Op-Ed

Helping children affected by a parent’s incarceration

Jack is an 8-year-old who until just recently lived with both of his parents. But his father’s arrest and subsequent incarceration have changed Jack’s life.

A move from their house to an apartment has helped cut the household budget but hasn’t offset the loss in income and increase in expenses (i.e., collect phone calls, transportation costs, etc.). Jack’s mother is struggling to make ends meet.

School, once a place Jack headed to each day eager to see his friends and attend his favorite classes, has instead become a spot where shame, stigma and the sense of isolation that too often accompany parental incarceration confront him.

Jack’s relationship with his father has suffered as well due to the distance between home and the prison and the cost of keeping in touch. Jack loves and misses his father, something many people don’t understand, and is well aware that he’s missing out on sharing both big events (his recent birthday) and the smaller day-to-day ones with his father.

At a time when they could benefit from support and understanding, Jack and his mother are instead shunned by family and friends. Some parents of Jack’s classmates have expressed concern about their children spending time with the child of someone in prison.

Jack is an amalgam of the children I have met over the past decade working with families affected by incarceration. But the story of Jack is not unique. An estimated 179,000 children in North Carolina have experienced parental incarceration and the resulting consequences.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released a report, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities,” which provides a sobering look at the increased poverty and stress children with incarcerated or returning parents experience. To address these challenges, the report offers three recommendations:

▪ Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return.

▪ Connect parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment.

▪ Strengthen communities, particularly those disproportionately affected by incarceration and reentry, to promote family stability and opportunity.

Before we can address the needs of children affected by parental incarceration, we must first acknowledge these children live in all of our communities. We have to confront our own feelings about those who are incarcerated or returning home to our communities and the barriers they face when rejoining society. And we must begin to collect data and information to help us know which children in our communities have incarcerated parents so we can better identify and address their needs.

Supporting children affected by incarceration means ensuring families have every chance to be successful after a parent’s prison term is up. A big part of that is enabling parents to get a job and earn a wage to sustain their families when they return home. Pathways to employment for returning parents begin with enhanced education, skills training and job search efforts within our prisons and jails. They also require deliberate removal of unnecessary barriers in the application and hiring process that lock many returning parents out of employment. Across the country, 23 states have passed legislation to “ban the box,” which encourages employers to consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of a criminal record. We are pleased to see this movement gaining momentum in communities across North Carolina.

North Carolina can also leverage its existing infrastructure to ensure the confinement of a parent does not permanently limit families’ abilities to meet their children’s needs. The 10 re-entry councils created by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to assist those leaving prison with housing, employment and access to services could be a great starting point for families as their loved ones return home.

The incarceration of a parent shouldn’t limit children’s chances for success. Together, policymakers, the judicial system and communities can ensure children have the support and resources they need to live up to their potential and achieve their dreams. It’s our job to make that happen.

Melissa Radcliff is program director of Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Inc.

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