The Kids Left Behind By Incarcerated Parents

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Patrick McCarthy

More than five million U.S. children have had a parent behind bars at some point in their lives. Those parents collectively represent lost workers and contributors to our communities and economy. But more than that, for each of those five million children, that missing parent represents missed bedtime stories, hugs and reassurances of well-being and affection that every kid deserves.

Although substantial reforms are underway to address our over-reliance on mass incarceration, these reforms will take years to turn the tide. At the same time, criminal justice debates often overlook the devastating toll our policies and practices have taken on the children and families left behind — and on their communities. State and local policymakers, courts, correctional systems and community agencies can take several steps right now to help ensure these kids and families have the stability, support and opportunities they need to succeed.

One of the fundamental things that kids lose when a parent is incarcerated is the ability to maintain — or in some cases, even develop — a relationship. Most children with an incarcerated parent are younger than 10. Those early years are when they form bonds that can last a lifetime.

To help preserve these relationships, state policymakers and judges can make prison-location assignments that allow families to maintain contact as much as possible. Prisons can develop visitation policies and places that create more child-friendly environments, in addition to offering courses that bolster parents’ ability to support and nurture their children even while they are incarcerated. The decades-old  Children’s Center at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, for example, enables kids to spend more regular time with their parents on weekends and during the summer while local families host them.

Beyond disrupting relationships, incarceration also strips children and their families of critical financial support and stability.

Parents serving time were often the primary providers, a role they struggle to resume even after they return home, when their criminal record can become a significant obstacle to employment. And public programs designed to help low-income families remain stable as they work to earn more income — such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — are off-limits to many individuals with records.

During a parent’s incarceration, states can offer programs through community-based organizations for the parent who remains and for other relatives who step in to care for children, including counseling and financial and legal support. In addition, states should allow families to access SNAP and TANF.

Georgia’s legislature recently voted to join states that have lifted lifetime bans on these benefits for people with felony drug convictions, but 32 states still have full or partial bans. Moderating or completely removing these barriers can enable families to get on a path to stability and, ultimately, economic security.

But to truly foster family stability, parents with records need to be able to secure and keep a good, reliable job. The “ban the box” movement has made encouraging progress in recent years, effectively allowing people’s talents to shine first instead of being eclipsed by their record. About 20 states and hundreds of jurisdictions and businesses have made this policy shift, delaying questions about criminal history until they’ve identified an applicant as the most qualified candidate for a position.

Still, that means that more than 20 states have yet to act. Changing when employers conduct background checks can raise prospects of parents trying to earn a family-supporting income.

Ending our reliance on mass incarceration is a daunting, albeit necessary, step — and one that will likely require years to realize. But the steps we can take today to better support the millions of children sharing in their parents’ sentences are not only feasible but well within the grasp of policymakers, courts and community- and faith-based organizations.

They’re also steps we as a nation can’t afford not to take. The cost of doing nothing has implications for generations to come.

Patrick McCarthy is president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy that creates a brighter future for the nation’s children. The Foundation recently released A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Children, Families and Communities, which features an array of recommendations for addressing the challenges facing children with incarcerated parents. Readers comments are welcome.

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