Order of Malta

Impacts on Children of Incarcerated Parents

Recent estimates show that 2.7 million US children have a parent who is incarcerated, and more than 5 million children—7 percent of all US children—have had a parent in prison or jail at some point. African American children and children from economically disadvantaged families are more likely to experience parental incarceration.

Due to their parent’s criminal justice involvement, a growing body of research indicates that these children often experience trauma, family disruption, and the loss of their primary caregiver.  Approximately 40 percent of children of an incarcerated parent lose a resident parent, and 20 percent of children lose their primary caregiver. As a result, they are at a heightened risk for foster care placement and permanent separation from family members. In addition, they are more likely to live in a household facing economic strain, to experience financial hardship, and to be at risk of homelessness.

 To address these issues, various interventions are being assessed:

1) Parental arrest policies

2) Family impact statements

3) Case management for parents

4) Parenting classes in jails

5) Child and family contact visits in jails

6) Mentoring programs for children, and

7) Advocacy programs

1) Parental arrest policies are intended to help minimize the trauma that children experience when they witness a parent’s arrest or lose a parent or caregiver after the arrest. An arrest policy explains and clarifies the officer’s duties while making an arrest with a child present, and it helps ensure the safety and security of the child while the parent is detained. As implemented in San Francisco and Allegheny County, PA, a parental arrest policy provides guidance about what law enforcement officers should do before, during, and after an arrest with a child present. For instance, where feasible, officers should obtain information about the arrestee’s family and children before making an arrest so officers can help determine the arrest’s time and place. If officers do not have information before making an arrest, they should inquire about the presence of children during the arrest or ask if the parent has responsibility for children who may not be present.

If or when the scene is secure, the arrest policy may encourage officers to make the arrest in an area away from the children and to allow the parent to comfort the children when feasible and safe to do so. The arrest protocol also stipulates what the officer should do following the arrest, such as locating the child’s other parent or working with the arrested parent arrestee to identify another suitable caregiver if the other parent cannot be reached.

2) Family impact statements help ensure that the courts, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and probation officers are making informed decisions on the basis of the needs of the defendant’s children. Probation departments in New York and San Francisco have developed and added family impact questions to presentence investigation reports that address the defendant’s children and family members as well as his or her roles and responsibilities to the family. For example, questions include whether the defendant is a primary caregiver, what the relationship is of the other caregiver(s) to the children, if there is an active child support case, and if any children were at risk because of the circumstances of the offense. Those questions ensure that probation officers take into consideration the entire picture of a justice-involved individual’s situation during the presentence investigation and make a sentencing recommendation that is the best scenario for the court, the community, and the family. Probation officers then share the information with judges and court administrators so they can make informed sentencing decisions and so they understand the potential effects of incarceration on the defendant’s children and family.

3) Case management and services provided to parents while they are being adjudicated will allow them to continue to be involved with their children during the judicial process. One such program implemented in the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, called the Children of Incarcerated Parents (CIP) program, employs a reentry social worker to provide parents and their families with services, case management, access to parent–child visits, and linkages to other services while parents are detained in jail. The program seeks to prioritize the parent’s role in the family, to identify and meet the parent’s and family’s needs, and to increase and improve the interactions between the parent and his or her children. The case management and services provided through the program aim to help parents develop better relationships with family members and improve their case outcomes, as well as to help the parents find employment and secure financial stability once they are released from jail.

4) Parenting classes in jails help improve the relationships that parents have with their children. The classes are designed to provide parents with the skills to understand child development and to identify and prevent problematic child behaviors, such as acting out and fighting. Parenting classes often draw on curriculum such as Parenting Inside Out or Inside Out Dads. Although the curriculum provides guidance for the content of the class, facilitators may also adapt the curriculum and discuss topics of relevance to the participants. Parenting classes may be used as a standalone practice or combined with other jail practices. For example, some cities and counties use those classes as part of a comprehensive family-focused program to prepare parents to interact with their children before they receive contact visits.

5) Child and family contact visits with parents in jail help to minimize some of the trauma children face when their parents are detained in jail by increasing contact between children and their parents. Relationships between children and their parents are the foundation on which children learn how to form and sustain healthy relationships.  In some facilities, organizations remained in the room to support parents, offer them advice about how to interact with their children, and encourage them to focus on their children during the visit. The rooms used for the contact visits should be welcoming to children. For example, some cities and counties provide brightly colored rugs, toys, activities, books, and snacks.

6) Mentoring programs help children who are affected by a family member’s incarceration. We visited the Hour Friends Indeed Mentoring Program, implemented by Hour Children in New York City, which serves children who have a parent or family member currently or formerly incarcerated. Once matched, the mentor and adult mentee spend a minimum of four hours per month together for at least one year. The mentors and mentees do activities together such as going to museums, attending sporting events, and playing games. The purpose of the mentor–mentee relationship is to spend quality one-on-one time with the mentee, to expose him or her to new experiences, and to cultivate a relationship with a positive adult role model.

7) Advocacy programs enable children affected by parental justice involvement to speak and advocate for themselves. Project WHAT! (We’re Here And Talking) implemented by Community Works in the Bay Area is a youth-led program designed to raise awareness about the effects of having an incarcerated parent. After completing an eight-week leadership training program in the summer, students work on a new campaign each year, such as hosting a youth-led summit or writing policy recommendations for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The students in Project WHAT! also testify at hearings and present their stories to parents in jails. Project WHAT! youth helped develop the officer training video for San Francisco’s parental arrest policy and made a presentation at a press conference when the new policy was being released. Thus, advocacy programs enable children to talk about their experiences and to have a voice when it comes to decisions that affect their lives.

 How Can These Practices Make a Difference?

Benefits include:

  1. Shedding light on this “hidden” population
  2. Meeting the needs of parents and their children
  3. Reducing the trauma that children experience
  4. Repairing and strengthening the relationship between children and their parents

Order of Malta, American Association, U.S.A.

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