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.