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5,000,000 Children Need More Than Higher Test Scores: They Need A Parent

April 30, 2016

I just finished reading KJ Dell’Antonia’s latest Well column in the New York Times after watching Michael Moore’s movie “Where to Invade Next” and couldn’t help but think that our country is on the wrong track who it comes to prisons and family support. Dell”Antonia’s piece, “When Parents Are in Prison, Children Suffer”, offers this sobering set of facts gleaned from a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

The Casey Foundation points to research showing that children with an incarcerated parent tend to move frequently, and their family income drops when a parent, particularly a father, is incarcerated. The parent left behind, or the family member who steps in to care for a child, faces reduced earning potential and difficulties finding child care, even as debts and expenses associated with court and legal fees mount.

How many children are affected? Five million American children… have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. And while the article doesn’t mention it, I find it hard to believe that these children who move frequently, experience a decline in their family’s income, and have a parent they cannot see or talk to. And in many cases they cannot even talk about their experience because it causes them shame. Worse, these children hardly have an equal opportunity to advance. What can be done to help?

The Casey Foundation report suggests that investing in programs designed to help children and families during a parent’s incarceration and then to ease a parent’s return could help equalize opportunities for the children of incarcerated parents. “A prison sentence for a parent shouldn’t be a life sentence for a family,” said Ryan Chao, the foundation’s vice president for civic sites and community change…

Programs that offer education and training in prison, and those that provide job-placement assistance upon release, decrease recidivism and better equip parents to return to their families. That kind of support, according to the Casey Foundation, can help lift children out of a cycle of prison and poverty, and build communities where that cycle is less likely to start again.

“Kids do better when families do better,” Mr. Chao said.

These ideas resonated after watching Michael Moore’s movie, which offered a series of vignettes illustrating how other advanced countries deal with complicated social problems, one of which was incarceration where Norway’s penal system was held up as an example. Unlike our country, where prison is viewed as punishment or retribution, Norway views prison as a place to retrain and refine those committed of crimes so there that when they return to society they can find work and be attuned to the needs of the society whose rules they violated. His movie didn’t show how Norway deals with offenders who are parents, but it DID make it clear that Norway bends over backward to provide job placement assistance and “after care” and, as a result, has the lowest recidivism rate in the world.

We need to rethink the way we treat those who violate the law, particularly those who have children and families they will be returning to. And we should be especially mindful of the needs of the children who are shunted from place-to-place and wonder where their next meal is coming do not fall into the same pattern of behavior…. and remember that “Kids do better when families do better,”

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