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Parents in Prison Get Capitol Hill Attention

December 5, 2013

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Having a parent in prison is more common than childhood autism in the U.S., according to a report released Wednesday on Capitol Hill that shares experiences and challenges for children whose mothers are in prison.

Beth Lovell, director of family strengthening with Volunteers of America, is concerned with those she calls innocent bystanders.

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

The U.S. Justice Department estimates 1.75 million children age 18 and younger currently have a parent in prison.

Millions more have been affected at some point in their lives, and most are children from low-income, African-American and Latino families.

When a father is incarcerated, the child's mother is usually the primary caregiver, but the report shows that when the mother is in prison, the care-giving situation can become more complicated, with extended family stepping in.

Lovell says 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 who need somebody by their side to help connect with the school system,” she points out. “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."

Recommendations in the report include 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 where staff members coach incarcerated parents and offer coaching and assistance to those caring for the children.

Lori Abbott, Public News Service - CA