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Parents in Prison Get Capitol Hill Attention

PHOTO: Thousands of Michigan children are growing up with their parents behind bars, and the groups such as Volunteers of America that try to help them cope are taking their plight to Capitol Hill. Photo courtesy of freestockphotos.com.
PHOTO: Thousands of Michigan children are growing up with their parents behind bars, and the groups such as Volunteers of America that try to help them cope are taking their plight to Capitol Hill. Photo courtesy of freestockphotos.com.
December 5, 2013

LANSING, Mich. - Having a parent in prison is more common than childhood autism in the U.S. That detail was part of a briefing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, when a report was also released that shared experiences and challenges for children whose mothers are in prison.

Beth Lovell is the director of Family Strengthening for Volunteers of America, which coordinates programs to help those she calls "innocent bystanders."

"There's so much shame and stigma attached to being a child who has a parent that's incarcerated, that we as the grown-ups need to be aware of," Lovell said.

The U.S. Justice Department estimates that 1.75 million children ages 18 and younger currently have a parent in prison, including tens of thousands in Michigan. Millions more have been affected at some point in their lives, and most are children from low-income African-American or Latino families.

When a father is incarcerated, the child's mother usually is the primary caregiver, but the report showed that when the mother is in prison, the care-giving situation can become more complicated, with extended family stepping in. Lovell said these people often are invisible, yet they and the children need all kinds of help, such as mental health counseling and, sometimes, child care.

"Grandparents need somebody by their side to help connect with the school system - that's really important - as well as connecting with any other services that might be available to them if they need food, if they need clothing," she explained.

Recommendations in the report included providing safe environments, so children can visit incarcerated parents more often and in areas that don't look like prisons.

Volunteers of America runs several pilot programs around the country in which they "coach" incarcerated parents and offer coaching and assistance to those caring for their children.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - MI