Children of incarcerated Parents

The other day I received a most refreshing email. A friend sent me a PDF file about a group in New York that was focused on the children of incarcerated parents. Where as the Osborne Association of New York has been working on a summit for over three years, I have just found out about it. There is one incredible wall of denial on the subject and it tends to focus on the topic of the parent deserving everything they get. The children of these parents are lost in the shuffle.

Don’t know why but there are no organizations, interest groups, or government agencies to speak or be interested on their behalf. These are kids that are lost in the shuffle and only come to the attention of the state when they are in need of placement or incarceration by  authorities. On the surface, there is no appreciation for the magnitude of the problem. So, let me scratch the surface with a few facts about this problem on a national scale:

  • 54% percent of incarcerated men and women are parents with minor children (ages 0-17), including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers.[i]
  • More than 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent who is incarcerated—1 in every 28 children (more than 3.6%) have an incarcerated parent, compared to 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.[ii]
  • 4% of women in state prison, 3% of women in federal prison, and about 5% of women in jail nationwide reported being pregnant at the time of their incarceration.[i]
  • A national study conducted in 1998 estimated that of parents arrested, 67% were handcuffed in front of their children, 27% reported weapons drawn in front of their children, 4.3% reported a physical struggle, and 3.2% reported the use of pepper spray.[ii]
  • In 2004, approximately 59% of parents in a state correctional facility and 45% of parents in a federal correctional facility reported never having had a personal visit from their children.[iii]
You can argue about the problems of the parent but what you can not argue is the unfairness of casting a baby into the trash heap of suffering for being born into a situation that it had no control over. One of the points that keeps surfacing in my 15 years as a prison volunteer is how many of the inmates had a parent in or that had been to prison.
My counter to this is that kids  don’t know they have choices till they know they have choices. These kids that are cast into the trash heaps of suffering get shuffled from one foster home to another, from one family member to another, from one friend to another and all to often end up on the streets as a 12 or 13 year old juvenile. Now, someone please tell me where in the process of survival to they learn about choices and being held responsible for the decisions they make when their focus is driven on the next meal or putting their head down on a pillow that night. Decisions made knowing that there is no one that is going to offer them a hand and in fact they are on their own.
You can argue that the state is then the responsible agent and I will counter that it was not all that long ago the State of Florida realized that they had lost contact with something like 400 kids in their custody.
There is small movement in the judicial system focused on addressing this problem called the Zero to Three Group in Washington, D.C. and they have made a DVD that highlights the problem and then offers some creative and proven solutions to the problem. The  name of the DVD is Helping Babies From The Bench and it focus on using the science of early childhood development in court.
200 M St. NW Suite 200
Washing, DC 20036-3307
Phone (202) 638-1144

[i] Correctional Association of New York. (2009). Women in Prison Fact Sheet. New York, NY: Women in Prison Project.

[ii] Phillips, S. D. (1998). Programming for children of female offenders. Proceedings from 4th National Head Start Research Conference. Washington, DC [cited in report to the Oregon Legislature on Senate Bill 133 (p.2). December 2002]

[iii] Appendix Table 10, p. 18, in Glaze, L., & Maruschak, L. (2010). Parents in prison and their children. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

[i] The Pew Charitable Trusts: Pew Center on the States. (2010). Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

[ii] Pew Charitable Trusts. (2010).

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