Children with parents in prison
They’re the forgotten victims of crime.
Kids like Chardae Anderson, who was 10 when her father was imprisoned for grand theft auto in Mississippi. Although Anderson did not live with her father before his imprisonment, she was angry. Angry at him for not showing up for a family reunion in Mississippi right before he went to jail, angry that most of her friends had two parents involved in their lives and she didn’t, angry she had a secret she couldn’t tell anybody. “You feel like you’re the only one,” Anderson said.
But she was far from the only one. In fact, one in 33 children in the United States – and one in 8 African-American children – are estimated to have at least one parent incarcerated in state or federal prisons.
By the numbers
The numbers could be higher, though, because some people are in and out of prison and are not included in the annual estimate. Others don’t tell authorities they have children because of fears they’ll be put into the foster care system, said Robin Kimbrough-Melton, a research professor with the Clemson University Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life and director of Building Dreams, a mentoring program for children of prisoners.
The explosion in the prison population started in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the country’s unsuccessful war on drugs. The thought was if people were arrested and taken off the streets, drug use would stop. It didn’t work, Kimbrough-Melton said. “It just moved more people into prisons,” she said.
And South Carolina has one of the higher incarceration rates in the United States, which is the world’s leader in incarceration, she said. In South Carolina, 25 percent of the inmates in state prisons are there for drug offenses. More than two-thirds of South Carolina prisoners are incarcerated because of drug-related offenses, she said.
The problem is so bad that state lawmakers approved the overhaul of the state’s sentencing guidelines to keep drug users and other nonviolent criminals out of prison. Without changes, the state’s prison population would swell to nearly 28,000 by 2015 and require the construction of one, maybe two, new prisons.
Kimbrough-Melton said part of the reason more African-American kids have parents who are incarcerated is the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. Crack cocaine, which is more likely to be used by African-Americans, carries much longer sentences. “There are entire neighborhoods, including in some communities in South Carolina, where the men are completely gone because they’re all in prison,” she said.
Kimbrough-Melton said one in 10 children have a parent somewhere in the criminal justice system. In an increasing number of cases, that parent is their mother. Seventy-eight percent of women incarcerated in South Carolina say they have children. Sixty-two percent of male prisoners in the state say they are fathers.
The rate of incarceration of women is increasing more rapidly than the rate for men. Kimbrough-Melton said that’s because of poverty and because women often get caught up in the misdeeds of their boyfriends or husbands. “When we think about people going to prison, we don’t think of them as parents,” she said. “But they are and, for years, children have been the forgotten victims of crime.”
Kimbrough-Melton is director of Building Dreams, a five-year-old mentoring program that focuses on 4- to 17-year-old children of incarcerated parents in Greenville, Clarendon, Darlington, Lee, Pickens and Sumter counties. The program matches the children with a mentor, not to replace the parent, but to serve as almost an extended-family member, said David Taylor, who works in the program. “It’s to provide an extra heart and hand in their lives,” he said.
The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents estimate that as many as half of boys who have a parent behind bars will be jailed themselves sometime in their lives. “I’ve heard stories of 18-year-olds who meet their father and grandfather on their first day in prison,” Taylor said.
Kimbrough-Melton said the day-to-day lives of children whose fathers are imprisoned often don’t change much because the fathers aren’t as involved in raising them. “They feel the loss but oftentimes they don’t really know their dads,” she said. But that doesn’t mean they are not affected, she said.
Is it my fault?
In Anderson’s case, she felt like it was her fault her dad was in prison. “Most of my friends had two parents and I had one. I wondered what I did to cause that,” she said. Her anger came out at school. “It was like a volcano inside me,” Anderson said. “I had all this anger built up and I lashed out in all the wrong places.” She got kicked out of school in seventh grade for having too many disciplinary referrals and had to attend alternative school. She got in fights in high school. She decided to enter the Building Dreams program after seeing a flyer at church one day.
Her mentor told her to write her father a letter. She did. It was four pages long. But it sat on her dresser for two weeks before she actually mailed it. “He responded to the letter and said he was sorry,” Anderson said. “I needed to hear him say that. Until I did, I was hurting. I know the letter probably made him cry. It was hard for me to write, so I know it was hard for him to read.”
When it’s the mother going to prison, it often has devastating affects on family stability, Kimbrough-Melton said. “They often lose their homes, their support network, their friends,” she said. “It’s very disruptive to their day-to-day lives.”
No place to call home
Those children are often shuffled from family member to family member. Grandparents are often thrust back into child care, something they are not physically or financially able to do, she said.
And while some children lose a parent to death or divorce, those who lose a parent to incarceration are often affected more, she said. “You have some of the same kind of issues, the attachment bonds and the standard-of-living decreases, but there’s so much stigma against incarceration,” she said. “If a child has a parent who dies, it’s socially acceptable to talk about. If they lose a parent because of divorce, they can talk about it. But if they lose a parent to incarceration, often times it’s a traumatic event they have no way to address.”
Some kids, she said, live with their grandparents in upper middle class neighborhoods and nobody knows their parent is in prison. “Incarceration cuts across all of society,” she said. “You can go to most any neighborhood and find kids affected by incarceration. If somebody says, ‘Our church or our school doesn’t have children of prisoners,’ I say they’re not looking very hard.”
Without support, the incarceration of parents may place children at greater risk of emotional and behavioral difficulties, poor academic performance, alcohol and drug abuse and juvenile delinquency. Most often, the first sign is academic problems, starting by the third- or fourth-grade. If the academic problems are not addressed, the child can start exhibiting behavioral problems, Kimbrough-Melton said.
But having somebody to turn to who is not judgmental can turn that around, Taylor said. Anderson’s attitude started turning around once she joined the program. She skipped a year of high school and graduated from Carolina Academy as its salutatorian. She’s now a freshman at Clemson University majoring in accounting. She’s still friends with her mentor, Carol Stewart, who Anderson called her second mother.
“It was a 180,” said Anderson, who is working this summer as an intern for the Building Dreams program. “I’m not ashamed that my dad is in prison. Back then, I thought I was the only one, that I was the oddball. But now I know there are so many other kids in the same position.”
29 July 23010