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The Parents' Project

by Denise Johnston and Michael Carlin

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 25% of the nation's adult population lives with a criminal record for a substantial portion of their lives. The majority of these adults are parents. The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents estimates that there are over 1.8 million parents who are prisoners in the U.S., more than twice that number who are probationers or parolees, and several times that number who have been incarcerated for some period during the lifetimes of their minor children.

Prisoners and former prisoners know that family involvement in the criminal justice system has multiple and costly consequencesfor parents, for children and for society.

Major Consequences of Parental Incarceration

The most serious consequence of parental incarceration for parents and children appears to be the dissolution of family bonds. Families of prisoners come permanently apart as the result of 1) lack of services to address pre-existing family problems and issues, 2) lack of supports for maintenance of existing family relationships during and after parental incarceration, and 3) legal and legislative barriers that prevent families from retaining or regaining child custody.

1) Lack of family support services. As many as 56% of incarcerated fathers and 36% of incarcerated mothers did not live with any of their children prior to their incarceration. Most of these prisoners have children by two or more partners and this situation represents an insurmountable barrier to "family reunification" in the sense of parents and their children all living together again. Although these circumstances appear to be the norm among the families of incarcerated parents, there are virtually no prison- or community-based services designed to address ruptures in family relationships that occurred prior to incarceration. As a result, parental incarceration is often the last stage in a long process of family dissolution.

2) For other prisoners, and particularly the 20% of parents who lived with all of their children prior to incarceration, obstacles in each of the following areas greatly reduce the likelihood that they will be reunited with their children after release:

· Assistance in locating their children and/or information about children's status

· Parent-child visitation

· Telephone calls

· Services and supports for healthy child development

· Preservation and support services for families in the community

· Preparation of prisoners as parents for release from incarceration

· Preparation of prisoners and their families for family reunification

· Assistance to and support for parents seeking housing, welfare and/or employment following release from incarceration

3) Legal and legislative barriers to preservation of families involved in the criminal justice system occur in the child welfare (foster care), Family Court and child support enforcement systems.

Although less than 5% of all prisoners have children in foster care, a majority of the parents of families involved in the child welfare system appear to be involved in the criminal justice system as well. Prisoners with children in foster care are at a significant disadvantage as a result of the Adoptions and Safe Families Act [ASFA] of 1997. ASFA requires that children be given a "permanent placement" within 12 months after entering the foster care system. Where placements inside the family are unavailable or unacceptable to the child welfare authorities, children of prisonersand particularly very young children (under three)are highly likely to be permanently removed from the custody of their parents and placed for adoption.

While incarcerated parents with children in foster care are at an extreme disadvantage, prisoners whose child custody issues are within the jurisdiction of the family courts face their own challenges. For example, correctional facilities are not required to release prisoners for or provide them with transportation to family court hearings. Similarly, many family court systems do not automatically provide legal counsel for parents in child custody or visitation matters that are under the jurisdiction of the Family Courts.

Recent state and local child support initiatives have resulted in a variety of challenges for incarcerated parents. The procedures for obtaining child support often create or require an adversarial relationship between parents. In addition to creating a further barrier to parent-child contact during parental incarceration, child support requirements are often applied to current and former prisoners who do not have the legal resources to challenge or modify them.

Other Consequences

Due to the historical lack of interest in the family issues of criminal offenders, other consequences of parental incarceration, and particularly those for children, have not been completely identified. The lack of information about children of prisoners is of critical importance as they are "discovered" and become potential targets of public and private funding to service agencies. To a great extent, what the children need and which services will "work" for them are unknown.

The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents

The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents represents a unique approach to the issues of families involved in the criminal justice system. The Center was co-founded by and is largely staffed by formerly incarcerated parents; over the past 13 years, more than 12,000 clients have received the Center's educational, family reunification, therapeutic and technical assistance services. In addition, the Center has conducted more than a dozen major research projects on children of criminal offenders and their families. The developmental perspective and relationship-based practice characterize all of the Center's services, including:

· The CCIP Clearinghouse, a collection of over 3,500 documents and audio visual items offered free of charge to prisoners and their families, and at cost to all other users.

· The Child Custody Advocacy Services [CHICAS] Project, which assists incarcerated parents and their families to retain or retain child custody.

·The Prison Parents' Educational Project [PPEP] and the Reclaiming Parenthood Project [REPP] annual correspondence courses offered to prisoners nationwide.

· The MotherRight and FatherRight Projects, multi-component projects focused on healthy relationships and based in selected Southern California correctional sites.

· The MIRACLE Project, a program that offers Early Head Start home visiting services to pregnant, jailed women during their incarceration and after their release in the community for up to 3 years.

· The Attachments Project, a project serving women prisoners living with their children in residential, mother-child correctional facilities.

In addition, the Center offers technical assistance and professional/staff training to direct service and correctional agencies across the U.S.

The PLN Parents' Project

In collaboration with PLN , the Center will offer a quarterly column on topics of interest to prisoners who are parents. We will be writing about the barriers prisoners face in communicating with, visiting, parenting, and maintaining custody of their children. We will be presenting current and previous research on the issues of parental incarceration, as well as our conceptual framework for understanding those issues. We will be examining recent policy initiatives that will impact the children of current and former prisoners, and the areaslike child custody and child supportwhere advocacy on behalf of the families of incarcerated parents is badly needed. We will be writing about the challenges facing special groups of incarcerated parents, including lifers and parents on death row. We will be identifying and describing useful services that are available for prisoners and their children, as well as initiatives that prisoners can take to develop services where none exist.

We will do all this as well-educated, highly skilled and extensively experienced professionals who are also former prisoners, and we will write from the perspective and voice of parents who have been separated from our own children by incarceration.

Denise Johnston is co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents. Michael Carlin is a Program Associate of the Center and coordinates the FatherRight Project.

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