Two point seven million American children have a parent behind bars today.
Seven million, or one in ten of the nation’s children, have a parent under criminal justice supervision—in jail or prison, on probation, or on parole.
Little is known about what becomes of children when their parents are incarcerated. There is no requirement that the various institutions charged with dealing with those accused of breaking the law—police, courts, jails and prisons, probation departments—inquire about children’s existence, much less concern themselves with children’s care. Conversely, there is no requirement that systems serving children—schools, child welfare, juvenile justice—address parental incarceration.
Children of prisoners have a daunting array of needs. They need a safe place to live and people to care for them in their parents’ absence, as well as everything else a parent might be expected to provide: food, clothing, medical care.
But beyond these material requirements, young people themselves identify less tangible, but equally compelling, needs. They need to be told the truth about their parents’ situation. They need someone to listen without judging, so that their parents’ status need not remain a secret. They need the companionship of others who share their experience, so they can know they are not alone. They need contact with their parents—to have that relationship recognized and valued even under adverse circumstances. And—rather than being stigmatized for their parents’ actions or status—they need to be treated with respect, offered opportunity, and recognized as having potential.
These needs, too often, go not just unmet but unacknowledged. Over the years, a series of court cases has delineated the rights of prisoners in the United States. These rights are limited, and difficult to enforce, but they are at least recognized. The idea that prisoners, while they may be required to forfeit the right to liberty, nevertheless retain other rights that demand respect, is generally taken for granted. Where it is not, advocates are ready and able to step in and fight on behalf of the incarcerated.
The children of prisoners are guaranteed nothing. They have committed no crime, but the penalty they are required to pay is steep. They forfeit, too often, much of what matters to them: their homes, their safety, their public status and private self-image, their primary source of comfort and affection. Their lives and prospects are profoundly affected by the multiple institutions that lay claim to their parents—police, courts, jails and prisons, probation and parole—but they have no rights, explicit or implicit, within any of these jurisdictions.
This need not be the case. Should the rights above be recognized, the children of prisoners would still face obstacles and traumas. But they would do so with the knowledge that the society that had removed their parents took some responsibility for their care.
A criminal justice model that took as its constituency not just individuals charged with breaking the law, but also the families and communities within which their lives are embedded—one that respected the rights and needs of children—might become one that inspired the confidence and respect of those families and communities, and so played a part in stemming, rather than perpetuating, the cycle of crime and incarceration.
A BILL OF RIGHTS
I HAVE THE RIGHT...
Click on a Right for more info.
AGENDA FOR ACTION
FROM RIGHTS TO REALITIES
Since the Bill of Rights was first published in 2003, it has been widely distributed and used in venues around the country to educate the public, provoke discussion, and train service providers.
In 2005, SFCIPP launched the Rights to Realities Initiative, with the long-term goal of ensuring that every child in San Francisco whose parent is arrested and/or incarcerated is guaranteed the rights that follow. Our current work plan involves assessing the current status of each right in San Francisco, and the availability of model practices from around the nation; identifying which agencies might contribute to addressing each right; and working with those agencies to develop responsive policies and practices. Our overarching aim is to ensure that every decision about criminal justice policy and practice takes into account the needs and hopes of children.
AN AGENDA FOR ACTION
1. I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent's arrest.
Develop arrest protocols that support and protect children.
Offer children and/or their caregivers basic information about the post-arrest process.
2. I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me.
Train staff at institutions whose constituency includes children of incarcerated parents to recognize and address these children's needs and concerns.
Tell the truth.
3. I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent.
Review current sentencing law in terms of its impact on children and families.
Turn arrest into an opportunity for family preservation
Include a family impact statement in pre-sentence investigation reports
4. I have the right to be well cared for in my parent's absence.
Support children by supporting their caretakers.
Offer subsidized guardianship.
5. I have the right to speak with, see and touch my parent.
Provide access to visiting rooms that are child-centered, non-intimidating and conducive to bonding.
Consider proximity to family when siting prisons and assigning prisoners.
Encourage child welfare departments to facilitate contact.
6. I have the right to support as I face my parent's incarceration.
Train adults who work with young people to recognize the needs and concerns of children whose parents are incarcerated.
Provide access to specially trained therapists, counselors, and/or mentors.
Save five percent for families.
7. I have the right not to be judged, blamed or labeled because my parent is incarcerated.
Create opportunities for children of incarcerated parents to communicate with and support each other.
Create a truth fit to tell.
Consider differential response when a parent is arrested.
8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.
Re-examine the Adoption and Safe Families Act.
Designate a family services coordinator at prisons and jails.
Support incarcerated parents upon reentry.
Focus on rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration.
SFCIPP IS CLOSED AS OF DECEMBER 31ST 2019
FEEL FREE TO CONTACT OUR PARTNER ORGANIZATIONS:
Click below for downloadable pdfs of the Bill of RIghts in English and Spanish.
WHO WE ARE
The San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (SFCIPP) is a coalition of social service providers, representatives of government bodies, advocates and others who work with or are concerned about children of incarcerated parents and their families. Formed in 2000 under the auspices of the Zellerbach Family Foundation, SFCIPP works to improve the lives of children of incarcerated parents, and to increase awareness of these children, their needs and their strengths.
After studying the issues affecting these children and their families, SFCIPP members agreed that a children’s perspective was the logical framework from which all future work should evolve. We understand that children’s rights and needs may sometimes conflict with, and must be balanced against, institutional concerns and requirements, but believe it is essential to start from the child’s perspective and work on what is possible from there.
The bill of rights above is derived from the experience of Gretchen Newby, executive director of Friends Outside—who drafted the original bill of rights on which this one is based—in working with families affected by incarceration, and from interviews conducted by journalist Nell Bernstein with over 30 young people who have experienced parental incarceration (the names of those interviewed have been changed). It also relies on the research and conclusions of Charlene Simmons of the California Research Bureau and Peter Breen of the Child Welfare League of America, and derives in great part from the ongoing conversation that has been taking place among SFCIPP members with the generous support of the Zellerbach Family Foundation. Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, Cassie Pierson, and Ellen Walker provided editorial guidance.