Families Coping with Incarcerated Parents How does having a parent in prison impact children? And how does being separated from those children affect incarcerated parents? Farai Chideya gets insight from two experts who have helped families stay together when prison keeps them apart.
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Families Coping with Incarcerated Parents

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Families Coping with Incarcerated Parents

Families Coping with Incarcerated Parents

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I'm Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. How does having a parent in prison impact children, and how does being separated from those children affect incarcerated parents? We're continuing our conversation with Nell Bernstein. She wrote the book "All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated," and she is also the coordinator for San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents. Also with us, Kara Gostch. She's the advocacy director at the Sentencing Project, which focuses on criminal justice policy. Nell, welcome back. Kara, thanks for coming on the show.

Ms. KARA GOSTCH (Advocacy Director, The Sentencing Project): Thank you.

Ms. NELL BERNSTEIN (Author, "All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated"): Thanks.

CHIDEYA: So we just heard from Teresa Cruz and her daughter, Antoinette Rangel. They had something of a relationship during Teresa's 15 years in prison, and seem to have really caught up on their time. So Kara, give us a sense of what different policies are that might affect parents' abilities to parent from behind bars.

Ms. GOSTCH: Well, probably one of the biggest obstacles for people who are incarcerated and have children is the reform passed in 1997 called the Adoption Safe Families Act. Under that act, states can terminate parental rights for parents who have a child in foster care for 15 months of - consecutively of 15 months over a period of 22 months. Now if you look at the average sentence of someone who's incarcerated, that certainly exceeds 22 months. So if a parent in prison has to rely on the public welfare system, or the child welfare system to care for their child, they have a distinct risk of losing their parental rights.

CHIDEYA: Nell, how do you see this playing out in terms of parental rights?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Well, ASFA is a huge issue. Women in prison are terrified of losing their parental rights, and I also spoke to children whose parents had had their parental rights terminated. And what you've got to realize is that when your parents' parental rights are terminated as a child, you lose your right, not only to your mom and your dad, but your grandma's not your grandma, your cousin isn't your cousin, your brother isn't your brother under the law. So that's a profound loss for children. And I know that Teresa Sokar (ph), who raised the family that you were just speaking with, was terrified, as many grandmothers are, that at some point, the child welfare department was going to come and drop in and decide that something was wrong in the house and take those children.

But I mean, the Sentencing Project has done tremendous work around sentencing laws. And I think the law that has impacted children most is just sentencing laws themselves, which have been filling our prisons at record rates and have left us with incredibly high numbers of children impacted by parental incarceration overall.

CHIDEYA: Kara, what do we know, if anything, about whether there are any differences between parents who end up in jail and single people? I mean, are there any differences in, you know, the length of time that they go in, or are these, you know, just a regular slice of the whole prison population?

Ms. GOSTCH: Well, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a survey of inmates in 1999, and looked - really tried to look at who parents are who are incarcerated. The majority of parents who are incarcerated were African-American. Many people who are parents had not graduated from high school, they have drug - there's a disproportionate history of drug dependence and other health issues. And the reality is, many of the people who go into prison - particularly for women if they have children - they often don't have another partner who they can rely on to watch their child while they're incarcerated. They rely often on grandmothers and other relatives. And women prisoners actually are more likely to have a child who's cared for in the public welfare system.

CHIDEYA: When you think about the children, Nell, what kinds of symptoms do they have, you know, psychologically? It's got to be a form of grief and loss.


CHIDEYA: So what kinds of things are the kids dealing with?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Yeah, I don't really think of it in terms of symptoms. What struck me most about the children was how similar their feelings were to those that I'd expect my children to feel were I to disappear from their lives suddenly. You know, and they talked a lot about - you know, Antoinette used an expression that really haunted me. She described growing up feeling out of the circle, that people thought of her as different, when really, their feelings of loss and grief and terror and sorrow and loneliness were very much akin to those any child would feel if a parent were spirited away in the middle of the night suddenly and didn't come back for 10 years.

So that's really what struck me over and over, were just how similar their feelings were to those of any other child who had lost a parent for any other reason, whether that parent was shipped off to Iraq or taken out of their life because of a divorce. They're not different.

CHIDEYA: So just briefly, how does the group San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents try to deal with that?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Thanks for asking. We're a coalition. We don't provide supporter services. We organize our efforts around a bill of rights for children of incarcerated parents, which your listeners can access at www.sfcipp.org. And that's because in talking to children, which is the basis of our work, we realized that children have no rights within the multiple public systems, from police through courts, parole probation that are going to transform their lives so profoundly when their parents are arrested.

CHIDEYA: And let me get Kara in here before we end this. What would you like to see in terms of legislation or reform?

Ms. GOTSCH: Well, there's a number of issues, particularly for individuals coming out of prison. One being mothers and fathers who come out of prison. There is federal law that encourages states to maintain bans on welfare assistance, including food stamps, TANF, public housing and other items. And if a parent is coming out of prison and they're trying to successfully transition from prison to caring for their children, if they don't have that safety net, the social safety net of public welfare benefits like TANF and food stamps, it's going to be much harder for them to take back custody of their children and to care for them. And that's a real area we think there needs to be change in.

CHIDEYA: OK. Kara, Nell, thanks so much.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Nell Bernstein, author of " All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated," and Kara Gotsch, the advocacy director at the Sentencing Project. She joined us from our headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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