Moderated by Rick Badie
One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. What about the children of these incarcerated parents? It’s a topic today’s guest writers explore. A research professor at Morehouse College School of Medicine calls the incarceration of men, notably black ones, a national issue. Executives at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta write about a program at their organization that’s designed to nurture children with fathers behind bars.
The impact of imprisoned parents
By Henrie Treadwell
Imprisonment of parents has significant implications for their children’s futures and public policy. The greatest risk is seen among African-American children whose fathers have been disproportionately incarcerated in the nation’s jails and prisons.
Research suggests that daughters may be more likely to be teenage mothers, while sons, due to the absence of so many men from their homes and neighborhoods, have difficulty developing a vision. These fragile children are subjected to teasing and bullying in school and other social settings, and many tend to withdraw.
Others may exhibit acting-out behavior. We know that 24 percent of children with a father who has served time in jail or prison have been expelled or suspended from school. Higher school drop-out rates and lower academic achievement are outcomes. An estimated 70 percent of these young people may become involved in the criminal justice system. Georgia is losing the battle against low graduation rates generally associated with poverty.
Incarceration’s harsh reality for fathers is that child support payments grow, and they leave prison with an average debt of $20,000. According to the Federal Agency for Child Support Enforcement, 70 percent of all back child support is owed by men earning less than $10,000 a year, and that 29 percent of those fathers who are delinquent are re-incarcerated. The debtor’s prison has been de facto re-instituted in the United States.
Once released, these men are very often are unable to find living-wage jobs because of felony convictions. Georgia, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, has a disproportionate number of African-American men unable to work and meet their child support payments and who are re-institutionalized for non-payment, which increases incarceration numbers and taxpayer costs.
In May 2013, 93 percent of those incarcerated were men. Of these, 61 percent were African-American, while they are only 31 percent of Georgia’s population. Estimates are that 100,000 children, disproportionately African-American, are annually affected.
Distance, transportation costs and length of sentence all affect visitation. The Georgia Department of Corrections has commendably fostered development of the first-ever child developmental visiting center for fathers in the Walker State Faith and Character Based Prison in Rock Spring. Women’s prisons have these centers. In addition to promoting family, these centers, and public policy that supports and subsidizes child visitations, can reduce the potential numbers in the criminal justice pipeline. More centers are needed.
Finally, women advocates and other policymakers — who worked for child support policies and penalties that are, indeed, appropriate when there is a realistic assessment of ability to pay — should revisit their impact. Current policy ensures greater disadvantage for poor children and the severing of father-child relationships. These children cannot defend themselves against the damage inflicted by systems not sensitive to the effect of parental incarceration and to the nurturing that even an incarcerated or released parent can provide.
Dr. Henrie Treadwell is a research professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine.
Helping the silent victims
By Chris Harrison and Janice McKenzie-Crayton
In an essay titled, “Children of Incarcerated Parents: Helping the Silent Victims,” Henrie Treadwell cites the adverse impact of the incarceration of fathers on their children, particularly sons.
Dr. Treadwell’s research draws attention to this national issue and is a clarion call to action. She projects an alarming estimate that there are 1.5 million children of incarcerated parents in the United States.
Treadwell proposes solutions that focus on reducing recidivism, providing re-entry services to incarcerated men and community leaders committing to help children (and the mothers left to raise them) develop coping strategies to overcome their trauma and lead more successful lives.
More than a decade ago, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America realized that children of prisoners were seven times more likely to also end up in prison. The organization responded with the Amachi Program. Begun as a partnership with faith-based organizations, it provided a mentor to a youth whose parent was incarcerated.
With the help of local Atlanta foundations, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta (BBBSMA) initially established partnerships with local faith organizations. Over the years, the Amachi Program has grown and evolved into the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program. It has expanded its outreach to volunteers from corporations and the broader community.
Since its inception in 2003, the mentoring program has served nearly 1,800 children. Currently, more than 25 percent of the 3,000 children served annually are children of prisoners.
The results have been promising:
* 99 percent of children remain completely uninvolved with juvenile justice or do not experience recidivism.
* 97.8 percent report rejection of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, skipping school, hitting and breaking school rules.
* 93 percent enrolled in our program are promoted to the next grade.
BBBSMA radically disrupts the status quo through its mentoring program. It builds on traditional one-to-one mentoring program by providing wrap-around services to children of prisoners and their families. It provides outreach initiatives, screening and pre/post-match training of volunteers, individual case management and referrals to the 2-1-1 resource database of United Way of Atlanta.
Research shows longer and stronger mentoring matches translate into more positive youth outcomes. Mentoring Children of Prisoners provides quality mentoring relationships to children 6 to 18 years old, and requires a one-year commitment and at least eight hours of mentoring per month.
Founded in 1960, BBBSMA serves more than 3,000 children annually in 12 metro counties with a mission to provide children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally supported, one-to-one relationships that change their lives for the better, forever.
Janice McKenzie-Crayton is president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta. Chris Harrison is the organization’s manager of research and evaluation.