When Mom or Dad Goes to Jail, Who Helps the Kids?

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One of the hidden tolls of mass incarceration in the U.S. is the rising number of children who are left behind when one or both parents are sent to prison, says a report released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

According to the study, the number of kids with a father in prison or jail rose by 500 percent between 1980 and 2000. At least five million children have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives.

When a father or mother is incarcerated, whether for a few nights or a few years, the results can have a long-term shattering impact, says the report, entitled, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities.”

“These children …feel it when their refrigerator is bare because their family has lost a source of income or child support,” says the report.

“They feel it when they have to move, sometimes repeatedly, because their families can no longer afford the rent or mortgage. And they feel it when they hear the whispers in school, at church or in their neighborhood about where their mother or father has gone… Incarceration breaks up families, the building blocks of our communities and nation. It creates an unstable environment for kids that can have lasting effects on their development and well-being.”

According to the study, the burden falls disproportionately on younger children who are members of low-income families of color. Many of those families already are single-parent, often led by a young mother with limited education.

More than 15 percent of the children with parents in federal prison (and 20 percent of those with parents in state prison) are four years old or younger.

“Compared with their white peers, African-American and Latino kids are over seven and two times more likely, respectively, to have a parent incarcerated,” the study reports, noting that although national data on American Indian children are unavailable, state trends show a similar pat­tern for such children:

The report stresses that a cohesive effort is required on both the national and state levels to bring about positive change.

“We are calling on states and communities to act now, so that these kids—like all kids—have equal opportunity and a fair chance for the bright future they deserve,” says Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation.

The study recommends three major policy approaches:

  • Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after their return;
  • Connect parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment;
  • Strengthen communities, particularly those disproportionately affected by incarceration and reentry, to promote family stability and opportunity.

It also listed a series of specific recommendations that judges, courts, community organizations and states could take to incorporate those approaches into their policies,.

The recommendations included:

  • Judges should “consider the impact on kids and families when making sentencing and decisions about where parents will be confined,”
  • Community organization to provide family counseling and parenting courses, beginning in prison;
  • Local governments should “create additional pathways to employment for ex-offenders with anchor institutions, such as hospitals and universities;”
  • State governments should direct more funds toward prison education and training for in-demand jobs to help parents resume their role as providers once released.
  • States should enable families impacted by incarceration to access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs to cover basic needs and become self-sufficient.
  • States should provide incentives to housing authorities and private landlords to allow people with records to access safe, affordable housing.

Read the study here

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