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Nancy White Mar 20, 2012

Parents in Prison: What’s to Become of the Children?

According to the Pew Center on the States, One in every 28 children has an incarcerated parent (3.6%) (2010): A quarter of a century ago, one in every 125 children had an incarcerated parent. The Center continues to say that the rise, of course, can be attributed to the implementation of harsher laws for lesser crimes; two-thirds of today’s incarcerated parents committed non-violent offenses. The above stat is one of the most disconcerting of all U.S.-related prison stats because common sense dictates that a child’s chances of growing up as a productive, law-abiding adult are greater when both of their parents play significant roles in their life.

So, you are the elementary school counselor and several elementary students continually are sent to your office. Their behavior is questionable in class, they can’t sit still in the classroom, they are disruptive in class, and generally don’t get along with the other students. You find out that Mom or Dad is incarcerated and the students are living with a grandparent. Once a month, some of the students get to go to the state prison, riding in the car for about three hours, to visit Mom or Dad. You would expect that after the monthly visit the students would act better for a while, but you are wrong. You go out to the playground and the one girl in the class, who you always thought was kind, considerate, and had manners, is taunting another student about their incarcerated parent.

As some of you know, kids can be very cruel to other kids and certainly taunting is part of that cruelty. But what do we need to do as counselors to help these children grow up and become responsible adults without the assistance of one or both parents? One of the best things we can do is to become more knowledgeable about the criminal justice system. Learn about what the parent is living through, what the child sees when they go to visit, and what programs, if any, may be available to the children in the community to help them cope with the loss of one or both parents. If there are no community programs, start a program through your school district. Children grieve when a parent is taken from them, regardless of how they are taken, and they need support from family and friends, and counseling from the professionals they come in contact with, to grow up as strong, independent, well- adjusted adults who manage to escape the prison system.

Nancy White is a counselor who has spent much of her professional life working in corrections.

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