Mass Incarceration’s Collateral Damage: The Children Left Behind
Date:  12-23-2014

The Nation finds children are not better off without parents who commit criminal acts
The winter holiday season is often depicted in glossy ads with happy children and their families crowded around a Christmas tree, lighting a menorah , or giving respect to their ancestors and heritage at Kwanza. What it doesn’t show is the heartache experienced by children of incarcerated parents during this special time of year.

In the January 5, 2015 edition of its magazine. The Nation published an article that would sadden even Ebenezer Scrooge. Children, especially children of color suffer, greatly when one, or both parents are locked up.The Nation’s article tells us, “One in four black children born in 1990 saw their father head off to prison before they turned 14.”

And there are more disturbing findings:

A growing body of research suggests that one of the most pernicious effects of high adult- incarceration rates can be seen in the struggles of children… who often lose a crucial source of motivation and support with their parents behind bars. Stories like his are far too common today, forty years after the nation’s prison boom began wreaking havoc in African-American communities, which have been disproportionately affected by the ballooning incarceration rate. But until recently, there has been little hard data showing the effects on children. Some states allow the children of prisoners with sentences of a certain length to be adopted, thus severing ties with parents who use drugs or are involved in other criminal or gray-market activities. The theory is that children are likely better off without their crime-prone parents.

That theory has been largely disproved by new data that has allowed researchers to examine the well-being of children before and after a parent’s incarceration. A very small subset of children—those with abusive parents—were found to be more likely to thrive academically and socially if their parents are incarcerated. But most children declined markedly. In fact, the new research suggests that prisoners’ children may be the most enduring victims of our national incarceration craze.

“Even for kids at high risk of problems, parental incarceration makes a bad situation worse,” concluded Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield in their recently published book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality. Wildeman and Wakefield found that children with incarcerated fathers were three times more likely than peers from similar backgrounds to become homeless. They also suffered significantly higher rates of behavioral and mental-health problems, most notably aggression.”

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