When a child loses a single parent to incarceration, he also loses a home. In the most extreme cases, children may wind up fending for themselves in a parent’s absence. Some will spend time in the foster care system, where 97 percent of administrators say they have no specific policy in place to address those children’s needs. The majority stay with relatives, often elderly and impoverished grandmothers who may be strained personally and financially by the challenge of caring for a second generation.

“Am I in this world by myself?”

Antonio, 23, spent 11 years in foster care wile his mother was in and out of jail and prison on drug-related charges. At the time of this interview, he was working as a peer counselor.


When I was four years old, my mother started doing drugs. She used to be in and out of jail, and then she started going to prison when I was seven years old. That’s when we first got taken from her. Her friends took me to Social Services, dropped me off, left me there.


I've been in about 18 different group homes since then, and three or four foster homes. I don’t care how bad whatever we were going through, I still wanted to be with my mom.


At the foster homes they would try to talk to me and I would say “yes” and “no.” I didn’t tell them anything else, because I was so hurt about it.


One foster home I was in, I called the lady there my grandmother, ‘cause she took care of me. She always made sure that I got in touch with my mom. Even if my mom was locked up and tryin’ to call collect, she could call there. My grandmother knew that mattered in my life.


The other places, they didn’t care. There was only a couple of people that I lived with that actually took me to see my mom.


In the group homes, they knew my mom was in jail and they would just tell me, “Oh, it’s gonna be alright.” But they don’t know how I feel because they’re not going through it.


HALF of all children with incarcerated mothers are cared for by grandparents.


At school kids would ask where my mom was at and I’d say, “jail.” Some kids would be like, “Oh, that’s cool.” The good ones would be like, “Oh, that’s all bad. Your mom’s crazy.” When Mother’s Day used to come around and people would be chillin’ with their mothers, kids would say, “What are you gonna do on Mother’s Day? Oh, I forgot, you don’t have a mother.”


Maybe I didn’t have a family, but when my daughter was born, I knew for sure that was my family. I knew I could make something better out of my life. When she was born, I cut all my friends loose. I started working at a warehouse, picking up 50-pound bags for $6.50 an hour.


My daughter is always smiling. She’s always happy. I love having a family. Before, I would think, “OK, do I got a family, or am I in this world by myself?” Even to this day, there’s that fear that I can lose my family, ‘cause I’ve already lost my first family.

Nearly TWO THIRDS of children being raised by single grandmothers live in poverty.


Now that I have kids, I don’t know why anyone would want to leave a little precious thing like that by themselves. I don’t understand why they would let that happen.


I don’t care what I have to do in this world, if I have to do everything right, I will, just to make sure that my daughter gets everything that I didn’t have.


  • Support children by supporting their caretakers.
    In many cases, relative caretakers receive less financial support than do non-related foster care providers—or no support at all. When a caretaker is an impoverished grandmother—as is often the case—it can prove particularly difficult for her to meet her family's needs alone. Equalizing payments for relative caregivers would be an important first step towards supporting the children for whom they care. Additional help for grandparents—including respite care and support groups—could also help sustain struggling families.

  • Offer subsidized guardianship.
    Children deserve an opportunity for stability without being asked to sever permanently their bond with their parent. Guardianship—in which a caretaker gains most of the legal rights of a parent, but biological parents do not permanently lose their rights—is one way of providing this. If guardians were routinely offered the same level of support as are foster parents, more friends and family members might feel able to step into this role. When reunification is unlikely—as when a parent is serving a very long sentence—an open adoption can also provide both a permanent home and an ongoing connection to an incarcerated parent.

  • Consider differential response when a parent is arrested.
    Differential response laws—now on the books in more than ten states—allow child welfare agencies to respond to families in crisis by offering support, often through referrals to community-based agencies, without opening a formal investigation. Differential response offers a promising model for how agencies might support families struggling with the incarceration of a parent. Workers could interview caregivers, incarcerated parents, and older children to determine their needs, and offer referrals to services, without the risk of sanction and long-term separation a formal investigation can trigger.



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