a parent is arrested, children whose lives may already
have left them with little sense of control often
feel even more alienated from the events that swirl
around them. Adults they have never met remove their
parents with little explanation, then decide where
children will go without consulting them. When children
continue to feel unheard within the institutions that
govern their lives in their parents’ absence,
their sense of powerlessness grows.
There are aspects of children’s lives that must
inevitably remain beyond their control. Children cannot
choose whether or when their parents will be taken
from them, nor how long their parents will be gone.
But when young people are offered a voice within the
systems and institutions that come to dominate their
lives, they are more likely to respect those institutions,
and find some sense of control and optimism in their
would have helped me most is compassion for my mom”
21, was born while his mother was in prison. When
he was five, his mother’s parental rights were
terminated and he was adopted. Ahmad reunited with
his birth family at 16. He is currently attending
my mother’s pareantal rights were terminated,
I wasn’t even allowed to be by her in the courtroom.
But I just knew from her expression, her tears, begging
the judge, what had happened. I was reaching out to
her, begging, trying to have that last hug. They picked
me up and just took me away. Me screaming and yelling,
“Mommy, I won’t be bad again.”
When I was adopted, I was totally separated from my
mom and the rest of my family. They said it was for
my “mental stability”—that if I
continued to see my family, I would be confused. I
was always taught to say nothing about it.
in 100 American children will go to sleep tonight
with a parent in jail or prison.
That really impacted the way I felt
about myself. Was I that bad of a child? Was I that
much of a problem that people don’t want to
take care of me? Later, I learned that it actually
had nothing to do with me. It was something my mother
had to battle her way through herself, and I couldn’t
When I was 12, my adoptive dad moved us out of state.
Then one day, out of the blue, I came home from school
and he said, “Your mother called.” I called
her, and we were just talking like nothing is happening.
It was good. Eventually, I went to find her. My whole
impression growing up was that my family were drug
dealers, or they were in and out of jail, but it wasn’t
like that. My sister was this working mom who went
to college. My mom, she’s gotten over her past.
She still feels the urge, but she doesn’t do
I know it affected her a lot being pregnant
and in jail with her baby—and after giving birth,
to have to hand me over. She told me it was hard,
and that the love she had for me is what kept her
All the system saw was a drug-addicted mother. “The
baby could do better without her.” They wanted
to protect little Ahmad. Why didn’t they care
about his mother?
ONE in EIGHT African American children
has a parent behind bars.
When there’s a mother struggling
with an addiction, struggling with herself, but is
not abusive towards her kids, then the system has
to help better that situation. Help the mother as
well as the child. What would have helped me most
is compassion for my mom. We have to bring the mom
back, so the mom can be a mother to the child.
Me and my mom, today we have a good
relationship. We argue a lot over little petty things—I
didn’t bring her car back on time—but
we love each other. I never stopped loving her for
my whole life
RIGHTS TO REALITIES
- Train staff at institutions
whose constituency includes children of incarcerated
parents to recognize and address these children's
needs and concerns.
Any institution dealing with
vulnerable youth—including schools and child
care programs—will likely serve numerous children
of incarcerated parents. In many cases, children
do not feel able to talk about this aspect of their
experience. If they express their grief instead
through anger or defiance, they find themselves
disciplined, labeled, and often eventually jailed.
When adults are sensitive to the needs—not
to mention the existence—of the children of
prisoners, they are better prepared to offer support
instead of stigma, and help avert this cycle.
- Tell the truth.
Adults often try to protect children from difficult
realities by blunting or concealing the truth. But
children who are lied to—whether by police,
social workers, family members or others—about
a parent’s arrest or incarceration are likely
to experience heightened confusion, shame and mistrust.
They are also denied the opportunity to express
their own views and feelings about their family’s
situation. An explanation of that situation should
be tailored to a child’s age and level of
understanding, but children deserve to be told the
truth and to have their questions answered honestly.
Every interaction between a prisoner’s child
and a representative of the adult world—be
it police officer, probation officer, teacher, relative
or neighbor— presents both a risk and an opportunity.
If young people feel blamed or unheard—if
their feelings remain hidden and their needs go
unexpressed—the burden of parental incarceration
grows heavier. But when adults make
the effort to listen without judgment and learn
from children’s hard-won experience, each
interaction also provides an opportunity to offer
solace and encouragement.