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The Kids Left Behind By Incarcerated Parents

By Patrick McCarthy

More than five million U.S. children have had a parent behind bars at some point in their lives. Those parents collectively represent lost workers and contributors to our communities and economy. But more than that, for each of those five million children, that missing parent represents missed bedtime stories, hugs and reassurances of well-being and affection that every kid deserves.

Although substantial reforms are underway to address our over-reliance on mass incarceration, these reforms will take years to turn the tide. At the same time, criminal justice debates often overlook the devastating toll our policies and practices have taken on the children and families left behind — and on their communities. State and local policymakers, courts, correctional systems and community agencies can take several steps right now to help ensure these kids and families have the stability, support and opportunities they need to succeed.

One of the fundamental things that kids lose when a parent is incarcerated is the ability to maintain — or in some cases, even develop — a relationship. Most children with an incarcerated parent are younger than 10. Those early years are when they form bonds that can last a lifetime.

To help preserve these relationships, state policymakers and judges can make prison-location assignments that allow families to maintain contact as much as possible. Prisons can develop visitation policies and places that create more child-friendly environments, in addition to offering courses that bolster parents’ ability to support and nurture their children even while they are incarcerated. The decades-old  Children’s Center at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, for example, enables kids to spend more regular time with their parents on weekends and during the summer while local families host them.

Beyond disrupting relationships, incarceration also strips children and their families of critical financial support and stability.

Parents serving time were often the primary providers, a role they struggle to resume even after they return home, when their criminal record can become a significant obstacle to employment. And public programs designed to help low-income families remain stable as they work to earn more income — such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — are off-limits to many individuals with records.

During a parent’s incarceration, states can offer programs through community-based organizations for the parent who remains and for other relatives who step in to care for children, including counseling and financial and legal support. In addition, states should allow families to access SNAP and TANF.

Georgia’s legislature recently voted to join states that have lifted lifetime bans on these benefits for people with felony drug convictions, but 32 states still have full or partial bans. Moderating or completely removing these barriers can enable families to get on a path to stability and, ultimately, economic security.

But to truly foster family stability, parents with records need to be able to secure and keep a good, reliable job. The “ban the box” movement has made encouraging progress in recent years, effectively allowing people’s talents to shine first instead of being eclipsed by their record. About 20 states and hundreds of jurisdictions and businesses have made this policy shift, delaying questions about criminal history until they’ve identified an applicant as the most qualified candidate for a position.

Still, that means that more than 20 states have yet to act. Changing when employers conduct background checks can raise prospects of parents trying to earn a family-supporting income.

Ending our reliance on mass incarceration is a daunting, albeit necessary, step — and one that will likely require years to realize. But the steps we can take today to better support the millions of children sharing in their parents’ sentences are not only feasible but well within the grasp of policymakers, courts and community- and faith-based organizations.

They’re also steps we as a nation can’t afford not to take. The cost of doing nothing has implications for generations to come.

Patrick McCarthy is president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy that creates a brighter future for the nation's children. The Foundation recently released A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Children, Families and Communities, which features an array of recommendations for addressing the challenges facing children with incarcerated parents. Readers comments are welcome.

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How South Carolina Criminalizes Troubled Youth

By Mishi Faruqee

The video from Spring Valley High School in Columbia, SC is seared in many Americans’ memories.  A school resource officer, working for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, was seen grabbing a student, flipping her desk over, and dragging her across the classroom.

The October video clip went viral—and eventually led to the termination of the officer, Ben Fields.

Some have defended the officer’s actions, saying the video does not show the whole incident. But in fact, it is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the county—and state—treat schoolchildren who present disciplinary problems.

Parents, students, community members and elected officials have raised concerns about the presence of police in schools and say the lack of written policies, along with South Carolina’s regressive Disturbing Schools law – has led to the criminalization of minor misbehavior. Last week, state legislators representing Richland County filed bills to reform the Disturbing Schools statute and to track arrests of students statewide.

The Spring Valley incident also brought scrutiny to the department’s School Resource Officer (SRO) Program – the largest in the state – that deploys 87 police officers to every middle school and high school in the county’s two school districts.  It is now under federal investigation.  But there has been less attention placed on other questionable programs within the department’s Youth Services Division..

Richland County has launched several “diversion programs” that claim to help troubled pre-teens and teens, but in effect punish, humiliate and harm children.  

One of these programs is Camp LOTT, which stands for “Leading Our Troubled Teens” —but also happens to be the last name of Richland Sheriff Leon Lott. Local news footage of the boot camp shows several Richland County Deputies verbally assaulting and humiliating a group of boys – almost all African American – until some of the boys are clearly shaken and distraught.

In another instance, an officer picks up a boy who appears to be about nine years old and acts as if he is going to throw the small boy against a chain-link fence.

“We break them down in order to build them up,” says one sheriff’s deputy in the video proudly.

Another boot-camp program, called JUMP (Juveniles Under Motivated Pressure), takes place in the department’s parking lot. In this program, the “motivated pressure” involves children holding bricks over their heads while doing laps around the parking lot.  Smaller children – as young as six years old – have cinderblocks attached to a belt around their waist and are made to drag the blocks across the parking lot while doing squats.

When children stumble or tire out, the staff berate them and force them to continue these grueling exercises.

The Department’s READY (Richland county, Educating, And Deterring, Youth) program has been featured in the A&E television program Beyond Scared Straight. In this program, parents pay a $10 fee to have their children transported in shackles, suited in a prison jumpsuit, and locked in an adult holding cell for the night. Like Camp LOTT and JUMP, the purported goal of the READY program is to scare children into curbing behaviors that may land them in jail in the future.

By stationing its officers in Richland County schools, the sheriff’s department helps create a perverse demand for its diversion programs.  When a Richland SRO arrests students for low-level offenses in school, the departments often offers these students the opportunity to participate in the scared straight program in lieu of pressing charges.

In one case, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for marijuana possession in school and the department directed him to participate in READY as a sanction. When his parents refused to have their son spend a night in jail as diversion, the department referred his case to court, where the charges were ultimately dismissed.

While the sheriff’s department may intend to help troubled youth, humiliating and terrifying them is not the way to help them.  Extensive research has shown that boot camps and scared-straight programs are the least effective programs in preventing crime. In fact, several studies have found that sending children to boot camps and scared straight programs actually increases the likelihood that they will have future involvement with justice system.

One study of nine scared straight programs around the U.S. found that these programs increased crime by 28 percent for youth who participated in these programs compared to a control group.   Another national review of Scared Straight programs found that although these programs cost only about $50 per participant, the longer term costs are much greater because of the higher recidivism of these programs.  Taxpayers lose approximately $6,572 in increased subsequent criminal justice costs for each program participant. Adding the increased costs that accrue to crime victims from the higher recidivism rates increases the expected costs of Scared Straight programs to $24,531 per participant.

Instead of operating these harmful and ineffective programs, the Richland County Sheriff’s department should partner with proven programs in schools and communities that successfully divert young people from the juvenile justice system and help them grow into successful and law-abiding adults.

Effective community-based programs hold students accountable for their actions while also teaching them to resolve conflicts and contribute to their communities.

Restorative justice, teen courts and mentoring programs are much better alternatives to police in schools, boot camps and scared-straight programs.

In order to prevent more incidents like the one at Spring Valley High School, Richland County should remove police officers from its schools and make  investing in community programs that work to keep kids, schools and communities safe a priority.

Mishi Faruqee is National Field Director of the Youth First Initiative, a national campaign to end youth incarceration and invest in effective community alternatives. She is based in New York City, and welcomes readers’ comments. 

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Child Refugees: A Humanitarian Crisis We Helped Create

By George Gascon

Recently, our country has been engaged in heated debate over the crisis involving thousands of mostly unaccompanied Central American children showing up at our southern border. Anti-immigration groups have seized the opportunity to reignite the cry for more border security, quicker deportations and stiffer sanctions for those crossing the border without authority. 

Alternatively, others argue that these young children are refugees, running away from violence, and should therefore be afforded humanitarian aid and protection.

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‘It Should Not Hurt to Be a Child’

By Eileen King

April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and it is an occasion for being reminded that  “it should not hurt to be a child.”  The soul-destroying, long-term consequences of child physical/sexual abuse and neglect obviously merit a year-round focus, but media attention to such awareness campaigns helps encourage parents, especially mothers, to seek help if they suspect child abuse.

At the same time, however, the long and exhausting journey that parents must take to secure protection for endangered children, often involving legal battles costing many thousands of dollars, is rarely mentioned.

Who wants to hear that no amount of money can assure justice in systems that disbelieve children and distrust protective parents?

It is, however, a grim reality.  Parents who act appropriately and lawfully to protect their children may be punished by family court judges for reporting abuse or for refusing to force their terrified child to visit an abusive parent.  

In the worst cases, custody is reversed and the protective parent may be denied any contact with his or her child.  The message: failure to be a “friendly parent” is worse than child physical or sexual abuse.

The non-profit agency I work for, Justice for Children, often finds itself on the front lines of complex cases of child abuse, arising during separation and divorce,  that may be litigated for years. Although Child Protective Services (CPS) investigates abuse reports, these cases are generally treated with suspicion and ruled out as “custody battles” despite urgent, compelling evidence.  

Rarely prosecuted by the State, intra-familial abuse allegations are relegated to a domestic relations court of equity where a serious crime against a child is reduced to a civil law question of property. Such courts, in  contrast to the traditional adversarial nature of a courtroom, allow judges to apply injunctions or writs instead of monetary damages, according to the principle of “fairness. ”

Family courts in most (if not all) jurisdictions are considered “courts of equity.”  A recent New York case in which the Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether a teacher imprisoned for molesting boys can see his own child illustrates the limits of an approach that considers a child just a piece of property to be divided.

The systemic failures and practices that place abused or at-risk children in the care or custody of a dangerous parent are well known, but it has taken over 15 years for these agonizing and sometimes tragic cases to be officially recognized as serious problems in our judicial and CPS systems.  

The Catch 22 nature of a parent’s duty to report, and penalties for failure to protect, sinks protective parents in the quicksand of family court litigation. Very little help is available from public agencies or non-profits.  Abusers know they have unparalleled opportunities to abuse and control their children and ex-partners with few consequences. 

Non-profit advocates have been working for years to get these issues before federal agencies. 

Last month, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) held a Roundtable at George Washington University Law School, sponsored by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence with help from the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project.  Judge Susan Carbon, OVW director, , and participants from other federal agencies listened to a panel of mothers and a courageous 13-year-old share their experiences in family court. 

In the experts’ panel, we shared our extensive knowledge of how CPS and family courts can fail abused children and their protective parents.  A report on the roundtable will be posted soon on the OVW website.

Change must also happen in state CPS agencies and family courts. Court appointees (psychological evaluators, Guardians ad litem, children’s attorneys, mediators and parenting coordinators) should not evade oversight or consequences for negligent practices that harm children.  

Policies forcing children to reunite with their sexual assault perpetrators need immediate re-evaluation.  These are just of few of the many changes recommended by advocates and legal/mental health professionals.

The worst betrayal a child can endure is sexual/physical abuse or neglect by a parent.  Assuring a child that if they tell they will be protected, but then failing to protect heaps betrayal upon betrayal. 

We need to carry through on our promises to children.   This is the next  level of child abuse awareness our society needs!

Here are some further resources for anyone who wants to explore the issue further:

From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running From the Family Courts and What to Do About It, by Amy Neustein, Ph.D. and Michael Lesher, J.D., Northeastern University Press, 2005. www.upne.com/1-58465-462-7.html

Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody edited by Mo Therese Hannah, Ph.D and Barry Goldstein, J.D., The Civic Research Institute, 2010. http://www.civicresearchinstitute.com/dvac.html


Eileen King is Regional Director of Justice for Children-DC.  She welcomes comments from readers.

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