Helping Children of Inmates

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(Host) With the prison population growing, more and more children are feeling the impact.

It’s estimated that 10 million kids in America have one or both parents in some form of incarceration.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, hundreds of social workers, therapists, educators and corrections personnel from all over Vermont met today in Killington to discuss what can be done to help.

(Keck) Dee Ann Newell, of Little Rock Arkansas, is a long time advocate for children left behind by an incarcerated parent. One of the keynote speakers at today’s conference, Newell says these kids have a very difficult and unique set of issues to deal with.

(Newell) "So we’ve got the issues not only of loss – which is enormous for children to lose a parent in a different sort of way than death or illness, that bears with it all the stigma and all the trauma, but also there is the grieving that sits along side of the anger, which seems to be a common theme with these children. There’s their frustration with the system – but there’s also traumas of anxiety. What are they doing to my parent? Are my parents safe? Am I safe? What is going to happen to me?"

(Keck) Newell says when she started in this field twenty years ago, one in every 60 children had a parent who was incarcerated.

(Newell) "We’re now down to one out of ten. And if you happen to be a child of color, it’s one out of 8. So the threshold has been reached that we can’t ignore this anymore. But it has also made it easier for the children to talk about it."

(Keck) Sixteen year old Angie Young lives in Vermont with her father and four siblings. Her mother has been in prison for two years.

(Angie)"My mom was like the one who kept everyone tied in – kept it all together. And once she left everything got crazy and everybody started splitting up and going their own ways sort of thing. And we still haven’t really got back to where we were when she was here."

(Keck) Angie says when her mother first entered prison, she felt angry and isolated.

(Angie) "I didn’t really tell anybody when it first happened because people like judge you because of it. So I didn’t tell anybody. But then now, my friends all know and I don’t care what they think anymore, I really don’t. I can’t hide it anymore. It’s easier that my friends know now – because that’s someone I can go to when I need somebody."

(Keck) Conference organizers say progress is being made to help kids like Angie. But they admit there’s still a long way to go. Tara Graham heads Kids-A-Part, a Vermont nonprofit organization which coordinates services for both caregivers and children with a parent in prison.

(Graham) "When someone goes to prison, the family that gets left behind goes further into poverty, so the economic impact is really significant and huge."

(Keck) In many instances, aunts or grandparents step in as caregivers but Graham says there’s little if any state or federal money to help them. In addition to funding, Graham says she’d like to see more programs to help kids meet others in the same situation.

(Graham) "Giving them an opportunity to talk with one another, to share their experiences, to feel somewhat normal and less stigmatized is probably the most powerful thing I’ve seen."

(Keck) Something else that appears to be powerful is helping children maintain healthy connections with their parents who are in prison. Corrections officials say relationships can be reinforced with video or audio tapes, specialized prison visits or even involving parents in a parent teacher conference by phone. Not only do the children do better, but research shows their incarcerated parents do better as well.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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