Since 2015 the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated has joined with the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents and partner organizations across the US in designating October as SEE US, SUPPORT US month. This public awareness campaign is designed to increase support for children with incarcerated family members.
Each year the See Us, Support Us Campaign has focused on a different aspect of the effects of Mass Incarceration on children and families. This year’s campaign has highlighted the importance of the parent-child relationship for children with parents in prisons and jails. Visiting and communication strategies and concerns have been addressed in various forums nation-wide.
The following are excerpts from “RESPONDING TO THE NEEDS OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES OF THE INCARCERATED:12 GUIDING PRINCIPLES” by Ann Adalist-Estrin in Contemporary Research and Analysis on the Children of Prisoners: Invisible Children
Liz Gordon, Ed. Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2018
Parent-Child relationships as buffers from trauma
The last decade has brought a significant amount of new research on the impact of parental incarceration on children. Typically, when impact is studied however, causal patterns are rarely identified. A shift in answering the “why” question about parental incarceration and child outcomes came about within the last 5 years when the national conversation on children’s health in general began to focus on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study which linked childhood trauma and long-term health and social consequences. (Felitti et.al.1998) The ACE Study became part of a perfect storm of research which had been emerging for several decades changing our understanding of human development. Brain research shows how toxic stress (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2005/2014) and trauma (Perry, 2000) changes the structure and function of children’s brains. These brain architecture changes can cause, and explain, behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and aggression leading to the use of drugs, alcohol, and food as coping mechanisms. These findings eventually raised a national alarm in Pediatric Health Care practice leading to state wide assessments of ACES in children. The ACES include several household challenges such as parental depression and addiction as well as abuse and neglect.
The inclusion of familial incarceration in the discussion of trauma and toxic stress, spotlights the trauma associated with separation from a parent and the toxic stress of justice system involvement putting the trauma of losing a parent to incarceration at the same level as other traumas. It shifts the conversation from- children are modeling their parents’ antisocial behaviors, to children are experiencing the trauma of separation from parents.
But, the other ingredient in the discussion of trauma and toxic stress for children in general is the presence of supportive adults. Normal or tolerable stress becomes toxic in the absence of significant attachment figures as buffers. (Franke, 2014; Asok, et.al. 2013) Children of the incarcerated are rarely included in that larger discussion and when they are, the importance of supporting their parent (incarcerated parents especially) as possible buffers from the toxicity of the stress is minimized. When we talk about a child losing a parent to incarceration, if we are interpreting the ACES literature only through a child maltreatment lens, the meaning that gets made (intentionally or not) is that children of incarcerated parents are maltreated children, harmed by their parents and thus better off without them. While this may be true in some cases, it is far more likely that the parents who are in prison or jail are potential supports for their children. Seeing them as such, gives a different meaning to the loss for children. It becomes more profound and less dismissible. (Adalist-Estrin, 2014)
We should continue to connect with other research on trauma and children and to advocate for including children impacted by parental incarceration in these discussions. It is equally important to emphasize the protective nature of parent child relationships, even when the parent is incarcerated.
While caregivers will most often be the primary attachment figures that children with incarcerated parents look to as protective buffers, incarcerated parents can also play that role.
Efforts to connect incarcerated parents to their children and families are increasing in number and in scope and typically fall into these 3 categorites:
- Ensuring jail and prison visiting conditions are sensitive to the needs of children;
See Urban Institute’s
- Offering opportunities for incarcerated parents to increase their parenting capacities to nurture and support their children and practice for these skills through visits.
See: Beyer, M., Blumenthal-Guigui, R., & Krupat, T. (2010). Strengthening parent-child relationships: Visit coaching with children and their incarcerated parents. In Y. R. Harris, J. A. Graham, & G. J. O. Carpenter (Eds.), Children of incarcerated parents: Theoretical, development, and clinical issues (pp. 187-214). New York, NY, US: Springer Publishing Co
- Promoting opportunities for positive communication between incarcerated parents and their children where appropriate.
See Communication Tips for the Incarcerated and their Families & Visiting Mom or Dad:
ideas for preparing children at different ages for visiting jails or prisons. https://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/cipl105-visitingmomordad.pdf
Promising Practices for Visiting and Maintaining Connections
- It’s Storytime!
It’s Storytime is a fantastic new service at HMP Lowdham Grange Prison in the United Kingdom. It is designed to keep families in touch during incarceration.
For more information on adaptation for use in the US, contact Stuart Hall. Stuart.Hall@serco.com
- The Family Room App
The Family Room is an app created to support the millions of children who are regularly separated from close family members by distance. Recognizing the impact these separations have on children’s social/emotional and academic outcomes, and how increasing common they are, the app was designed to replicate the way in which children naturally interact, so the critical child/adult relationship can stay as strong as possible. The app allows a family to create a private room and then stock it with a range of pre-approved activities, books, the child’s homework, videos and more, all based on the child’s age and interest. The adult and child are then able to do those things together in real time with a video chat and shared screens. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sdWaaz4FCs.
This app, while not originally intended for use by incarcerated parents, will be piloted at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Maryland for use by parents participating in facility programs to connect with their children in the community. This pilot program is part of larger program initiatives focused on incarcerated parents and their children in collaboration with the Creating Healthy Bonds Program of Family Services Inc (http://www.fs-inc.org/services/programs/creating-healthy-bonds). For use in within secure facilities, all interactions within the app are recorded and there is the ability for facility staff to monitor the interactions in real-time. Parents are screened in advance for approval, and their participation is part of a focused reentry service plan in preparation for returning to their families.
For information on this pilot-contact Reentry Services Manager Kendra Jochum at Kendra.email@example.com
- Family Connections in Correctional Facilities Project.
The National Institute of Corrections along with partners, Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Urban Institute are currently engaged in the Family Connections in Correctional Facilities Project. This project is designed to advance practices that foster contact and communication between parents experiencing incarceration and their children and family members by developing a set of low-cost, high-impact correctional practices to reduce barriers to family connections and contact. Five pilot sites have been selected. New York City Department of Corrections; Connecticut Department of Corrections; Oregon Department of Corrections; Dane County, Madison Wisconsin & Harris County, Houston Texas will receive training and technical assistance from NIC, Urban Institute, BJA and Community Works West as part of this collaborative initiative.
- Visiting Through the Lens
Children share how important it is to visit an incarcerated parent
- In Transit: The Prison Buses
Artist Jacobia Dahm documents the great distances families travel to visit
- Greater Hudson Enhanced Visiting Program
Enhanced Visiting Program for children at Columbia County Jail in partnership with The Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood
- Echoes of Incarceration
Hear directly from youth and families
CHILDREN’S BOOKS ABOUT VISITS AND COMMUNICATION
- KENNEDY’S BIG VISIT. Brooks, Daphne (2015)
- ALMOST LIKE VISITING. Ellis, Shannon ( 2015)
- JAMIE’S BIG VISIT. Hart-Johnson, Avon ( 2016)
- WHEN DAD WAS AWAY. Littlewood, Karin and Liz Weir ( 2013)
- SOMEONE I KNOW LIVES IN PRISON. Myers, Rebecca. ( 2013)
- VISITING DAY. Woodson, Jacqueline ( 2002)
Do you have or know of promising practices for keeping children connected to their incarcerated parents? Let us know! firstname.lastname@example.org