Families of Prisoners Face Disrupted Lives
Date:  07-12-2012

Children are often the collateral consequences of a parent’s conviction
It is a fact that a person who is incarcerated suffers from a disruption in his or her life, but until recently, little attention has been given to the major burdens families of the incarcerated endure. One of the first policy papers written on the subject appeared in 2003, and was revised in 2005. Sadly, the problems discussed in Families Left Behind: The Hidden Costs of Incarceration and Reentry still exist today, although some progress has been made to better understand and address the consequences spouses, parents and, in particular, the children of prisoners bear. Written by Jeremy Travis, Elizabeth Cincotta Mc Bride and Amy Solomon, Families Left Behind educates the reader on the scope of the problem. Highlights, taken from the policy paper include:

  • More than half of adults incarcerated in state and federal prisons are parents of minor children

  • Most of the children of incarcerated parents (58%) are under ten years of age

  • Women are housed in prisons an average of 160 miles from their children, while men are an average distance of 100 miles away. These distances serve as a barrier to prison visits by family members. More than half of incarcerated parents report never receiving a personal visit from their children

  • Contact between a child and an incarcerated parent is further disrupted due to the high costs of surcharges imposed by telephone companies contracted to provide telephone service to prisoners

  • 60 percent of mothers and 40 percent of fathers report having weekly contact with their children while incarcerated, which, when turned around means that 40 percent of mothers and 60 percent of fathers do not have weekly contact with their children while locked up

  • Prison-based programs can enhance parenting skills, treat addictions, increase literacy, raise educationallevels, and generally prepare inmates for life outside prison, but many of these programs have been eliminated due to budget constraints

  • Parental separation due to imprisonment can have profound consequences for children . The immediate effects can include feelings of shame, social stigma, loss of financial support, weakened ties to the parent, changes in family composition, poor school performance, increased delinquency, and increased risk of abuse or neglect. Long-term effects can range from the questioning of parental authority, negative perceptions of police and the legal system, and increased dependency or maturational regression to impaired ability to cope with future stress or trauma, disruption of development, and intergenerational patterns of criminal behavior

    Children of an incarcerated parent are often are sent to live somewhere else:

  • More than half of the children who lived with their mother went to live with a grandparent when their mother was sent to prison. By contrast, nearly 90 percent of children who lived with their father continued to live with their mother during their father’s incarceration.

  • Grandparents, or other family members, who take care of children of an incarcerated parent often suffer from financial difficulties associated with the added expenses of raising a child

  • The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act states that once a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, the ASFA requires the state to file a petition to terminate parental rights. Important exceptions exist, including if the child is in relative care and if the termination would not be in the best interest of the child.

  • Because women serve an average of 18 months in prison, many female inmates whose children are in non-relative foster care may face the possibility of losing their parental rights

    Family dynamics change when a spouse or partner is incarcerated:

  • Wives and girlfriends of inmates experience significant personal change, often gaining independence and self-sufficiency. Such changes can alter the spouse’s expectations of the familial role the prisoner will play upon his or her return

  • The forced separation of spouses and other intimate partners creates enormous strains on those relationships, frequently ending them

  • Incarceration can also damage the financial situations of the families left behind. Among incarcerated fathers, 60 percent held a full-time job prior to imprisonment, compared with 39 percent of mothers. For fathers, these wages were the primary source of income for their families

    Service providers can play a critical role in improving the lives of reentrants by improving the delivery of their services

  • Many social service agencies provide services to former prisoners and their families. However, the delivery of these services may not be aligned to reflect the unique demands of the incarceration and reentry processes. For example, a returning prisoner may be eligible for community-based drug treatment but might be referred to join a waiting list upon his or her release from prison, during a high-risk time for relapse

  • Public schools that offer counseling to their students can address the stress a child might feel by the return of a parent after incarceration

    The conclusions of the authors of Families Left Behind are as pertinent today as when the paper was written:

  • More research is needed to document the hidden costs of our criminal justice policies

  • Policymakers, practitioners, service providers, and community organizations need to focus on the ripple effects of these policies and the opportunities for more systematic and coordinated efforts to reduce the harms so broadly experienced
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