One in every 14 kids has had a parent behind bars, but for black children the rate is higher – one in nine. In Oklahoma, on any given day, it’s estimated that 26,000 children have a parent living in prison or jail. All across the country, hundreds of thousands of children are affected by having a parent or both parents behind bars. They often feel alone and isolated from their peers.

These are the troubling statistics that have been in the headlines recently. Recently, I’ve read a few articles about children whose parents are in prison. And Child Trends just released their report that shows that five million children in the United States have had at least one custodial parent in prison.

Though I most often write about children’s health coverage on the Voices for Kids blog, reading these articles reminded me of my experience years ago when I volunteered at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women.

In the mid-2000s, I went out to the Iowa women’s prison on most Wednesday nights, for almost six years. My role as a volunteer was to facilitate the Mothers Support Groups. The qualifications to get into the groups were simple: inmates had to be mothers of a child 18 or under, they had to have the legal right to contact their child, and not be imprisoned for a crime against their own child. When I led the groups, I always focused on how we were all mothers and how all mothers need support and can give support to other moms.

Though I had a lot of experience facilitating peer support groups through past jobs, such as groups for teenage mothers, survivors of domestic violence, and teen survivors of sexual assault, facilitating groups in a prison was a different experience in some obvious ways. Sure there were many prison rules we had to follow, but they weren’t unbearable. Many of the guards seemed to support the idea of the groups so they were usually friendly to the moms and me when they unlocked the room for us and announced the start of group over the intercom over the prison system. But the biggest difference was the issues we dealt with. Sometimes moms had gone years without seeing their kids. Some had said goodbye to a newborn two days after delivery, in shackles, at the hospital. Some had children who were most certainly struggling with the challenging reality of their mom being away from them and in prison, often struggling in many aspects of their life.

During group, my goal was simple: connect the moms with their kids. Every week the moms introduced themselves by describing themselves in three ways. They told us their children’s names and ages, with whom their children lived, and the last time they had seen their children (I learned to never focus on when the next visit between the incarcerated mom and child was going to happen, because sometimes that visit didn’t happen). Sometimes a mom had an issue that would lead the discussion (“My child’s caregiver refused the collect charges when I called the other night and I could hear my son crying to talk to me in the background.”) and sometimes we had guest speakers come in and talk about child development, how to talk to their kids during visits, or other relevant topics.

We spent a lot of time in group talking about relationships. Maybe they needed some support or guidance in how to repair or create a relationship with their child’s caregivers, who might be foster parents unknown to the mother, grandparents who stepped in when needed, or neighbors who had their child for the time being. Sometimes the children lived in very precarious circumstances, and sometimes they lived with people who didn’t like the child’s mother, maybe with good reason. During group, we talked a lot about how to relate to their child’s caregiver: how to ask for information about their child without imposing, how to thank the caregiver for the help they were giving, and how to maintain their role as mothers.

Most often though, we talked about how to relate to their kids. In many, many cases, life before prison was chaotic and hard on their kids. Sometimes the mom was addicted to a substance and their child lived with little stability. Sometimes though, the arrest was a shock to everyone and a seemingly regular existence was interrupted one day with mom being arrested in front of her kids and driven away in a police car, often never coming back before trial and then going straight to prison.

Kids whose moms are in prison worry about things we may never think about. Some kids worried if the guards were mean or violent, or if their mom had food to eat each day. One boy asked his mom if she ever saw grass or the sky. One child was scared his mother was chained to a wall.

I always encouraged the moms to write letters that described their cell and their units, the dining room, their bed covers, the view out their window, what the prison yard was like. If the child was young, I’d ask moms to draw pictures of their cell or the prison yard for their child and ask their little one to send a drawing back. If kids came for a visit, I encouraged moms to introduce them to the guards by name, maybe reducing some of that fear and worry. In some cases, it was very hard for a mom to tell her child she was in prison. I remember some moms who told their kids they were away on a trip, or even a cruise. I encouraged gentle honesty with their kids, as I knew that neighbors or classmates or family members could let it out and the child would feel very confused and scared to hear that news unexpectedly. Usually when a mom finally told her child she was in prison, she found out the child already knew or had suspected.

We tried lots of ways to keep the moms and kids in touch with each other. Poverty was a common and very difficult issue for the mothers so making phone calls through the dreadfully expensive prison system was too costly for many moms to do on a regular basis, and some of their children were too young for calls. We tended to rely on the mail system for most of the contact with kids in between visits. The moms made art projects and cards to send the kids for every holiday. With their little kindergarten-style scissors and glue sticks, the moms made valentines, cut out pumpkin ornaments, decorated back-to-school folders, and 4th of July flags. We took every opportunity to reach out. Sometimes the moms sent something as simple as the tracing of their hand on a piece of paper. We’d mail it to their child with a blank piece of paper and self-addressed, stamped envelope in the hopes that the child’s caregiver would trace the child’s hand and send it back to the mom. For some moms who saw their children very rarely, maybe less than once a year, it was a way to keep track of their child’s growth over a year.

With the help of local charities like Lutheran Social Services (LSS), the prison supported a way for the moms to connect with their kids through reading. The Storybook Project, held once a month, allowed moms to read a book aloud to their children for 20 minutes. We, the volunteers, would record the moms reading, and then send off the book and the cassette tape to the child. I’ll never forget how carefully the moms chose the book for their child each month and how they were nervous when they read. Often the LSS volunteer would take down titles the moms wanted for their kids, Harry Potter books always being a favorite, and bring a copy of the requested books the next month. Children loved receiving those books, sometimes the only new books they ever owned, and of course, they loved to listen to their moms reading to them.

Another monthly event at the prison while I was there was the children’s visiting day program. On that day, for moms who met the requirements, the prison allowed a group of volunteers, also managed through LSS, to open up the gym. The gym was stocked with basketballs, volleyball, and ping pong table; a nursery was created for visiting babies, and the meeting room was filled with arts and crafts for kids and moms to enjoy together during an extended visit. Getting out of the visiting room was always a treat for the kids. They loved playing in the gym, shooting hoops with their moms and other kids, painting and drawing, and sometimes just cuddling with their moms on beanbag pillows. If a child had a birthday during the month they visited, she/he and her/his mom were allowed to make a birthday cake in an Easy Bake Oven and share it with each other.

It was during those visits, when I was with the kids and their moms, that a few different children posed the same question to me, “What kind of crime would I have to commit to for a judge to send me here so I could live with my mom?” Or, another version, “If I do something bad, then I get to live with my mom in her cell, right?” My answer was always adamant and serious. I would look them straight in the eyes and say, “No judge will ever send you here. No matter what you do. You won’t be sent here. And if you commit a crime, you won’t able to visit anymore.” I hated being so harsh in response to such a sad plea, but there was no other answer. I could leave no room for guessing.

The end of visiting day was the hardest. By 4PM we would start rounding up the kids so they could gather their jackets, say their goodbyes to their moms, and then we would walk down the hall to the guards who would take them out past security to meet their caregivers. Those were sad long walks down those halls. I remember peeling 14-year-old boys away from their moms, both sobbing, and taking 6-month-old babies away from their mothers, she and I both crying. The moms tried hard not to let their kids see them cry, but at times the expressions of sadness were inevitable, and honest.

Children whose parents are in prison need support and understanding. Their caregivers need help and guidance, and the parents in prison need programs that encourage healthy interactions with their children, their caregivers, and the other people in their child’s life. Policies that aim to meet those outcomes are needed across states and in both jails and prisons. There are pockets of good programs across the country, but they often have meager funds and are based on volunteers who may or may not be able to maintain or expand their programs. Federal and state policies must begin to address the fact that so many children experience traumatic stress in many areas of their life because they have a parent behind bars. We cannot ignore the plight of so many children who are suffering among us. As Congress works on criminal justice reform, children whose parents are incarcerated should not be forgotten.

1/14 kids has had a parent behind bars | When mom is in prison: v/ @First_Focus #InvestInKids
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