2012-07-21 08:30:00

Having a Parent Behind Bars is All Too Common for Kids in CA

OAKLAND – Marianna, who looks older than her 42 years and talks in the rapid-fire, high-pitched staccato of someone who has spent years on crack -- along with heroin and alcohol, those were her drugs of choice -- vividly recalled her then 5-year-old daughter witnessing one of her many arrests.

“She grabbed on the policeman’s pants crying and screaming, ‘please don’t take her, please don’t take my mommy away.’ But they were holding her back and didn’t let me touch her.”

Marianna - who asked we not use the real name of her and her family members - has been out of prison and clean for almost three years, but her daughter, Josie, still struggles with the trauma of her mother’s arrests and incarceration.

“The last time I got out, my daughter was so scared about me suddenly leaving again that she wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom by myself," Marianna said. "She slept with me and held onto my pajamas all night and when she wakes up she still screams, ‘Mommy are you here?”

The experience of having an incarcerated parent is disturbingly common for children in California, evidenced by the following:

• An estimated 297,000 children have a parent in a California state prison or county jail, according to Get On the Bus - a statewide program that provides transportation to children so they can visit their parents on Mother’s and Father’s days.
• The California Research Bureau estimates that 9 percent of California’s children have a parent in jail or prison or under the jurisdiction of probation or parole.
• Advocates from child welfare and criminal justice organizations have been turning up the heat about the needs of families impacted by incarceration.
• “These children face significant uncertainty in nearly every aspect of their lives,” states a 2008 report by the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute.

The trauma of parental incarceration often causes anxiety, guilt, shame and fear in addition to low self-esteem, withdrawal, decline in school performance and/or the use of drugs or alcohol, states the Justice Policy Center’s report. In short, having a parent in prison can be so hard on children that it creates a whole new set of problems, some of which may end up in the vicious cycle of delinquency and crime.

“We finally have more emphasis on helping individuals with re-entry, but still offer little support for the family and how to fold them back in,” said Doris Mangrum, the producer of the movie "Stains: Changing Lives After Incarceration." “The system has been in such a rush to incarcerate that they haven’t considered the collateral damage to the family that is left behind.”

But the trauma to young children actually starts before incarceration, admits Mangrum.

“One of the biggest impacts is the suddenness of the arrest. The parent disappears - it is almost like a death," she said. "Even if a person is selling drugs and the family knows that their number could come up, it is still a shock.”

After one of her mother’s arrests, Marianna’s daughter Josie thought that she must have done something wrong.

“I woke up and my grandma was there instead of my mom and she said my mom went back to jail," Josie said. "I thought it was my fault because I didn’t do what my mom asked me to do the day before. It was horrible when my mom was gone. I felt like I was cursed.”

“Arresting officers need to be trained in child sensitive arrest protocols designed to minimize trauma,” said Carol Burton, the executive director of Centerforce - a statewide agency serving the incarcerated and their families. “That includes, whenever possible, not handcuffing the parent in front of child; when a child is screaming and crying, allowing the parent to comfort the child; [and] if it is necessary to subdue a parent, get a child welfare agency to take care of the child immediately after arrest.” Oakland Police Department does not yet have such a policy, but Burton is working to change that.

After the arrest, family members often scramble to figure out what to do, said Mangrum.

“Who will take the kids? Will they have to be separated? How will they get to school?" Mangrum asked. "All of these major life decisions have to happen quickly, especially if that parent was the sole provider.”

That scramble is especially likely after an arrest of a mother.

“When fathers are incarcerated, the children suffer a loss, but there is usually continuity in care because the mother is often the primary parent,” Mangrum said. “But when a mother is removed, children are traumatized and depending on their age, often show regressive behaviors like bed wetting and nightmares.”

“After the trauma of arrest,” Burton said, “the policy that most drives families apart is where prisons are located in relationship to the families. In the military or in the child welfare system, they think about how families should be brought back together so they do not fail. But in California State Prisons, there is no system to keep families connected while the person is in prison.”

Keeping connected is almost entirely left up to families who often don’t have cars or the resources to get to prisons located hundreds of miles away.

“About 60 percent of moms and dads in state prison are more than 100 miles from their kids,” Alayna Johnson, the Northern California Regional Coordinator of Get on the Bus, said. “For many of the 1,357 children we served in 2011, this might be the only visit that that will have until next year’s Get on the Bus day.”

Even if a family has a car, a visit to the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla is about 140 miles from Oakland and takes two and one-half to three hours each way.

“That works out to be about $165 round trip,” Johnson said. “And if you factor in the cost of food for the kids you can easily top $200. Oakland to the California Institute for Women in Corona is about 420 miles away and takes around seven hours, which requires a motel stay and meals throughout the stay. You might be looking at $650 for a weekend visit.”

Even when a family can make it to visit one of California’s prisons, the visiting procedures are challenging: visiting hours that are not conducive to families with young children, long waiting periods with no child-friendly facilities and noisy and crowded visiting areas where parents are sometimes separated from their children by glass barriers.

“Contact visitation is so important for children,” said Burton, who is also the coordinator of the advocacy group, Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Parents. “Research shows that untreated trauma restructures the architecture of the brain and being soothed by a primary caregiver is healing. We have an excellent mom's program at Santa Rita, but only about 50-60 inmates benefit each year. Contact visits need to be available in every prison and county jail in California.”

Mangrum worked at Santa Rita County Jail for 22 years with the TALK program - Teaching and Loving Kids - which included teaching parenting skills and providing visits with enhanced physical contact. “The guardians frequently saw the children’s behaviors improve and their grades get better after being able to have contact visits,” she said.

A study by the Child Welfare Services determined that children with incarcerated parents were exposed to a far greater number of additional problems including substance abuse, mental illness, poverty and domestic violence than other children. And then there is the stigma of incarceration.

“The stigma carries over to the families,” Mangrum said. “It is as if the entire family has committed a crime. A family will be evicted from a housing project if a family member with a felony shows up, so people sneak in late at night. Children are often treated as though it is contagious disease and friends are told they can’t play with them anymore.”

But Mangrum remains cautiously hopeful.

“There is a new awakening around the country that mass incarceration hasn’t worked, long sentences have not worked," Mangrum said. "Studies have clearly shown that families that stay connected during incarceration have a greater chance of success and less likelihood of returning to prison.”

“Realignment is saying that we are responsible our own community and for the well-being of the kids and their families,” Burton said. “My hope is that we will use realignment to keep custodial parents out of prison whenever possible and create a unified re-entry plan implemented by probation and parole that provides parents with the resources they need to stay in contact and become stronger parents when they return.”

In a few months, Josie, now 10, will be able to live with her mom and dad again because they have stable housing and have been clean and sober for more than one year. When asked what she thinks that will be like, tears came to Josie’s eyes: “I hope that this time it will be for forever.”

This story was originally published by
Oakland Local, as part of a 10-part series, "Lessening the Impact of Incarceration in Oakland," which was undertaken as part of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

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