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Behind Bars: 1 in 10 TN Children Has an Incarcerated Parent

Improving access to community support for children and families of incarcerated parents can help lesson the lifelong impact of jail time on generations, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (kconnors/flickr.com)
Improving access to community support for children and families of incarcerated parents can help lesson the lifelong impact of jail time on generations, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (kconnors/flickr.com)
April 25, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - One in 10 children in Tennessee has had an incarcerated parent - equating to 144,000 children facing at least part of their childhood without them. That's according to a report released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Volunteer State is tied with five other states for the third-highest prevalence of parental incarceration.

Linda O'Neal, executive director for the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, explains why the rate is so high.

"One of the challenges in Tennessee is, we need to take a look at our criminal justice system and be sure we're saving those resources for people who are really a danger to society," says O'Neal. "Our system too frequently incarcerates people for relatively minor offenses or probation violations, when they're really not a threat to society."

O'Neal says in recent years the state has made some progress in providing more mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, as opposed to incarceration for some people, but there is more work to be done.

Among the recommendations in the report is considering children and families in the sentencing decision, providing communities with resources to support impacted families, and providing financial support to children and families during confinement.

Scot Spencer, associate director for advocacy and influence for the Annie E. Casey Foundation says early-education centers, schools, child welfare agencies, community-based health centers and other local and faith-based organizations should offer programs that foster children's mental and emotional well-being.

"There is the potential for the 'quiet whispers' that may not be so quiet that a child would hear about a missing parent," Spencer says. "And so, supporting those centers to be able to provide the services and the knowledge, so that they can be equipped to help that child navigate the tough times."

O'Neal says addressing the issues created for children with incarcerated parents is a proactive way to make sure the cycle doesn't continue.

"We know when parents are incarcerated, it provides toxic stress for the developing brains of young children and it often goes along with other stressors like mental illness or substance abuse or child abuse," says O'Neal. "And we really need to prevent those from occurring whenever possible."

The Casey report says inmates make from 40 cents to $1 a day for their work, making it impossible for them to save enough money to help sustain themselves and their children after their release.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN