Photo: Megan Stevens
Single parents can face some difficult parenting decisions in part because they do not have someone to share parenting responsibilities. Having someone to “share the load” helps decrease stress, increase self-esteem, and reinforce ideas that what the parent is doing is beneficial to a child’s long-term growth and development. What happens, though, when parents are separated by a prison sentence? Essentially, the parent “outside the razor wire” becomes a single parent with only intermittent input into the decisions that parents need to make every day when it comes to raising their children.
The 2004 prison population report released by the U.S. Justice Department indicates there are approximately 2.26 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons. Conservatively speaking, there are at least five persons directly affected by each person’s prison sentence, bringing to light 11.3 million people who are “serving time” on the outside of each prison.
Family members often realize that not only does the justice system not have a place for them, but also their communities at large do not recognize their needs or issues. Children have difficulty coping with a loved one in prison, there are financial issues to consider, and there is the general negative perception of families of prisoners by not only the justice system and law enforcement, but by the general public as well.
Raising Children of Prisoners
Brenda Simms-Cox is raising her six year-old daughter Asia while her husband serves his prison sentence in Washington, D.C. Simms-Cox knows all too well how hard it can be for family members of prisoners. “We are barely making ends meet because of the high telephone bills. No one is willing to talk about it other than PTO (Prison Talk Online).”
Her daughter has had difficulty adjusting to the separation as well. “My daughter is miserable and she has asked for her father every day since he has been gone. She does not understand why he can't come home. Often she cries for him, especially when there is a holiday or her birthday comes around.”
Experts agree that one of the populations affected most by imprisonment are children of inmates. According to a report from the Urban Institute (October 2003), prison families may experience “issues of abandonment and loss, weakened attachment caused by separation, and the possibility of inadequate ongoing care resulting from changes in caregiving arrangements.”
Kerry Maldonado from Fort Worth, TX agrees. Her son has autism and responded best to her husband. “He would eat whatever Daddy handed him. He’s back to peanut butter sandwiches only and he lost over 20 pounds in the last several months.” Her husband has been incarcerated numerous times, resulting in lost opportunities with his older children as well.
“There is a lot of documentation that shows what happens when children are present when an arrest is made. Many exhibit post traumatic stress symptoms following that episode,” states Susan Quinlan, MSW, Executive Director of Families in Crisis. Her organization works specifically with prison families in Connecticut, helping children after school with homework and providing mentoring. Quinlan adds, “If a child is at-risk before their parent is put in prison, it only makes sense to see that the child has all the help they need while the parent is away.”
The Family Connections Center at the New Hampshire Department of Corrections also works to help children adjust to their parent’s prison sentence. Kristina Toth is the Program Administrator and helped in its creation. Toth explains, “Our program is the only one of its kind in the country.”
Throughout a 12-week parenting program, inmates discuss appropriate interaction with children, learn new parenting skills, and are able to have one-on-one visits with the child (pending permission from the other parent or guardian). “The good thing about the support we’re giving here is that the dads are better prepared to be parents,” Toth says.
Rainbows is another option available in many communities. Rainbows is a peer support group that allows children who are experiencing loss or transition to work through their feelings in a positive, nurturing environment. Even though the program is not designed specifically for children of prisoners, the concepts of grief and loss translate well and help children cope. The Rainbows website offers a complete listing of agencies and communities trained in the Rainbows curriculum.
Emotional Support for Parents
Toth admits that one of the leading areas of concern that she sees is in support for the primary caregiver. “Every single night you’re a single parent, even when you know you’re not single.” Added to that is the stress of running the household, learning how to fill non-traditional roles, such as minor car repair; and adjusting to the high costs of phone calls from institutions, plus their loved ones asking for money for basic necessities.
Family and friends may not be available for emotional support, either. Susan Miller* from St. Michael, MN states, “I have lost contact with many of my friends because they really could not understand why I wasn't leaving my husband and moving on with my life.” Susan is also a member of the online support group PTO. “I come to PTO because it’s a wonderful place! My church has been helpful around holidays, although sometimes they make me feel like a charity case.”
Few support groups exist for prison families and compounds the problem of isolation and mental stress. The ones that do exist are not widespread. Online, the community PTO has grown to more than 50,000 members and is considered a favorite online source of information among inmate families. Even families who do not have regular computer access stay in touch via their community library or a friend’s computer. The community started after a federal inmate grew weary of seeing family members (and inmates) mistreated by the prison system.
Without a single source of support it can be difficult to keep a positive attitude. In the absence of support groups, Toth suggests finding someone who will let the caregiver and family member “vent". Also, finding time to relax, even if it is just for a few moments, is critical. Exercise and diet also are important to keep the body strong in the light of emotional stress.;
*Name changed to protect identity.
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