The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
August 3, 2012
Last week, lawmakers on the House Democratic Policy Committee conducted a public hearing at the University of Pittsburgh to examine the plight of children with incarcerated parents.
In 2009, the House of Representatives passed Resolution 203 which required the Joint State Government Commission to complete a study on the effects of parental incarceration on children. The final report was issued in December 2011.
An estimated 810,000 inmates of the more than 1.5 million held in the nation's prisons in 2007 were parents of minor children, according to a report by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. One in 43 American children has a parent in prison.
The number of inmates who are parents has increased by 79 percent since 1991. The population of parents is following a trend similar to that of all incarcerated individuals. In 2007, 1.7 million minor children had a parent in prison, an 82 percent increase since 1991.
Black and Hispanic children are more likely than white children to have a parent in prison. Among minor children in the United States, 6.7 percent of black children, 2.4 percent of Hispanic children, and 0.9 percent of white children have a parent in prison.
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.
Among fathers in state and federal prisons, more than 4 in 10 are black, about 3 in 10 are white, and about 2 in 10 are Hispanic. Among mothers, 48 percent are white, 28 percent are black, and 17 percent are Hispanic.
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 Joint State Government Commission Report, 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.”
The report makes a number of recommendations that address the arrest of parents, the judicial proceedings, corrections, re-entry and community supervision. The report also addressed the need to “Develop and expand community-based resources to help parents and other caregivers address children’s needs when their parents are arrested and incarcerated.” These resources would include keeping the children informed, providing emergency assistance, counseling and screening of caregivers.
Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny) who co-chaired the hearing said in a press release, "Children of incarcerated parents are innocent victims of the situation, and we must do all we can to help them survive and ultimately thrive."
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