Parenting from Prison: Children of inmates have become the forgotten victims of crime

Monitor staff
Published: 1/15/2017 8:53:29 PM

In some circles, it’s called a shared sentence.

For each parent incarcerated, there’s at least one forgotten victim: a child.

While mom or dad is behind bars, the child’s sentence is to live with the absence of a parent, whether for days, years or a lifetime.

That void can have effects in ways both subtle and overt. That’s especially true for adolescents who have always looked to their parents as role models, but who now feel a sense of shame and social stigma that makes them question who they are.

These children face higher risks of committing crimes, and one day becoming inmates themselves.

Besides locking up convicted criminals, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections sees its mission as one that helps children build healthy relationships with their incarcerated parents. In doing so, officials hope to reduce recidivism, enhance community ties and keep younger generations from offending.

About 5 percent of New Hampshire children – approximately 13,570 of all minors in the state – have an incarcerated parent. Of those children, 2,930 have a parent in one of the state’s three prisons; the remaining are children of parents in county jails.

Nationwide, approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration.

At face value, those statistics highlight the number of innocent lives affected by an era of mass incarceration in America. The numbers reflect estimates about a subset of the population that for decades went untracked.

Human rights advocates pegged parental incarceration as “the greatest threat to child well-being in the U.S.”

Researchers have still not agreed on a methodology for gathering accurate data on children of incarcerated parents, said Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“The way we frame the concern is we want to keep them out of jail. That’s why everyone wants to know the numbers. From my perspective, that’s a given. I want it to be more about child well-being,” she said. “When we use issues of intergenerational crime as the framework for the discussion, it increases the shame and stigma of the kids. The old adage that ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ applies.”

Corrections officials may ask an inmate on intake if he or she is a parent, but the person is not required to answer or to answer truthfully. Some may not even know.

Different studies have attempted to examine the risks the children of inmates face – one claimed 7 in 10 children with an incarerated parent will become involved in the criminal justice system – but many are unsupported by real data and largely contribute to the social stigmatization of people who’ve been imprisoned, experts said.

“The data is all over the place,” said Kerry Kazura, who leads the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire. “There was one statistic that said 60 percent of children back in the ’90s. I tracked that down for months and it literally came out of nowhere. ... We really don’t know the number.”

Still, it’s not a myth that children of incarcerated parents are at a higher risk of being involved in the criminal justice system, but the reasons are multi-layered. And even though they’re at greater risk, it doesn’t mean they actually end up behind bars.

In fact, many don’t.

Adalist-Estrin explained that researchers have a tendency to contact children of incarcerated parents through existing social systems that serve the most fragile sectors of the population. But when they reach out to children through less obvious avenues, such as by hosting focus groups at libraries, educational institutions or health clinics, they get a more diverse sample.

“You end up getting kids who are not known to public systems. They have many of the same risk factors, concerns and difficulties, but they are not the skewed sample known to juvenile justice, social work or child welfare,” she said.

Incarcerated parents also may be asked if they have a child who’s ever had a brush with the law, but not all parents know – and, if they do, they don’t always have all the relevant details.

Statistics on intergenerational crime have historically been used to promote programs and convince decision-makers that children of incarcerated parents are going to end up in jail or prison without intervention, said Adalist-Estrin, who has worked in the field for 37 years.

Having a parent in prison is what experts commonly refer to as an “ACE,” or adverse childhood experience. Other ACEs include: sexual, psychological and/or physical abuse, as well as emotional and/or physical neglect.

A study of ACEs by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser Permanente is one of the largest investigations of how childhood experiences affect later-life health and well-being. The study had 17,000 participants.

It found that nearly two-thirds of adults have at least one ACE. But it also revealed that ACEs don’t often occur alone; if a person has one, there is an 87 percent chance he or she has two or more.

When a child suffers multiple forms of abuse or neglect, the impact on the brain is significant and becomes more apparent as the person gets older, said Linda Douglas, trauma specialist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

To explain, she used an analogy: imagine if everyone who is born starts out as a hard-boiled egg. It’s pristine until it experiences physical or emotional trauma – and then it cracks.

“The more things that happen, the more cracks and the more of the shell that gets removed,” Douglas said. “The egg forgets that it has protective boundaries, that bad things that happen aren’t normal.”

What’s important is that the child receive help early on, both to prevent new traumas and to ensure that long-term effects of those initial experiences don’t pile up.

For incarcerated mothers, the adverse experiences of their childhood can come rushing back as they experience new traumas in prison, wondering who is protecting their child while they are away and if their custody rights will be challenged, Douglas said.

“For small children, it’s all about attachment. If that person is the mother, there is going to be be some disruption in that attachment,” she said. “Kids need to have structure in their lives, and having a parent in prison takes away some of that structure.”

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