Growing Generations for Jail

By John Burl Smith


"Children do the time right alongside of their parents. This is one of the worst epidemics facing America.  We could fill up several school districts with just children whose parents are incarcerated." -- Lisa Thorpe-Vaughn


Children of incarcerated parents are a problem that is growing like weeds in America's garden. Proliferating unnoticed, they are having a profound affect on urban, suburban and rural communities across the United States (US). Not easily comprehended, it is a problem that needs effective strategies because these children are like ticking time bombs or IED (improvised explosive devises) hidden from view.  Most in the US view the problem simply in terms of crime and punishment; parents should consider incarceration before engaging in illegal behavior.  Although data is not abundant on the subject, some researchers estimate as many as 10 million children between the ages of 4-18 fall into this category. 


Numbers alone do not tell the story and the depth of the problem depends on one's role or how it impacts them. According to Lisa Thorpe-Vaugn, president of Non-Profit Leadership Training Institute, children of incarcerated parents face a higher risk, about 65 %, of being incarcerated themselves.  For most, the trauma of sudden separation from their sole caregiver and moved from caretaker to caretaker can create feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, depression and guilt.  Absent positive intervention, the behavioral consequences can be severe emotional withdrawal and failure in school, resulting in delinquency.


The problem grows as these children fall through the cracks and become seeded in what some researchers call "inter-generational incarceration."  During arrest, police do not routinely ask whether the person has children, nor do sentencing judges or correctional agencies raise this question as a matter of concern.  No agency collects data about such children, so more is known about the parents than the children.


At midyear 2007, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that of the 1,518,535 inmates -- 52% state and 63% federal  – 809,800 were parents of 1,706,600 minor children.  Proportionally, this means approximately 2.3% of the nation's 74 million children under the age of 18 (7-1-07) had a parent in prison. Blacks were 8 and Hispanic 3 times, more likely than white children to have a parent in prison. Among minor children with parents in prison, 67% were black, 24% Hispanic, and 0.9% white.  More than 4 in 10 fathers in state and federal prisons were black, compared to 3 in 10 white and about 2 in 10 Hispanic. Among mothers, 48% were white, 28% black, and 17% Hispanic.


An American Bar Association (ABA) study found that "While law enforcement policies and procedures specifically addressing children of arrestees may not currently exist in most agencies, the issue of accountability–and subsequently legal liability–is nevertheless present."  Courts have found that officers have a duty to reasonably ensure the safety of unattended children following a caretaker's arrest [White v. Rochford, 592 F2d 381 (7th Cir. 1979)]. This study found that when a child's welfare is involved, law enforcement officers make a variety of placement decisions in the field -- calling in child protective services (CPS), taking the child to the police station, or informally placing the child with the parent's neighbors, relatives or friends.


Dr. Denise Johnston, Director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California, has studied the impact of parental crime, arrest and incarceration on children's development.  This research indicates that the effects of parental arrest and incarceration on a child's development are profound.  Children may suffer from multiple psychological problems, including negative behavioral manifestations of sadness, withdrawal, low self-esteem, declining school performance, truancy and aggression, along with drugs or alcohol use. A study of 36 children from 5 to 16 years old, participating in a visitation program at a women's prison, found that 3/4 of the children reported "symptoms including depression, difficulty in sleeping, concentration problems, poor school performance and flashbacks."


The pattern of repeated parent-child separation resulting from multiple parental arrests  can be devastating and have severe social consequences -- delinquency and inter-generational incarceration. According to a 1987 national study by the American Correctional Association, "The average adult female offender is a minority between the ages of 25 to 29, who before arrest, was a single parent living with one to three children.  Comes from a single parent or broken home, where half of her other family members are incarcerated, including 54 % of her brothers and sisters. She is a high school drop out, unemployed, likely to have been the victim of sexual abuse, started using alcohol or drugs between the ages of 13 and 14.  Her criminal behavior follows a primary pattern: to pay for drugs, relieve economic pressures, or poor judgement."


The foregoing description of incarcerated parents and their offspring paints a picture indicative of people buried in a cycle of unemployment, few opportunities, ignorance, low self-esteem and poverty.  Synonymous to seeds that fall from plants, their condition passes from one generation to the next unchanged because their conditions of life are unchanged.  Susan Philips, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois-Chicago, pointed out that "The criminal justice and child welfare systems are the two most powerful systems in the lives of such families.  She believes entry into foster care tends to be driven more by overarching crises besieging the household, rather than just parental incarceration."


During the 1980s, the "War on Drugs" began what has become a devastating process in inner-city neighborhoods.  Like blight on communities, police put thousands of poor blacks and Latinos in prison and child welfare put their children in foster care, planting seeds of inter-generational incarceration that this society will reap for decades. This problem in black and Latino communities has reached epidemic levels.  Accordingly, the Center for an Urban Future (1998) reported that "one out of every 22 black children and one in every 59 Latino children in New York City were in foster care, compared to just one in every 385 white children.


Northwestern University Law Professor Dorothy Roberts studied the long-term impact of child welfare and law enforcement interventions and supports the thesis that it is a cruel cycle that spans generations. In her book Shattered Bonds, she noted that many black foster care children, marginalized and neglected by the system, wind up in the juvenile justice system as adolescents. "These institutions serve a similar function.  Both use blame and punishment to address the problems of the populations under their control."


US institutional racism perpetuated through agencies, such as child welfare and the prison-industrial-complex, is farming inter-generational incarceration as if it is part of GDP.  If one considers that blacks and Latinos make up over 65 % of the prison population, the magnitude of the problem will grow exponentially with each successive generation. With the prison population topping 3 million (2008), no will to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, states eliminating parole and over crowding in existing facilities, the US is growing a bulging prison underclass that will continue to spout similar fruit.  If one sows the wind, they will reap the whirlwind.