Effects on children of jailed parents

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Since the age of 2, Tirrell Harris had no relationship with his father. He had left him and his mother and had been in and out of jail. At the age of 16, Harris got an unexpected phone call from his father, trying to make amends and develop the relationship he never had. Now 18, Harris is in college and doing well. While they now have some type of relationship, Harris’ father still remains incarcerated, serving time on a 12-year sentence.

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LOCKED UP—The Allegheny County Jail is just one of the state’s correctional facilities that is becoming home to more and more parents. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Tabu Hurt-McClung is a single mother raising her daughters. Throughout her 15-year-old daughter Sasche’s life, her father has been incarcerated multiple times. Although she has a relationship with her father, Sasche still realizes the struggle her mother goes through and the burden of not having him there.

Harris and Sasche are just two of the large number of children having to deal with having a parent incarcerated. According to a report, “The Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children: Needs and Responsive Services,” released in February by the Joint State Government Commission of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, on any given day in Pennsylvania, at least 100,000 children have an incarcerated parent. And in some cases, both parents are incarcerated. And according to the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation, 8,500 children in Allegheny County are currently separated from their incarcerated parent. The number is up from 2003.

“I think it was a very comprehensive report. It holistically looked at all of the issues dealing with children of incarcerated parents,” said Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, Court of the Common Pleas, Family Division Family Law Center, and member of the commission. “As a judge I’m looking at a small percentage of the kids who are in the (system), but often times most of the children of incarcerated parents aren’t in the system and so they can be overlooked.”

“The loss of a father to a prison or jail is impactful. The relationship between a father and a child is important, especially as they get older,” said Claire Walker, PhD, executive director of the PCGF, an advocacy organization that works to improve and promote the mental health of children 12 and under in Allegheny County. She added that it is even more detrimental when a mother is imprisoned. “A greater number of mothers actually lived with their children when they were arrested and a greater number were single parents.” She said the War on Drugs, was especially hard on mothers and the cause for many becoming incarcerated.

According to the report, African-American children are 7.5 times and Latino children are 2.5 times more likely to have incarcerated parents than White children.

While African-Americans are affected more, Walker said imprisonment is an issue that everyone is dealing with. She said that in the Allegheny County Jail, every zip code within the county is represented among its prisoners.

The report found that children with incarcerated parents experience feelings of shame, anger, isolation, low self-esteem, depression, behavioral problems and often times feel like they or their family are being shunned. There is also a risk of children entering foster care and losing a relationship with their parents.

Walker said another main affect is the financial burden that may come with having an incarcerated parent. Such as caregivers having difficulty providing financial care due to lawyer fees, fines, putting money on the prisoner’s books, the cost of collect phone calls and even the cost of visits and parking-for instance using the meters at the Allegheny County Jail.

“The effects on the children can be long-term. The entire childhood can be impacted and continue throughout their (adulthood). They do not go away quickly,” said Walker. “The loss of a father to prison or jail is impactful. The relationship between a fat

Harris said the hardest part of dealing with his father being incarcerated has been the lingering “what if” feeling. “What if he was here, would life be different? I have told him he will never be able to make up for the 16 years of lost time.”

When it comes to the risk of children with incarcerated parents becoming incarcerated themselves, both Walker and Clark, said there is not enough research to determine, but Walker said there is some indication that children are twice as likely to get in trouble with the law than those whose parents are not incarcerated, but that for the most part most children seem to do well.

Along with documenting the effects, the report also gave a few recommendations, such as facilitating in person and contact visitation between parents and their children; implementing regular communication, such as email, videoconferencing, telephone and letters; providing re-entry and parenting skills support; training for professionals dealing with children of incarcerated parents, such as teachers; enacting legislation to establish arrest protocol for law enforcement when it comes to arresting parents with minor children, such as not arresting the parent in front of the child and letting parents make arrangements for childcare; and enact legislation that incarceration alone is not grounds to terminate parental rights.

Clark said even though incarcerated, many of the parents still want to remain part of their child’s life. She and Walker agree on the report’s recommendations, but also said she would like to see things made easier for incarcerated parents to be involved in their child’s lives, such as fee waivers when filing papers, the ability for them to attend court hearings in regards to their children and counsel made available to them in regards to custody.

Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh, an organization that works with children of incarcerated parents, said the report’s findings will “serve as a catalyst for us to continue our goals and further validate our work. It’s a tool we’ll be using to continue our work and solicit the help from other community organizations.”

Amachi Pittsburgh has been around for nearly ten years and offers mentoring for children and training for organization participants to become mentees and tell their own stories, and train other professionals who work with children of incarcerated parents.

Hollis said that with a grant from PCGF they were able to hold a focus group and will release their own report of findings that come from the children.

Walker said she hopes the report’s findings are used to get the information out and bring public awareness about how incarceration affects children and what people can do. “The shunning is something that everyone can stop.”

Harris said his advice to kids is to, “Live life how it is and take advantage of what you do have.” And for parents and caregivers, “let your kids know that you are there for them and that you love them.”

(To view the full report, visit http://jsg.legis.state.pa.us. )

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