A growing segment of the single parent population are families with one or more parent who is imprisoned. In addition, more women are going to prison than in the past. According to the Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners, a national child-welfare advocacy group:
• There are more than 2 million people in US jails and prisons, more than in any other western country.
• The number of women entering prison has risen sharply — by 400 percent since 1980.
• Nearly half of women imprisoned for drug related, non-violent crimes leave behind children younger than 10 years old.
Families whose fathers go to jail are thrust into economic despair, often overnight, with no hope of receiving child support while the father is in prison. When mothers go to prison, often the children are cared for by an aging family member, such as a grandparent who is not necessarily equipped to take on the responsibility of raising another generation of children. In other cases, the children are placed in foster care where they may loose contact with each other and the imprisoned parent.
Children with an incarcerated parent (s) have unique needs that often go unmet. There are feelings of intense anger, just as with children of divorce, but added to that might be embarrassment of what their parent did to end up in prison. Often children will make up elaborate stories to protect themselves, and feel like they have to keep up a façade about where the other parent is. Loosing contact with the parent is detrimental to the children. Re-establishing a relationship can be extremely difficult once the parent is released from prison.
A common worry for the remaining parent about his or her children is that they will fall into the same type of behaviors that put the other parent in jail. Generations of drug or alcohol abuse, or gang involvement can be very difficult to overcome. For some children who do not see or understand that there is a different way to live their lives, they may fall into the trap of illegal behavior and eventually end up in prison like their parents. Mentoring is one positive influence that can help young people see that there is an alternative lifestyle. Unfortunately, many formal mentoring programs have extensive waitlists that can keep a child hoping for years to be mentored.
Many prison release programs concentrate on helping the parent to re-enter society, but only a few of them help with the need to re-establish positive family ties. There are no easy, soft answers about how to help children of prisoners, but they do need help.