January 09, 2012 Articles

A Voice for the Young Child with an Incarcerated Parent

By Lynne Reckman and Debra Rothstein

"When a parent goes to prison, they never go alone . . . Their children go with them." This introduction to a video produced by the Children's Justice Alliance shines light on the often-ignored needs of children with incarcerated parents. It is well documented that adverse childhood experiences, including the incarceration of a household member, are linked to a host of health and social problems. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Brain research of the past three decades concludes that a child's brain is wired for relationship. All future child development cascades from the quality of the first and most important relationship between parent and child. That relationship exists for good or ill in the absence or the presence of the parent. When children are separated from their parent due to incarceration, their lives are greatly affected by the array of systems surrounding the family, including, at times, the child welfare system. It is important that the child not be overlooked and that the systems surrounding the family recognize the significance of the child-parent relationship.

National statistics paint a broad and staggering picture of families disrupted by the trauma of incarceration:

  • There are more than 1.7 million children in the United States with an incarcerated parent.
  • One in 43 (2.3 percent) American children has a parent incarcerated in state or federal prison.
  • Approximately 10 million—one in eight—of the nation's children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.
  • Twenty-two percent of the children of state inmates and 16 percent of the children of federal inmates are under five years old. The Sentencing Project/Research and Advocacy for Reform, Feb. 2009.

Fifty percent of incarcerated parents expect to be parenting their children upon release. Bureau of Justice Statistics 1997 (2000). As a result, half of the children experiencing the loss of a parent through incarceration will also eventually be faced with reunification issues on release. Further complicating the picture is the likelihood that parental incarceration is associated with other risk factors, such as poverty, drug and alcohol problems, and violence.

The mental-health practitioner is often the voice of children who are invisible in the systems that make critical life decisions for them. The infant-mental-health practitioner is specifically concerned with the needs of infants and toddlers. Ten years ago, the field of neuroscience in collaboration with early childhood development demonstrated strong evidence that early relationships and early experiences profoundly impact the rapidly developing brains of children between birth and three years of age. Jack Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips, National Research Institute Council of Medicine, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (2000). Healthy brain development promotes strengths, such as the ability to take the initiative, to engage in a strong mutual-attachment relationship, and to achieve self-control. These strengths contribute to the child's further growth and learning and create protection that allows children to be more resilient in the face of life stressors.

This knowledge challenges the assumption that children are naturally resilient and instead suggests that resilience is earned over time under the right conditions. A strong early attachment relationship creates the fertile ground for healthy brain development and is identified as one protective factor. It stands to reason that an infant or a toddler's separation from a primary attachment figure constitutes a significant stressor, putting that young child at risk for a variety of health, social, and emotional problems. The vulnerability of the child depends on variables such as the quality of the attachment relationship prior to separation, the duration of separation, and the intensity of experiences surrounding the separation. The child's vulnerability is also impacted by the way in which his or her caretakers and other adult service providers respond to the crisis of separation.

Older children communicate their needs through language as well as behavior. The language of babies and toddlers is unique. An infant too young to speak still communicates in a variety of ways. His or her earliest tool for communicating needs is crying. Infant specialists have identified a variety of cries to which an attuned parent is able to understand and respond. The infant relies on the ability of a primary caregiver, presumably a parent, to understand his or her cry to meet basic needs such as eating, staying dry and warm, and needing a human's touch. An infant (0–12 months) is totally dependent on others for survival. The mutual dance in which the child cues the parent and the parent responds with appropriate nurture creates the basic trust that comes from being repeatedly understood. The toddler (1–3 years) has the same basic needs for food, shelter, warmth, and human connection. In addition, he or she is developing an autonomous sense of self and the beginnings of initiative. The child needs a parent to understand that testing limits is part of a naturally growing curiosity in the world outside of the primary attachment relationship. The child needs encouragement and support for the exploration of his or her environment. A consistent parent provides a secure base from which a child can safely pursue this natural curiosity and learn about the world.

When the dance of attachment is interrupted, in this case by separation from the parent, the child experiences trauma. An infant communicates this trauma through disrupted biological rhythms. The baby cues distress with inconsolable crying, eating or sleeping difficulties, withdrawal, irritability, and/or physical symptoms like vomiting with no apparent diagnosis. For example, a nine-month-old baby who sleeps an inordinate amount of time may have simply stopped wanting to engage and explore the world. A toddler who has lost his or her secure base may show some of the same signs of stress, with the addition of clingy or withdrawn behavior, aggressive behavior, and/or inconsolable, prolonged temper tantrums. These distress signals from our youngest children are usually seen in the privacy of the child's home or sometimes a new caregiver's home, away from the eyes of the larger community. With greater awareness, professionals involved in monitoring, advocating for, and making decisions about these children are better able to help them overcome traumatic early-life experiences.

A less tangible need of children of all ages is to have a simple and honest narrative of their life story. Unfortunately, mental-health practitioners often hear from the adult caregivers of children with an incarcerated parent that the caregiver has not told the child the truth about the parent's absence. The most often heard story is that the parent is "at school." The mental-health practitioner is confronted with two common beliefs: that children are better off not knowing that a parent is incarcerated and that children are better off not knowing this parent at all.

However, secrets and lack of information are damaging to children's emotional health. Harboring the secret information that a parent is in jail or prison does not afford the opportunity to explain to children that the separation is not their fault. It does not offer children the opportunity to explore their feelings of sadness, grief, and sometimes anger about the loss of their parent. It also robs children of the opportunity to share their story with others in similar circumstances so that they do not feel so alone. It contributes to confusion, fear, and shame. And it certainly precludes facilitating direct contact with the absent parent. Even very young children can sense the tension in a caregiver who is less than honest about family circumstances and perhaps has not personally come to terms with the reasons for the incarceration or has judgments about the absent parent. Without simple, direct, and developmentally appropriate explanations, children are left to experience the confusion of the unspoken feelings of their caregivers as well as themselves. Sometimes, caregivers want to tell the child the real story of the parent's absence, but they don't know how.

Strategies for Change
There is evidence that preserving and strengthening the relationship between child and parent while a parent is incarcerated promotes permanency and reduces the potentially damaging effects of separation. Healthy Beginnings, Healthy Futures: A Judge's Guide, American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law (2009). The Second Chance Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2008, includes a call to "develop best practices for communication and coordination between State criminal justice agencies and child welfare agencies to improve the safety and support of children of incarcerated parents, and to maintain the parent-child relationship when the parent is incarcerated as appropriate." The Second Chance Act of 2007, H.R. 1593, 110th Cong., § 243).

The best way to support the child-parent relationship after the parent has been incarcerated is to create opportunities for contact, except when the court determines that such contact places a child's life, health, or safety at risk. Zero to Three, National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. It is the responsibility of the child welfare agency to provide services to promote the reunification of families. Those services include parental visitation. However, even absent reunification goals or realities, it is important to acknowledge the existence of the child-parent relationship and recognize the positive impact that planned contact can have on the emotional well-being of the child.

The most effective type of visitation toward promoting the attachment relationship is one that recognizes the importance of direct physical contact between the child and parent. When visitation can occur, there is a need for a developmentally appropriate and child-friendly environment in which to visit. The importance of touch in building attachment is honored in visiting environments where children and parents are given a child-friendly place to play together. Visitations that include such contact should be planned and considered a therapeutic intervention in which the child's needs are continually monitored as well as the parent's ability to provide a positive experience for the child. The Children of Prisoners Library published a useful fact sheet called "Visiting Mom or Dad: The Child's Perspective." This tool for caregivers and child advocates offers practical tips on preparing children for prison visits with a developmental guide that outlines needs for different ages, starting with infants.

The most intense example of direct child-parent contact exists in prison nurseries, where the infant lives in the prison with the mother, who contributes to meeting her child's basic needs. The number of prison nurseries has grown over the past decade, and some include creative child-visitation programs. However, there are still significant limitations in terms of availability and requirements in prison nurseries. Most mothers and all fathers do not have this option.

Children's visitation with parents in prisons and jails involves many complex considerations. There are external obstacles, such as the distance of most families from state and federal prisons. More than 60 percent of parents in state prisons are incarcerated more than 100 miles from their last place of residence. The cost and transportation issues required to bring children for visits are often prohibitive. One study reports that more than half of both mothers and fathers had never had an in-person visit with their child.

When in-person contact is not advisable or possible, there are other options for keeping a parent alive in a child's mind. A more recent offering is the use of a web cam. The policies for its use vary from state to state, but the web cam often involves the child and parent visiting remotely through a computer or TV screen. The advantage of this approach is that the visitation environment is more controlled for situations where there are concerns about the child's safety or the appropriateness of the visitation space provided by the prison. Other creative ways to involve absent parents in their children's lives include telephone contact and exchanging personal photographs, letters, and audiotapes of the parent reading the child a story. With the permission of the child's guardian, the mental-health practitioner who has access to these items can use them in the treatment of the child. A common practice in the treatment of young children is to create a life book with or for the very young child that can be utilized to complete the child's narrative of his or her life. This is one of the ways significant adults can communicate with the child the truth about the parent's absence, allowing an ongoing dialogue as the child becomes older.

All of these practices involve connecting children with their incarcerated parents. The Child Protection Best Practices Bulletin identifies several advantages for promoting and maintaining these connections, such as the following:

  • It allows children to express their emotional reactions to the separation from their parent.
  • It helps children develop a more realistic understanding of their parents' circumstances and allows parents to model appropriate interaction.
  • It allows children to maintain existing relationships with their parents, contributing to a successful family reunification.
  • It improves recidivism rates. Parents who maintain contact with their children are shown to be less likely to recidivate, reducing additional child trauma.
  • It helps children preserve important connections.
  • It allows children to know that their parent is safe.

Children cannot be protected and supported if they remain invisible. There are concrete ways to increase their visibility. Jurisdictions across the country do not uniformly keep statistics regarding children of adults who come in contact with the criminal justice system. Both the criminal justice and child welfare systems can contribute to increasing the visibility of children when their parents enter the criminal justice system by routinely requesting and collecting family information when an adult is arrested. In addition, child-sensitive arrest practices can ameliorate the trauma that occurs if the child is present to witness the arrest. Again, even babies and toddlers are aware of overwhelming life events and an adult's emotional reaction to them.

Representatives of the legal system who work with children whose parents are incarcerated can serve as important agents for change. The ABA purports that attorneys who represent infants, toddlers, and parents should make visitation that ensures that the child's safety and well-being is a focus of their advocacy. Judges can order child-parent visitation in the least restrictive environment possible, while maintaining the safety of the child. Children's court attorneys can present a plan to the court for child-parent visitation or parental contact. As a professional responsible for interviewing the child and caregiver as well as knowing about the child's circumstances and specific needs, the guardian ad litem is in a unique position to advocate for the child based on this highly individualized information. Parents' attorneys also have a role to play in advocating for child-parent contact by educating parents about their rights, responsibilities, and options for maintaining contact during incarceration.

A Common Barrier to Best Practice
One of the potential barriers to this creative approach to child advocacy lies in biases about prisoners and what is in the best interest of their children. A significant contribution that the infant-mental-health field offers to others is the foundational belief in reflective practice. "Effective leaders . . . create relationships characterized by trust, support and growth among professional colleagues, parents and children. These relationships profoundly affect the quality of services provided . . . Reflective leadership is characterized by self-awareness, careful and continuous observation and respectful, flexible responses that result in reflective and relationship-based programs." Zero to Three.

As previously stated, there are common assumptions about children whose parents are incarcerated, including the idea that young children are better off not seeing a parent who is in jail or prison, that young children are better off not knowing the parent at all, and that young children are resilient in the face of the trauma of separation from the parent. Assumptions like these come from a lack of knowledge as well as a predisposition one develops from one's own life experiences. In court, the contest can become the parent's need to maintain the parent-child bond through ongoing contact versus the child's need to avoid exposure to the consequences of the parent's bad choices. Attorneys and guardians ad litem for the child should make sure that the advocacy focuses on what is in the child's best interest, rather than punishing the parent by withholding the child.

Infant-mental-health practitioners believe that self-reflection is essential to quality practice and to overcoming such barriers. Collaborative and reflective practice within and among the systems involved with children whose parents are incarcerated can contribute to creative problem-solving and fresh new solutions. The child's mental-health provider, when the child has one within his or her support circle, is the key to educating the child's attorney, guardian ad litem, and other advocates about the emotional and psychological benefits of children visiting incarcerated parents.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, incarcerated parents, mental-health providers

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Lynne Reckman and Debra Rothstein – January 9, 2012