Mom's in Prison - Where Are the Kids? during the Last Decade, the Female Population in U.S. Jails Rose 137%, Many Leaving Their Children in Foster Care in the Welfare System

By Huie, Virginia A. | USA TODAY, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Mom's in Prison - Where Are the Kids? during the Last Decade, the Female Population in U.S. Jails Rose 137%, Many Leaving Their Children in Foster Care in the Welfare System


Huie, Virginia A., USA TODAY


FOR MANY youngsters, childhood is a period of joyful playing and learning, a sweet hiatus between infancy and adulthood. However, for an estimated 1,500,000 offspring of imprisoned parents, a happy, secure childhood is the antithesis of what they know. "The saddest time in my life was when my Mom went to prison, " says 12-year-old Sandra. (Some names of the children in this article have been changed.) " It was hard not seeing her every day. "

A growing number of kids are suffering the anguish and pain of separation from their mothers by jail and prison walls. Nationally, as estimated 80% of female offenders are mothers of dependent children under age 18. Between 70 and 90% are single parents, most of them unemployed and relying on welfare. Many are "high risk" mothers--battered as children and/or mates, high school dropouts, and pregnant at an early age. Prior to landing behind bars, about 850% had legal custody of their offspring and were the sole caregivers. Denise Johnston, director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, Pasadena, Calif., reports that the population of children of imprisoned parents ballooned from 21,000 in 1978 to 1,500,000 in 1991 and predicts 2,000,000 by the year 2000.

Anger, anxiety, and sadness rule the lives of these children. Younger ones feel confusion and abandonment; older ones, bitterness and resentment. Many are haunted by the fear that they are to blame for their mothers' imprisonment. "A lot of times the child ... opened the door and let the police come in to take Mommy away," explains Deputy Lin Otey of Santa Rita county jail, Dublin, Calif. "That's a horrible load to carry around with you that, if you hadn't opened the door, Mommy would still be home."

Frequently, well-meaning parents and caregivers try to protect youngsters by hiding the truth about their mothers' absence. However, children know something is horribly wrong--either by eavesdropping on telephone conversations or hearing it from kids in the schoolyard. Once they figure it out, they feel self-conscious about the "secret" that sets them apart from others. "They feel ashamed. They don't want anybody to know Mom's in jail. So, they're alienated in that way," notes Marilyn Nystrom, a marriage, family, and child therapist in Pleasanton, Calif.

Steeped in feelings of isolation and rejection, kids get entangled in fights, some run away, others daydream and their school grades plummet. Some express defiance, irritability, and aggression through gang involvement and delinquency.

The children are the innocent victims of their mothers' confinement, prisoners' advocates indicate, cast aside by a criminal justice system that emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation. Since the focus of punitive measures has been on individual punishment, family ties and the special needs of their children have been treated as a peripheral matter. As a result, when a mother is locked up, her offspring are "locked out" of her life, torn away from the bonds required for healthy emotional growth. Many children of female prisoners wind up living with extended family members, usually grandparents, fathers, or other relatives. Others are placed in an overburdened foster care system. In effect, the kids are punished along with the mother as they are shuttled through an odyssey of makeshift care arrangements, separated from siblings, yanked out of schools, teased by classmates, and left alone to struggle with the turmoil of disrupted lives.

The dilemma faced by offspring of incarcerated mothers is a hidden problem largely misunderstood and unacknowledged by the outside community. "These kids are really a forgotten population," notes Ellen Barry, director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a national advocacy group based in San Francisco. "They haven't done anything wrong. . .They are without someone who cares about what happens to them. It's very likely that they could end up with very serious problems in the school system, possibly end up in jail themselves as juveniles. …

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