Children of incarcerated parents are 'collateral damage' of criminal justice system

By Henrie M. Treadwell—– Times of Trenton guest opinion column
on July 03, 2013 at 6:35 AM, updated July 03, 2013 at 6:40 AM

Incarceration has a phenomenal effect on children whose family members are in prison. Studies suggest that girls with an incarcerated household member have sex at younger ages, are less likely to use contraceptives, have more sexual partners and are more likely to become pregnant before age 20. Other researchers report that high levels of incarceration affect the ability of African-American male adolescents to imagine their future, due to the absence of so many men as role models in their homes and neighborhood. Overall, research indicates that 23 percent of children with a father who has served time in jail or prison have been expelled or suspended from school. Parental incarceration is correlated with higher school dropout rates, lower academic achievement, greater involvement with juvenile justice and ultimately more involvement with the criminal justice system as offenders themselves.
Currently, in the United States, one in 134 adults is in jail or prison. Among African-American adults, the number is nearly one in 20. In 2007, approximately 1.7 million African-American children, or one in 15, had a parent in prison on any given day. Data for jails, probation and parole are not available. Children whose parents are in jail or prison experience teasing or bullying in school and in other social settings and tend to withdraw or act out. Many youth who are seen at public mental health agencies have parents who have a prison record. Their depression, anger, withdrawal and/or acting out are ignored or misdiagnosed in school and other settings. Every day is a difficult time for these children and, given the numbers, they are all around us.
A major damaging aspect of incarceration on the fathers, particularly poor fathers, is that child support bills mount; they will leave prison with an average of $20,000 in back debt. According to the Federal Agency for Child Support Enforcement, 70 percent of all back child support is owed by men earning less than $10,000 a year. In addition, 29 percent of those fathers who are delinquent on their child support payments are re-incarcerated. Most of those who are institutionalized are actually in prison for failure to pay child support. A de facto debtor’s prison has been reinstituted in the United States and primarily houses poor men of color who have become trapped in a well-intentioned but racially insensitive policy that fails to face the reality that poor men of color earn less than white men, even when both have comparable work, incarceration and criminal offense histories. Those coming home are very often unable to find a job because of a felony conviction that employers regularly use to deny employment. In sum, they cannot earn a living wage that provides resources to help heal the wounds of separation.

View of the exterior of New Jersey State Prison in Trenton in this 2009 file photo. (Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger)

It is difficult to determine how communities can provide the services that will help these children, as we know too little about them. New Jersey and many other states do not collect information on those prisoners who are parents of minor children. We know the danger of failing to proactively intervene. The New Jersey Human Relations Council recently held a meeting with experts who discussed best practices in addressing the plight of the children of incarcerated parents, a condition which, in the words of the council, “negatively affects a vast number of New Jersey children and families.” The council does not know precisely how many children are affected. How large is “vast,” and do we have policies and resources in place to meaningfully help? The council meeting was a significant beginning.
Women advocates and policymakers were leaders in securing legislation to support enforcement of child support policies. These same women and their male colleagues can address the problems faced by these African-American children and all children in a similar situation and their families. We need to review and revise punitive policies that make it impossible for men to pay child support fees, which mount inexorably while they are incarcerated, are not forgiven or adjusted and fuel the prison industry. Women can advocate for payment for custodial parents who are left to fend for themselves and for the children when the partner is incarcerated. And women can advocate for child visiting centers in men’s prisons and state-supported transportation so that the children will be able to visit their incarcerated parent on a regular basis, as a part of the court order.
Women of every race, creed and color should vow that the children of incarcerated parents no longer become collateral damage as part of a criminal justice system disparately and insensitively applied. Poor families of color are disproportionately affected, since they represent, for a variety of irrational reasons, the majority of prisoners. Their children, already blighted by insensitivities to race and poverty, cannot defend themselves against the damage inflicted by a system not sensitive to the nurturing that even an incarcerated or released parent can provide.
Henrie M. Treadwell, Ph.D., is a research professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine. She is the author of “Beyond Stereotypes in Black and White: How Everyday Leaders Can Build Healthier Opportunities for African American Boys and Men.”

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