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GO KIDS Articles

Incarcerated - Children of Parents in Prison Impacted
By E. Mosely
July 6-12, 2008

Photos courtesy Cale Carter

Picture of child behind a chainlink fenceWhen a loved one is sentenced to prison, the emotional turmoil is difficult for everyone to handle. Perhaps the heaviest burden is felt by those who are unintentional victims of crime - children of incarcerated parents.

Nationally, 7.3 million children have at least one parent in jail or prison. Sadly, 70 percent of these kids are doomed to follow in the same footsteps as their parents becoming imprisoned at some point in their lives. In fact, children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely than their peers to commit crimes. However, these at-risk children are largely ignored before they get in trouble.

More troubling for African Americans are the telling statistics. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, of the 156,235 prisoners in the state of Texas, 57, 857 are Black - the highest of any other ethnicity. Women constitute 12,445 of the total prison population - an increase of 428 from 2007 when 12,017 females were behind bars.

So what becomes of these children whose mother and/or fathers are locked up? Often, they are left to fend for themselves emotionally and the stress of child-rearing falls on a grandmother, usually, or another surrogate parent or the children may end up in protective services. These hardships manifest in the children in mental health issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and feelings of abandonment, said psychotherapist Dr. Janice Beal. Also, children go through a grieving process. In an effort to curb the cycle of imprisonment and address an overlooked population of at-risk children, more organizations and people are advocating for children with parents in prison.

"One thing I continuously see is depression among this population. The children (of incarcerated parents) express a lot of anger and a lot of aggressive behavior and some anxiety," Beal said. "Children express depression different from adults. They don't verbalize it and say, ' I feel sad right now.' They usually act out their behaviors.

"They go to school and can't focus on what they're doing, and their grades begin to drop," Beal added. "School personnel may feel that their behaviors are symptoms associated with ADHD; however, it could also be depression. It (depression) can manifest itself in different ways. We have diagnosed children with depression as early as five-years old. Depending on when the parent left home and the manner in which they were taken, children face feelings of fear, abandonment, guilt, and they may began to act younger than their stated age", Beal said.

"A lot of times children may, or may not be at home when parents were taken," Beal said. "There is trauma from that. That can result in post-traumatic stress disorder; Not knowing when the person is coming back, if there was violence, or criminal activity prior to the parent leaving."

As someone who determines prison sentences, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore witnesses the first pangs of separation anxiety in letters written by children seeking leniency for their parent.

"I often hear from children," Gilmore said. "They want me to know something about their father - and I say father because most of the time it is the father - other than his arrest record or what the authorities (law enforcement) will say about him. They say, 'Let me tell you about my dad. Let me tell you who he is.' Unfortunately, they are writing to me to influence sentencing on the case. But it cannot influence me. I have to make a decision based on the offense. It's clear and obvious to me the pain the children are in from the letter."

Furthermore, problems at home spill over into school. On school visits, Gilmore is often asked to speak to problem children.

"These are the kids that always seem to be in trouble," said Gilmore, who recently released a book she co-authored with Beal aimed at treating children of incarcerated parents. " I went to speak at a middle school and the teacher said, 'These are the ones you need to talk to.'

"So my very first question to them was, 'How many of you have family members - I never say parents - who are in prison?' At that school, 100 percent of them raised their hands," Gilmore added noting also that statistics reveal many of these children succumb to their circumstances and begin a cycle of intergenerational crime and incarceration.

"We tell them you don't have to follow your parents into prison as if it is the family business," Gilmore said. "There are approximately two million children of incarcerated parents in the U.S. We don't want them to be the next two million people to be funneled into jail."

Beal agreed, saying the root of behavioral issues often lie with problems at home. Some things are genetic based however, environment plays a major role, she added.

"People try to determine why we have all these angry children. Why do we have children with behavioral issues?" Beal said. " It goes back to family of origin issues."

Case in point, Beal is treating an 11- year-old girl who met her father for the first time behind bars. The mom didn't know the identity of her father, so several people were required to take a blood test. When the test came back positive she was allowed to visit him for the first time in prison. She described the long ride, and the process of going inside the prison. She stated that she was afraid at first, but is OK now. He is not scheduled for release until 2024 - by then the girl will be an adult.

"(Children of incarcerated parents feel) shame that's associated with it (parent's incarceration)," Beal said. "They fear not being accepted by peers or having to make excuses when it's time for a family day or when the parent is supposed to be there, or someone asks about their parent.

But, no matter how bad that parent's action may have been, whether their involvement was great or absent in that child's life, children still want that parent. It's Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If a child's basic safety needs aren't met you can't become fully actualized. Security is the second need on the hierarchy following our physiological needs."

As more adults - particularly women - are imprisoned each year, many of them are parents who leave behind children for grandparents or other relatives to care for. Thirty-two percent of men in prison have two or more children under 18 years old, according to Amachi Texas, a program that serves children of prisoners. Fifty eight percent of children who have an incarcerated parent are under 10 years old. For grandparents who have reared children, the task of raising young children, let alone children with emotional and behavioral problems, is taxing.

"It appears to put a lot of pressure on those who step up," said Beal, who said grandmothers, aunts and even boyfriends' sisters' step into the surrogate role. "A lot of times the grandmother is usually the one although there's a lot of guilt because they may feel that they were not successful the first time.

"I had one family who I worked with about four or five years," Beal added. "The mom was in prison. Every time she was near release she would do something like get into a fight which would prolong her time. It became obvious that she did not want to get out and parent. She had five kids. The grandmother expressed that she was stressed and tired. She did not want her grandchildren to become a part of the system."

Taking a nod from the African proverb that states " It takes a village to raise a child," the Reverend Dr. W. Wilson Goode Sr. started Amachi Mentoring program in Philadelphia. According to the organization's Web site, Amachi means "Who knows what God has brought us through this child?" in the Nigerian Ibo language. The Amachi Texas program is facilitated by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Texas in partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, office of the Governor and One Star foundation. Since its inception, the Houston Amachi program has matched 232 children with mentors. Right now, 196 children are matched with a mentor, but 35 still need one, Amachi officials said.

"These kids are basically invisible and cannot be accessed in any normal way," said Olivia Eudaly, statewide director of Amachi Texas. "You can't walk into a school and ask for the kids whose parents are in prison."

Indeed, the partnership between the Texas Criminal Justice System and Amachi gives the mentor organization access to state inmates. Through trial and error, the mentor group learned that incarcerated mothers were more dependable and cooperative than fathers.

"We learned early on we were not getting reliable information from the fathers," Eudaly said. "We calculated we were only getting 25 to 20 percent correct information from the dads. We started going to the female prisons. Their information is 95 plus percent correct. So, in general mothers know where their kids are and want to talk to their kids."

The program has yielded positive results since its formation nearly two years ago.

"It is truly amazing what we discover a mentor does in terms of the impact it has on these kids' lives," Eudaly said. "For those kids - the 1,300 who went through the first 13 months - none of those kids went into the criminal justice system. None of them."

Organizations like Amachi seek to bring positive role models in the lives of children whose parents are in prison. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Houston operates two one-to-one mentor programs for children of incarcerated parents - Amachi and Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCOP). The latter program only allows children to participate who have or had a parent incarcerated. The former allows children to participate if they have a family member incarcerated.

Started in October 2003, MCOP has matched 95 children with mentors. Currently, 75 children in MCOP have mentors while 20 are waiting for one.

"A mentor, or "Big," has a major impact on a child's life, especially in the case of a child who has seen a parent or relative go to prison," said Rob Walter, director of marketing and communications for Big Brother Big Sister of Greater Houston. "A Big Brother or Big Sister opens up a new world for the child. By simply spending time and sharing everyday experiences with their Big, these children see another side to life. They grow more confident in themselves and their abilities. That confidence - that they can make the right decisions in life - is what keeps children out of trouble. A Big is someone who the child can talk to honestly about what's going on in his or her life. The Big is an adult friend that makes the child feel special. It's not a complex or difficult job to be a Big - all you need to do is spend four hours a month hanging out, and you'll make a great mentor."

Despite efforts to reach children of incarcerated parents who live in the Houston area, the exact number of youth that fall into this category is still unknown. Many of these children attend local schools, churches and live in communities across the city. Those numbers we do have don't lie. The children are in dire need of assistance. Yet, they remain invisible to society in addition to many social welfare programs designed to help those with the greatest needs.

Picture of child walking away from the camera