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Children Dealing with Impact of a Parent in Prison

Children who grow up with a parent in prison deal with a variety of issues, including poverty and emotional trauma. (ca.gov)
Children who grow up with a parent in prison deal with a variety of issues, including poverty and emotional trauma. (ca.gov)
April 25, 2016

BALTIMORE - There are 82,000 children in Maryland with either a mom or dad who are, or have been, in jail or prison.

A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation says these kids often are dealing with poverty, homelessness and emotional trauma. The report has recommendations to state and local policymakers on how to help them.

Rais Akbar, juvenile justice policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore, agrees help is sorely needed.

He says around 65 percent of families with a person in jail can't meet basic needs.

"So many children have these adverse childhood experiences and they experience trauma, and that manifests itself in various ways," Akbar says. "We treat too much as a criminal matter, and not enough as a health and welfare matter."

Akbar believes Maryland is over-reliant on incarceration. The report says nationwide, more than 5 million children have a parent behind bars at some point during their childhood.

Scot Spencer, associate director for advocacy and influence for the Casey Foundation, says the justice system needs to take into account the impact on families when making sentencing decisions, and help them nurture the bond between parent and child.

"They're losing their parent in those critical years of childhood development, and so there are some longstanding impacts," says Spencer. "It can increase a child's mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and it can hamper educational achievement in that child."

Another strategy in the report is to increase the odds that parents released from prison are able to find and maintain a job, and it says states should suspend child-support orders while parents are incarcerated. Akbar supports that strategy.

"If the incarcerated parent can't have an income, then they're not paying it, they're not able to," he says. "So, all you're doing is, you're saddling them with debt, and you expect them to pay it with interest when they come out. So, it's not working."

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MD