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Parents in Prison: A "Serious Threat" to WV Children

One in 10 West Virginia children has the traumatic experience of having a parent incarcerated at some point during their youth. (iStock)
One in 10 West Virginia children has the traumatic experience of having a parent incarcerated at some point during their youth. (iStock)
April 25, 2016

CHARLESTON, W. Va. - About one in 10 West Virginia children has to grow up with a parent behind bars at some point. According to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, that can hurt them for life.

The report, called "A Shared Sentence," says 34,000 West Virginia children will have had a parent behind bars during their youth, one of the highest rates in the country.

And Laura Gandee, interim executive director for West Virginia KIDS COUNT, says it could leave permanent scars.

"Having a parent who's in prison can be as damaging to a child as child abuse or domestic violence," says Gandee. "It's a very traumatic time in a child's life."

According to the report, more than five million children nationwide are separated from parents because of incarceration. It makes recommendations for courts, communities and states to be supportive of kids and help keep family bonds as strong as possible during this tough time.

Scot Spencer, associate director for advocacy and influence for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says nearly two-thirds of families with a jailed parent have trouble making ends meet financially.

He says not only can that make children's lives a precarious struggle, but problems can continue after the parent is released. Felons have a hard time getting decent work, which affects their families and communities.

"The number of people who are on the streets because they cannot secure gainful employment," says Spencer. "And also, the lack of income in those communities from people who have not been able to gain access to work and workforce opportunities."

And Gandee says the state's high rate of incarcerated parents may be due to substance-abuse problems, for which there is a severe shortage of treatment slots.

"These people are ending up in prison instead of in treatment," says Gandee. "Away from their families, and whose ability to earn a living and be a stable parent in the future is in extreme jeopardy."

The report recommends letting some prisoners who stay out of trouble clean up their legal record, giving them a fighting chance when looking for jobs and housing.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV