When Parents Are Incarcerated
I have seen a lot of angry, wayward kids in my life. Providing a voice for them has given me a purpose. I have been a child advocate my entire career. I have been defending kids who have lost their way for the past twenty years in juvenile court. Before that, I worked for the Department of Juvenile Services and CASA. In each of these roles, I would encounter kids who were angry with the world, yet completely incapable of articulating the reason for their anger. The stressors that they dealt with were not uncommon in their family, their neighborhood, or their social circle. They thought everyone witnessed violence, drug abuse, and the incarceration of a loved one. They believed these were normal life circumstances unworthy of a conversation.
Over the years, I became used to seeing kids come to court accompanied by a relative that was not their parent. Many of my clients lived with a grandparent, an aunt, or a family friend. Instinctively, I knew that the reason for this living arrangement was probably a source of intense grief or overwhelming stress. Somewhere along the road, in my efforts to protect them from more stress, I stopped asking “where is your mom and dad?” What I know now is that it was a well-intentioned mistake on my part. I’ve learned that to effectively help them, I have to ask the question. There is no other way to determine how they got to the point that they were now, sitting before me in need of legal help.
Generally speaking, we expect parents to raise their own children. When that duty becomes the responsibility of another person, we naturally assume that it is because the parent has, for some reason, become unwilling or unable to handle the job. Whether it is because a parent has died, abandoned their children, or become incapable due to factors such as addiction, mental illness, or incarceration, the child is left exposed to stressors that have an adverse impact on their development. The method of treatment and support, however, will vary significantly depending on the situation. Parental incarceration carries with it unique circumstances that require an approach unlike the other situations. Children of incarcerated parents are a particularly vulnerable group.
Parental incarceration is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes impacting childhood development placing the well-being of a child is at risk. The children of inmates are more likely to be plagued with academic struggles, behavioral problems, health problems, mental illness, family instability, poverty, social stigma, and the potential severance of the parent – child relationship. In Baltimore City alone, an estimated 6,500 children currently have a parent that is incarcerated. Parenthood is a reality for most inmates. More than half of those parents were the primary caretakers of their children when they were incarcerated.
In cities like Baltimore, with high concentrations of poor minorities, there are higher rates of incarceration than the general population. At any given time, one in twenty-five children has a parent that is incarcerated. For African American children, this statistic can be as high as one in nine children. The incarceration of a parent is likely compounding the disadvantages these children already face, setting them further behind, and contributing to racial and social class inequalities in children’s health. In such communities, health professionals, social workers, and advocates should be screening for parental incarceration in order to identify those children that are at an increased risk of health and behavioral problems. The risks for these children are higher than those that are experiencing the stress of a divorce or living with a mentally ill parent. The incarceration of a parent presents the added stress of dealing with social and institutional stigma. The stress caused by the incarceration of a parent is unique because of the lack of control parents and children have regarding their ability to communicate and the conditions under which contact does occur.
Research has shown that when a parent goes to prison, the emotional impact affects the entire family. It has a long range impact on the development of children and can change the course of their lives. Child development theories on bonding, attachment, separation anxiety, and post-traumatic stress offer guides for understanding the impact of the separation caused by incarceration. The loss of a parent to incarceration can cause traumatic stress resulting in changes in a child’s personality, thought processes, and behavior. Young children may regress developmentally causing them to wet the bed or have frequent temper tantrums. Older children my become depressed, aggressive, rebellious, and lose self-esteem resulting in delinquent behavior. School difficulties and problems with their peers are common problems among school aged children. Most commonly, bad grades, truancy, and poor behavior at school are the result. In spite of the considerable stress that children experience, they are often reluctant to talk about it and choose to present a façade of wellness. Reconciling their feelings about how a “bad guy” can still be a good parent is the source of considerable confusion and requires open communication to resolve.
The confinement of a parent, like other unexpected events over which the family has no control, amounts to a family crisis. The entire family feels a tremendous sense of loss when a loved one is incarcerated. The sudden absence of daily interactions and shared experiences often results in loneliness and/or mental health struggles. Families also have to work through feelings of anger about the behaviors that led to the incarceration. The ability of adults to cope with these issues affects the children in the family. If unable to successfully manage the stress surrounding their circumstances, the proper nurturing, care, and guidance may not be provided to the children in the family. Without appropriate support and attention, a child’s emotional issues can be exacerbated.
While the loss a family member under any circumstances can be emotionally traumatizing, the loss to incarceration is unique in that it comes with the additional stress of social stigma and shame. Many family members are embarrassed and will not tell even their closest friends or extended family about the incarceration. Embarrassment and shame causes many caregivers to lie to the children of the incarcerated parent about the fact that their mother or father is in jail. Many times children are given socially acceptable explanations for the absence of their parent (i.e. work, college, military, etc.) Well-meaning adults intend to save the child from the shame, hurt, embarrassment, and anger that may result from telling them the truth. Protection of the family is another reason why children may not be told the truth about where their parent is. Subtle discrimination is a reality for the families of an incarcerated person. Knowledge of the family member’s status could damage their position in church, hinder their ability to keep certain jobs, or even make them ineligible to acquire certain benefits. Hiding the truth can be particularly difficult at school where teachers often inquire about the whereabouts and availability of a student’s parents. Out of fear that the child may tell someone about their parent and unwittingly put the family at risk, the truth is withheld. This form of deception is often questioned by advocates and social service providers as ultimately harmful to the children. It is beneficial to children to be able to see their parent during the period of incarceration and to be able to openly talk about their feelings regarding the situation.
When a parent goes to prison, the family experiences financial losses while also incurring additional financial responsibilities. The resulting economic strain increases family instability. This can result in multiple, frequent moves and the introduction of unrelated parental figures into the household. This instability may require a child to change schools frequently and disrupt their educational progress. With each move, the child risks losing their connection to school, community, friends, siblings, and extended family. While changes in family finances may not be completely understood by children, they most certainly feel its effects. Moving to a less expensive neighborhood, a reduction in disposable income for recreational activities and clothes, and limited resources for maintaining contact with their parent are a few of ways that children are directly affected by the sudden change in financial stability.
One way to reduce the stress for children while their parent is incarcerated is to facilitate continued contact through visitation. Research indicates that the visits help to mitigate the trauma caused by the sudden absence of the parent. Visits help to reassure children that their parent is safe. Without any contact, children often start to believe that their parent neither loves nor cares about them. By helping to maintain the parent – child bond, visits increase the likelihood of successful reunification after release. Without these visits, the parent and child become estranged from one another and establishing a healthy parent-child relationship less likely. The benefits of visitation extend to the parent as well. Maintenance of family ties is related to higher rates of success upon release: lower recidivism rates and fewer parole violations. It’s also important to note that while children are happy to see their parent, they are also sad that they are unable to bring them home with them. Behavioral health providers will caution that it’s important to prepare children for their visits and to debrief them afterwards to lessen any negative reactions.
Unfortunately, for both parent and child, there are many barriers to visitation. Most children have irregular, if not nonexistent, contact with an incarcerated parent. Many prison policies that are intended to preserve safety and security, serve to impede visitation. With the security classification often being the primary consideration, many inmates are placed in facilities hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from their family. Additionally, many children are cared for in their parent’s absence by a relative that harbors anger toward the incarcerated parent and they may feel the parent does not deserve to have visits with their child. They may also feel like the parent does not deserve the benefit of the sacrifice of time and resources that it would require making the visits possible. Even the costs associated with telephone contact can be prohibitive as the recipient is charged exorbitant collect call fees. The incarcerated parent also must adhere to a strict calling schedule which may conflict with their children’s schedule or bedtime.
Many expectations are set during the period of incarceration for what reunification will look like. The reality, however, typically falls short of those expectations. Many factors, both within the family and socially, affect the parent – child relationship after the release from incarceration. Many children and parents are ill prepared to resume the roles that existed prior to their separation. The efforts of parents to renew parenting roles after others have performed that job can cause tension and stress if the details of these changes are not discussed and agreed upon in advance. Children may resent disciplinary measures, parents may not understand the changed needs of their children, and anger regarding broken promises may arise.
Behavioral health programs based on child development theories operate on the theory that children who are in denial about, or choose to ignore, a crisis are poorly equipped to deal with the demands and stresses created by the circumstances of their situation. To successfully cope in the face of a crisis, children need to be forewarned and prepared to deal with the situation. Those who have adequate familial and peer support prove to have better problem solving skills, be more resilient, and are more capable of dealing with the challenges presented by the unique circumstances. Inside Out, Inc. helps children cope by providing the support they and their families need. Individual and family counseling is provided in their homes by licensed therapists using trauma informed therapy methods. Peer support groups are provided in their community and visits with the incarcerated parent are facilitated by trained volunteers. Referrals will be made to other community based programs if assistance is needed beyond the therapeutic realm. The mission of Inside Out is to ensure that the sentence of a parent doesn’t result in punishment of their children and family as well. With the proper support, it is the hope that families will be preserved and trauma minimized so that everyone can succeed well past the period of incarceration. For more information, please visit us at www.insideoutbalt.org.