The following post appears courtesy of Karol Mason, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs.
This week, the beloved children’s television show “Sesame Street” introduced a character named Alex. Like hundreds of thousands of American children, Alex has a parent behind bars, and like them, he faces considerable challenges to his happiness, welfare, and chances of future success. Kids in Alex’s situation – and there are 1.7 million of them in the United States – are unfairly burdened with a social stigma that identifies them by a family member’s crime. Although they have done nothing wrong themselves and may not even understand what has happened, they feel responsible. They are at times anxious or depressed, and the stress of coping with this major disruption in their lives may affect their performance in school or cause them to act out in ways they know they shouldn’t.
Dealing with an absent parent is never easy for a child, much less when that parent has been incarcerated for a criminal offense. An innocent young person should not be left to suffer the consequences. Research shows that maintaining contact and healthy relationships in spite of the barriers represented by prison walls is not only possible but beneficial, for both the children and their parents. We owe these children the opportunity to remain connected to their mothers and fathers.
Under White House leadership, the Department of Justice is part of an aggressive campaign to provide children of incarcerated parents the support they need. The Office of Justice Programs’ Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, along with DOJ’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is hosting a webinar on July 9 for faith-based and community leaders on improving our response to children of inmates. Our National Institute of Justice is studying the adoption of video visitation technology to give state and local governments an idea of its cost and potential impact. The Bureau of Justice Statistics will use its Survey of Prison Inmates to measure the number of minor children with an incarcerated parent and the extent their parents are involved in their lives. And our Bureau of Justice Assistance is funding the International Association of Chiefs of Police to bring together federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and child protective services experts to create a model protocol for handling arrests made in the presence of children.
The Bureau of Prisons plays a pivotal role, as well, supporting programs to enhance family relationships, improve inmate parenting skills, and redesign visitation policies in its system, while the National Institute of Corrections is developing guidance to help state and local governments enact policy changes aimed at mitigating the impact of a parent’s incarceration. This work complements initiatives undertaken by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to reach kids in foster care and public housing. The Federal Interagency Reentry Council, chaired by the Attorney General, has developed a series of Myth Busters to correct misperceptions about parental rights, children’s eligibility for federal benefits, and other issues affecting the children of inmates. The White House is also launching a Children of Incarcerated Parents Web Portal, with information about federal resources, grant opportunities, best practices, and government activities designed to support children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers.
Alex may be a fictional character, but the problems he faces are very real. The Department of Justice and its partners in the federal government are committed to helping children of incarcerated parents live happy, productive lives.