Helping Children with an Incarcerated Parent: Who Shall Separate Us
In June 2013 the Pew Research Center published an article titled “Sesame St. reaches out to 2.7 million American children with an incarcerated parent” telling of the new on-line initiative “Little Children, Big Challenges” produced by Sesame St. Sadly, two years later the number of children with an incarcerated parent has not decreased. Another troubling trend has been the number of women entering into the U.S. correctional system. Today approximately 75% of the women behind bars are mothers.
Although current day research studies in this area are limited, there are a good number of reports & articles highlighting the multitude of negative outcomes for children with an incarcerated parent. An unfortunate result of these publications is the further stigmatization of innocent kids. When thinking of this population of children it’s easy to understand that they face more obstacles; however there is hope that positive outcomes do exists for many of them. A 2012 study by Murray and colleagues found that “parental incarceration was associated with children’s increased risk for antisocial behavior, but not for mental health problems, drug use, or poor educational performance”. What this means is that children with an incarcerated parent have a higher risk of behavioral problems but do not have an increased risk for mental health problems, drug use, or poor school performance. There are various factors that play a role in the outcome of these children including their current home stability, family life, relationship with their parent prior to incarceration, communication with their parent post incarceration, and much more.
Some of the behavioral problems seen in these children is an acting out of the hurt they are experiencing internally (i.e., heart break). Behaviors can include but is not limited to not listening, being disruptive, bad temper, argumentativeness and on the other end of the spectrum being withdrawn and depressed. Kids with an incarcerated parent who exhibit such behaviors are fundamentally dealing with abandonment and rejection. They do not have a means to cope.
For those of us who come in contact with these children (e.g., neighbor, teacher, ministry worker, etc.) let us understand that they are hurting. If you ever have the opportunity to interact on a regular basis with a child who has an incarcerated parent remember that showing empathy and compassion goes a long way in helping to heal their broken heart. Letting them know that Jesus knows their pain because His heart was also broken (“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” – Isaiah 53:3) will help them not only understand that they are not alone and but will also help strengthen their relationship Jesus Christ. Help give them a sense of security by telling them that they were made in God’s image and likeness, they are loved by Him, and He will never leave them (“See, I have inscribed you in the palms of My hand; your walls are continually before Me” – Isaiah 49:16). A broken heart doesn’t heal over night but constant reinforcement of God’s word will heal their wounds overtime.
Lastly, often times these children are left with grandparents or single mothers. Unstable living conditions or lack of finances may be an issue for their care givers or custodial parent. If an opportunity to encourage the care givers or custodial parent opens up be willing step out of your comfort zone and reach out to them because it take a village to raise a child. With support and encouragement kids with an incarcerated parent can overcome their situation and thrive. Hope.
Learn more about innovative programs helping children and incarcerated parents:
- Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges
- Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration Tool Kit
- SKIP Inc., Community Resources for Children of Incarcerated Parents
- Volunteers of America
- The Osborne Association
- San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership
- Federal Bureau of Prisons: Daddy-Daughter Dance
- CNN Hero Spotlight – The Silent Victims of Incarceration: Coping with Parents in Prison
- Corrections India & Aswasa Bhavan
- My Daddy Is in Jail: Story, Discussion Guide, and Small Group Activities for Grades K-5 by Janet M. Bender
- The Night Dad Went to Jail: What to Expect When Someone You Love Goes to Jail (Life’s Challenges) by Melissa Higgins and Wednesday Kirwan
- What is Jail, Mommy? by Jackie A Stanglin and Cierra Jade McGuckie
- Mami, Que Es una Carcel? = What Is Jail, Mommy? (Spanish Edition) by Jackie A. Stanglin and Cierra Jade McGuckie
- New Hampshire Department of Corrections – Family Connections Center: List of Books for Children of Incarcerated Parents
NOTE: Remember to preview books for age appropriateness prior to purchasing.
Blog Research Notes: University of Minnesota Children, Youth & Family Consortium; Pew Research Center; Office of Justice Programs; Annie E. Casey Foundation; PBS AETN Foundation