Yeah, I hear those of you who are saying, “Get over yourself; you should have thought of that before!” You’re right of course; I’m reminded of one of the stories out of Scripture where a character by the name of Achan decides to disobey the command of God and keep some of the spoil from Jericho, the result of which he, all of his family and servants, even his animals, are executed! Sin has a price and often the price family’s pay for our sin is overlooked. Throughout the Scriptures and everyday life we see how the actions of one person affect more than him or her; the victim(s) of their crime as well as the victims’ family, friends of the perpetrator as well as the victim, it just goes on and on adding to the expense of trying and incarcerating the person as well as a wife who is suddenly bereft of the support her husband would have provided as he enters prison (as in my case). All of society pays for the crime that is done. Often the ones who seem to suffer the most are the children of those who go to prison; unable to understand why Mom or Dad is no longer around, they are further confused and often alienated by their peers who treat them with a cruelty that is somehow particular to children.
Who will speak for these children? They are also victims of their parents’ crime and society cannot afford to overlook them! The price these children pay is enormous and we ignore it at our own peril, both morally and as a society. I offer a few statistics from both the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Osborne Association:
1. International human rights advocates have called parental incarceration "the greatest threat to child well-being in the U.S.”
2. While many of the risk factors children of incarcerated parents experience may be related to parental substance abuse, mental health, inadequate education, or other challenges, parental incarceration increases the risk of children living in poverty or experiencing household instability independent of these other problems.
3. Some assume that the removal of a “bad” (“criminal”) parent will improve the situation for the child. However, parental incarceration more often intensifies and compounds, rather than alleviates, the challenges children face.
4. Parental incarceration is now recognized as an “adverse childhood experience” (ACE); it is distinguished from other adverse childhood experiences by the unique combination of trauma, shame, and stigma.
5. Separation due to a parent’s incarceration can be as painful as other forms of parental loss and can be even more complicated because of the stigma, ambiguity, and lack of social support and compassion that accompanies it.
6. Visits with parents (in most cases) help to heal the pain of the loss and are critical to children’s well-being. However, visiting opportunities can be few and far between due to the distant location of prisons and the costs associated with visits.
7. For children whose mothers are incarcerated, there is an increased likelihood of instability and that the children are in, or may enter, foster care.
When you consider that there are more than 2.7 million children in this country who have a parent in prison and that 10 million have experienced this at some point in their lives, it is appalling that these children are ignored or even vilified as much as their parent when they have done nothing wrong! Who will speak for these children; will you?
Our Children’s Place is a group of people from disparate backgrounds who have recognized the need for someone to “Speak for the child” when no one else will. We have partnered with other organizations, combining our efforts to reach out to these victims and bring their plight to the attention of governmental bodies as well as the public and have received recognition from national and state organizations for the work that we do on behalf of the children of those in prison. The producers of Sesame Street have produced a program centered on how we as adults can help the child who is feeling shame at what has happened to their Mom or Dad; they have graciously added Our Children’s Place to organizations in North Carolina to receive this material that we can share it in different venues to help “Speak for the child” .
We have ongoing efforts to fund this work, but recently those efforts seem to have fallen flat as so many others ask you for donations. Often you are faced with a myriad of choices for your dollars and it can be overwhelming trying to decide where to send donations. Many voices are calling for your donations, but who will “Speak for the child?”