June 18, 2011

The Children of Incarcerated Parents

I’m in deep grief, a little disoriented, and angry.

Today’s New York Times has an editorial by President Jimmy Carter describing the dismal failure of America’s 40 year-old “war on drugs.” In addition to the tragic failure to limit drug consumption in the US, he describes an increase from a half-million people in prison when he left office in the 80’s to nearly 2.3 million by 2009. The increase can be attributed for over-incarceration of non-violent and often minor drug offenses. So much for another costly and failed war mostly fought on distant shores. If you add to the people in prison, those on probation or parole it adds up to 7.2 million. That means for every one hundred thousand Americans, 743 are in jail and 3 percent of all American adults are dealing with the justice system.

But that’s not the only reason I’m sad . . .

The dollar costs and human trauma represented by having that much of our population incarcerated is hard to imagine and reason enough for sadness. But there is a related statistic that really breaks my heart. A lot of those people in jail have kids. It is estimated that close to 2.5 million children have incarcerated parents, and they are living with the remaining and now single parent, their grandparents, or they are in some form of foster care. That’s almost 1 in 23 kids in the US. These are kids who, because of their family dynamics, neighborhoods, poverty, lack of education, or social influences are 4 times more likely to enter the criminal life.

But that’s not the only reason I’m sad . . .

Over the last year I have been working with communities and mentoring organizations who have been serving these Children of Incarcerated Parents (CIP’s) with funding from the Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP) federal grant. The grant was launched in 2010, and administered by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB). It awarded $49.3 million dollars to support tribes, faith-based organizations, and hundreds of mentoring programs. That meant some 30,000 of those kids with parents in jail got a mentor who could help with homework, have some fun with them in their community, and all those kids would get to experience safe and trusting relationships with positive adult allies and mentors. In these relationships, kids found a source for objectivity and guidance around their very difficult life issues, they had role models for appropriate social behaviors, and they had a caring adults who could see, and frequently name, the beauty they saw in their mentee.

The MCP grant, and the amazing work done by so many dedicated staff, in countless organizations, and the gifts of time and energy from so many generous and caring adults who signed on to mentor CIP’s stops this September because the grant was shut down. Gone, done, unfunded, deleted. Something about we can’t afford to invest our own tax dollars at home, and why should we care about those people anyway.

Never mind the foolish shortsightedness of eliminating well-spent prevention money. What about a very large portion of those 30,000 kids with parents in jail, again, losing an important and caring adult in their lives. Again, finding themselves alone in facing almost insurmountable odds in their very hard lives.

Now THAT makes me really sad . . . and more than a little angry.


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