prison visits less stressful or traumatizing for children. For a child, visiting a prison is, of course, frightening, and creating prison policies to help kids navigate heavy security and strict rules is complicated, even though there is a preponderance of evidence that shows children are reassured when an incarcerated parent can be hugged and visited. “For a number of children, there’s anxiety waiting to go into the jail – some are scared,” Ms.

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. Even worse, this incarceration tends to occur at the same time with other traumatic circumstances, like living with a parent who is physically abusive or a drug addict, or going through the parents’ divorce or separation. But nationally, “progress has been slow,” says Child Trends researcher David Murphey, the report’s lead author. “This is a vulnerable group of kids that is often hidden from public view. For example, more than a third of children with parents who have been in prison are affected by domestic violence, in comparison with one out of 20 of other kids. 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. Consider that 20 percent of the 2.2 million inmates in the U.S. have child support obligations, many of which can’t be met while prisoners work for pennies behind bars. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Use. 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.

Study authors warn that in fact the numbers might be even more alarming, since the research didn’t include parents who didn’t live at home with their offspring. 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. Groups advocating for these children urge corrections officials to ensure that visiting protocols, including processing and searches, are child-friendly. 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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