This summer, “Sesame Street” added a new character to its lineup. The show introduced Alex, a child whose father is in prison. “Sesame Street” has taken on the issue of children of incarcerated parents as part of the online “Little Children, Big Challenges” series.
The pain portrayed by Alex is palpable. The millions of children in Alex’s position are not only hurt by the absence of a parent, now those children face the prospect that their relationship with their incarcerated parent can be terminated, ended, wiped out legally and unequivocally.
According to sociologist Bruce Western, about 2.7 million children across the country can relate to Alex’s anxiety and uneasiness. Some estimate that 1 in 28 American children — 3.6 percent — have an incarcerated parent. Just 25 years ago, the number was 1 in 125.
The population of parents is following a trend similar to that of all incarcerated individuals. There are about 2.3 million people in jail or prison in this country. In 1980 there were about 502,000.
The percentage of women in prison is still significantly lower than men; however, the rate of growth of female inmates is much higher than men. Many of these women are mothers, and two-thirds of those women had been their children’s primary caregiver prior to being incarcerated.
Parental incarceration can create a wide range of problems for children. Those problems include economic distress, anger, depression, shame and guilt. Children of incarcerated parents often suffer in the classroom as well.
The most profound effect, according to the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission, which studied the problem, may be the loss of a child’s sense of stability and safety. “The parent is usually a staple of those for the child, so when that pillar of stability is removed, the child may feel his or her whole world has fallen apart; the trauma of abandonment and insecurity may last for a very long time.”
One area that officials have zeroed in on is the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). The seemingly well-intended ASFA provides specific, and very rigid, guidelines to reduce the number of children in foster care and increase the number of children placed in permanent homes. The law enacted in 1997 provides that courts are required to terminate parental rights after a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. This provision can have a devastating impact on children of incarcerated parents.
Pennsylvania, Oregon and Hawaii have organized task forces to study the plight of children of incarcerated parents and to recommend a course of action.
Some states have taken it a step further.
In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly required that a system be established to coordinate planning and service so children and their incarcerated parents can maintain their relationships.
In 2008, Tennessee passed a resolution urging the state Department of Corrections to examine the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights and to incorporate appropriate principles to help the state address intergenerational crime.
Page 2 of 2 - This spring, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Children of Incarcerated Parents law. The law provides courts with discretion to delay the termination of parental rights if the parent’s incarceration is a significant factor in the child’s continued stay in foster care.
More states need to take action. The consequences of even a relatively short sentence should not lead to the permanent severance of family bonds. According to the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights, “When this happens, children are forced to forfeit the most fundamental right of all — the right to remain part of their families.”
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.