Kathleen Creamer article on Helping Children of Jailed Parents published in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Helping children of jailed parents

On any given day, at least 100,000 children in Pennsylvania have a parent in prison or jail. With the recent release of a joint legislative commission's report on the issue, the commonwealth has begun the important work of taking a serious look at the lives of these children.

The report is the result of two years of work by an advisory committee of 38 professionals with a vast array of experience in corrections, child welfare, the courts, and child and family services. There is still a lot to learn, but this much is clear: A failure to address these children's needs will put them at risk of mental-health problems, behavioral issues, juvenile delinquency, and more.

In most cases, especially if a parent who had custody of a child is incarcerated, the parent-child relationship must be maintained. The incarceration of a parent can be a deeply traumatic experience for a child, characterized by feelings of loss, fear, and shame. The ability to see and speak with a parent can ease a child's emotional adjustment and increase his or her sense of security and well-being.

Too often in Pennsylvania, children are unable to maintain such contact with parents. A child may have to travel a great distance to see an incarcerated parent, making visitation infrequent or impossible. Many jails and prisons require that children be separated from parents by a glass divider regardless of the nature of the parent's crime. Even phone calls can be fraught with logistic and financial obstacles.

The committee's report contains specific recommendations for addressing these and other challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents. They include: child-friendly visiting conditions at correctional facilities, as well as video conferencing and e-mail to supplement visits; a statewide arrest protocol to reduce the trauma children experience when they witness a parent's arrest; increased therapeutic and community support for children of incarcerated parents and those caring for them; greater flexibility for caseworkers in determining whether termination of parental rights is appropriate for a child in foster care; and improved training for and collaboration between corrections and child-welfare officials.

Last week, the current Miss America, Laura Kaeppeler, joined members of the advisory committee to announce the report and to share her story of watching her father go to prison. She recalled feelings of isolation and guilt that are common among children of incarcerated parents, and which only made worse by a lack of understanding and support.

Now we have begun to address that problem in Pennsylvania, but much more needs to be done. To that end, we urge the formation of a permanent statewide commission on children of incarcerated parents. This report should serve as a call to action for those who believe in the potential of all of the state's children. The intergenerational cycle of incarceration is not inevitable. These children have futures worthy of our investment.

Philadelphia Inquirer Linkhttp://articles.philly.com/2012-02-17/news/31071785_1_child-welfare-parents-advisory-committee