Marie, 38


When I was about five years old, my mother and her boyfriend and my uncle were all arrested. I was with them. I can recall, as I sat in the police car, one officer saying, “What are we going to do with this kid?” The other guy said, “Well, we’ll just take her to the children’s shelter.”


I said, “I’m not going to the children’s shelter. You need to take me to my grandmother’s house, or put me in a cab.” I was already living with my grandmother at that time, but they never bothered to ask me, or ask my mother where did she want them to take me.


I was very young at that time, but generally, as children, we do know what is happening.


I was terrified of the police at that time. Very terrified of what I had seen, what happened to family members, what happened to my mother. I felt I hadn’t done anything wrong. It was a very frightening experience.




Children whose parents are imprisoned carry tremendous burdens. Not only do they lose the company and care of a parent, they also must deal with the stigma of parental incarceration, and fear for their parent’s safety and well-being. Researchers who have interviewed children who have experienced parental incarceration have found them vulnerable to depression, anger and shame. One study found many showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress reaction—difficulty sleeping and concentrating, depression, and flashbacks to their parents’ crimes or arrests. In the face of these difficulties, many young people will tell you that they rarely receive the support they need as they “do time” along with their parents.

“There is more in the world than bad stuff.”

Shana, 19, was adopted by her aunt and uncle as a result of her mother’s addiction and repeated arrests. She was a sophomore in college at the time of this interview.


When I was seven years old, I was taken away from my mother because she was addicted to crack cocaine. My father was never in the picture. He was in and out of jail.


Before I was taken away, my mom would get arrested sometimes and my brothers and I would be on our own. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t right. Eventually, our lights, our phone, our water were all turned off. I know it’s not the teachers’ responsibility, but I wish they would have come by just to see how we were living. Just to see that we were on our own, in a dark room sometimes, with candles.


Finally, my older brother said, “I have to tell. I can’t wash clothes. I can’t cook every day. I can’t do all that by myself. It’s getting too hard for me.” He went to my aunt and uncle and told them the situation, and they just took me out of the house. My oldest brother went to another aunt’s, and my other brother stayed with my grandmother.


Only 6 state child welfare systems have a policy in place to address the needs of children of incarcerated parents.

I think there should be a program to help kids cope with the fact that their mother is arrested. Therapy, to see how the child is feeling and let them know what's going on. I know I needed something.


When I was five, I wasn’t in a five-year-old place. I shouldn’t have been able to know what drugs smell like, to see my mom doing it. When a child is exposed to that type of stuff, you can’t take it away, but you can put them back in a child’s place by getting them involved in childlike things. In my community, all the resources for kids, like the rec centers, are gone or shut down or taken over by drugs.


I would have liked to go camping. Horseback riding. Rock climbing. At a young age, that’s when you develop your talent. Drawing. Singing. Dancing. Acting. Something like that would shown me that there is more in the world than bad stuff. You need to know you can go through bad stuff, get out of it, and do so much more. Be so much more.

  • Train adults who work with young people to recognize the needs and concerns of children whose parents are incarcerated.
    Any institution dealing with vulnerable youth 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.


  • Provide access to specially-trained therapists, counselors and/or mentors.
    The same issues that can make counseling valuable for many children 
    whose parents are incarcerated—repeated loss, heightened fear of authority, discomfort in institutional settings, difficulty in forming trusting relationships—can also make providing that care particularly challenging. Children need access to therapists or other supportive adults who have the experience and training to surmount these barriers.


  • Save five percent for families.
    Each state, and the federal government, should allocate five percent of its corrections budget to support prisoners’ families both during and after a parent’s incarceration. This investment will likely be more than recouped via reduced recidivism and lower rates of intergenerational incarceration. In the meantime, trimming excessive sentences would produce the immediate savings to fund such an initiative.



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