When 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 own lives.

“What would have helped me most is compassion for my mom.”

Ahmad, 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 college.


When 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.


THREE 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 change it.

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 drugs.


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 alive.

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


  • 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.


  • Listen.
    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.



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