Voices of Children of Incarcerated Parents

We often read gruesome details of heinous crimes, with disgust. Yet, for many, there is also a morbid curiosity and fascination to want to know the details of the crime. Some are even fascinated and want to “get inside the mind” of an infamous criminal.

Our hearts go out to the victims of crimes, extending to their families as well.  We have compassion for them and attempt to understand their struggles. There is another group of victims, we seldom think about. These victims are not able to move forward with their lives as well. They often keep their struggles a secret. These are the children of the parents who perpetrated these crimes. They are “the children of incarcerated parents”. Who are they? Where are they? They are referred to as the “invisible population”. What agency works with them directly? The answer is very few. That is because few professionals know who they are. They are the collateral damage of their parent’s crimes and incarceration.

Erroneously, many believe child protective services monitors and works with these children. That may be correct, but only for a small number. My calculations working with this population turned out to be 20% of these children are involved with an agency or system. So, who is raising the 80% of these children?

The two predominant groups raising children of incarcerated parents are “the other custodial parent” or “the grandparents”. These are disfranchised groups, struggling to make ends meet. Additionally, they struggle with the anger the children are emoting during phone calls, after visits with their incarcerated parent.  These are the caregivers whom deal with the children on their birthdays, on holidays, at graduation. They are the patient face raising these children during the most difficult of days. They deal with the child’s behaviors, academic challenges, all by themselves.

Children of incarcerated parents have a six times higher chance of going to prison themselves. This is referred to as “intergenerational incarceration”. My work and observations indicate approximately one-third of these children are “over-achievers”. Their goal is to make sure they do not follow in their parent’s footsteps. Privately, all the children struggle to reconcile their parent’s crime.  They struggle to understand and forgive their parent. They struggle to go to school, do their homework, and behave. For the two-thirds whom are not “over-achievers”, they are at a higher risk to drop out of school and a lower chance of graduating. Many grow into adulthood carrying the “secret”.

Who are these children who are keeping this secret?  Some truly have no idea where their parent is and do not have knowledge the parent is presently incarcerated. They are told, “Daddy is away at work for a few years”, “Mommy is away at college, studying”. Then one day, they find out the truth. They find out by overhearing other family members talking quietly, from other neighborhood children who are “in the know”, or they find out themselves searching on the internet.

How do these children feel after they learn the truth about their parent’s incarceration? How do they feel after they spent several hours driving to see their parent for a one hour visit at the prison? How do they feel seeing the details of their parent’s crime, trial, and appeal in the news? The answer is angry! They are explosive or implosive. Who helps them navigate this journey? For the grandparent, it’s a double edge sword. The grandparent struggles personally seeing their own adult child incarcerated and struggles to be supportive for their grandchild.

Many children of incarcerated parents learn how to do a delicate dance. When they communicate or visit their incarcerated parent, should they share their real emotions, share real issues in their maturing lives? Should they tell their incarcerated parent their biggest fear is going to prison themselves? They stay quiet and wonder, not wanting to agitate the incarcerated parent. They don’t want to be responsible for making their parent angry in prison and thus get a consequence for that. They wonder if other kids knew about their incarcerated parent, would neighboring parents allow their children to play with them. They wonder when their parent is released from prison, will they remain living with their custodial parent or grandparent, or will they have to move and change schools again.

Many professionals are NOT taught how to identify and assist these children. They are NOT taught how to extrapolate what “the secret” means. “Children of Incarcerated Parents” is still a topic in a stage of infancy. The average incarcerated parent has 2.9 children. How many children would that be in your state? The next time we read about a gruesome crime or watch the sensationalizing of crime shows, think about the invisible victims, “The Children of Incarcerated Parents”.

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Magestro & Associates, LLC