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Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents

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1. I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my
parent's arrest.
■ Develop arrest protocols that support and protect children.
■ Offer children and/or their caregivers basic information about the post-arrest process.
2. I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me.
■ Train staff at institutions whose constituency includes children of incarcerated parents
to recognize and address these children's needs and concerns.
■ Tell the truth.
■ Listen.
3. I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about
my parent.
■ Review current sentencing law in terms of its impact on children and families.
■ Turn arrest into an opportunity for family preservation.
■ Include a family impact statement in pre-sentence investigation reports
4. I have the right to be well cared for in my parent's absence.
■ Support children by supporting their caretakers.
■ Offer subsidized guardianship.
5. I have the right to speak with, see and touch my parent.
■ Provide access to visiting rooms that are child-centered, non-intimidating and
conducive to bonding.
■ Consider proximity to family when siting prisons and assigning prisoners.
■ Encourage child welfare departments to facilitate contact.
6. I have the right to support as I face my parent's incarceration.
■ Train adults who work with young people to recognize the needs and concerns
of children whose parents are incarcerated.
■ Provide access to specially trained therapists, counselors, and/or mentors.
■ Save five percent for families.
7. I have the right not to be judged, blamed or labeled because my
parent is incarcerated.
■ Create opportunities for children of incarcerated parents to communicate with
and support each other.
■ Create a truth fit to tell.
■ Consider differential response when a parent is arrested.
8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.
■ Re-examine the Adoption and Safe Families Act.
■ Designate a family services coordinator at prisons and jails.
■ Support incarcerated parents upon reentry.
■ Focus on rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration.







I have the right TO BE WELL CARED FOR IN MY




I have the right TO SUPPORT AS I FACE MY


I have the right NOT TO BE JUDGED, BLAMED OR
LABELED because my parent is incarcerated.



Revised, Summer 2005
San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership
(formerly SFPIP)
Supported by the Zellerbach Family Foundation
The San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (SFCIPP) is
a coalition of social service providers, representatives of government bodies,
advocates and others who work with or are concerned about children of
incarcerated parents and their families. Formed in 2000 under the auspices
of the Zellerbach Family Foundation, SFCIPP works to improve the lives of
children of incarcerated parents, and to increase awareness of these children,
their needs and their strengths.
After studying the issues affecting these children and their families,
SFCIPP members agreed that a children’s perspective was the logical
framework from which all future work should evolve. We understand
that children’s rights and needs may sometimes conflict with, and must
be balanced against, institutional concerns and requirements, but believe
it is essential to start from the child’s perspective and work on what is
possible from there.
The bill of rights that follows is derived from the experience of Gretchen
Newby, executive director of Friends Outside—who drafted the original
bill of rights on which this one is based—in working with families affected
by incarceration, and from interviews conducted by journalist Nell
Bernstein with over 30 young people who have experienced parental
incarceration (the names of those interviewed have been changed).
It also relies on the research and conclusions of Charlene Simmons of
the California Research Bureau and Peter Breen of the Child Welfare
League of America, and derives in great part from the ongoing conversation
that has been taking place among SFCIPP members under the guidance of
Ellen Walker of the Zellerbach Family Foundation. Sydney Gurewitz
Clemens, Cassie Pierson, and Ellen Walker provided editorial guidance.

Since the Bill of Rights was first published in 2003, it has been widely
distributed and used in venues around the country to educate the public,
provoke discussion, and train service providers.
In 2005, SFCIPP launched the Rights to Realities Initiative, with the
long-term goal of ensuring that every child in San Francisco whose parent
is arrested and/or incarcerated is guaranteed the rights that follow. Our
current work plan involves assessing the current status of each right in San
Francisco, and the availability of model practices from around the nation;
identifying which agencies might contribute to addressing each right; and
working with those agencies to develop responsive policies and practices.
Our overarching aim is to ensure that every decision about criminal justice
policy and practice takes into account the needs and hopes of children.
For inquiries about SFCIPP and the Rights to Realities Initiative, please
contact Nell Bernstein at or PO Box 293,
1563 Solano Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94707.
Rights conceived by Gretchen Newby, Friends Outside. Text by
Nell Bernstein, SFCIPP Coordinator. Interior photographs by
Joseph Rodriguez/Black Star. Art by Zoe Willmott.
Additional copies, in English or Spanish, and copies of the Bill of Rights
training video, are available from
Friends Outside
PO Box 4085
Stockton, CA 95204
Please visit our website:
Please feel free to copy and distribute this document.




Seven million, or one in ten of the nation’s

These needs, too often, go not just unmet but unacknowledged. Over the
years, a series of court cases has delineated the rights of prisoners in the

children, have a parent under criminal justice supervision—in jail or

United States. These rights are limited, and difficult to enforce, but they

prison, on probation, or on parole.

are at least recognized. The idea that prisoners, while they may be required

Little is known about what becomes of children when their parents are
incarcerated. There is no requirement that the various institutions charged
with dealing with those accused of breaking the law—police, courts, jails

to forfeit the right to liberty, nevertheless retain other rights that demand
respect, is generally taken for granted. Where it is not, advocates are ready
and able to step in and fight on behalf of the incarcerated.

and prisons, probation departments—inquire about children’s existence,

The children of prisoners are guaranteed nothing. They have committed

much less concern themselves with children’s care. Conversely, there is no

no crime, but the penalty they are required to pay is steep. They forfeit,

requirement that systems serving children—schools, child welfare, juvenile

too often, much of what matters to them: their homes, their safety, their

justice—address parental incarceration.

public status and private self-image, their primary source of comfort and

Children of prisoners have a daunting array of needs. They need a safe
place to live and people to care for them in their parents’ absence, as well
as everything else a parent might be expected to provide: food, clothing,
medical care.
But beyond these material requirements, young people themselves identify
less tangible, but equally compelling, needs. They need to be told the
truth about their parents’ situation. They need someone to listen without
judging, so that their parents’ status need not remain a secret. They need

affection. Their lives and prospects are profoundly affected by the multiple
institutions that lay claim to their parents—police, courts, jails and prisons,
probation and parole—but they have no rights, explicit or implicit, within
any of these jurisdictions.
This need not be the case. Should the rights that follow be recognized,
the children of prisoners would still face obstacles and traumas. But they
would do so with the knowledge that the society that had removed their
parents took some responsibility for their care.

the companionship of others who share their experience, so they can

A criminal justice model that took as its constituency not just individuals

know they are not alone. They need contact with their parents—to have

charged with breaking the law, but also the families and communities

that relationship recognized and valued even under adverse circumstances.

within which their lives are embedded—one that respected the rights and

And—rather than being stigmatized for their parents’ actions or status—

needs of children—might become one that inspired the confidence and

they need to be treated with respect, offered opportunity, and recognized

respect of those families and communities, and so played a part in

as having potential.

stemming, rather than perpetuating, the cycle of crime and incarceration.


Develop arrest protocols that support and protect children.
Training police officers to understand and address children's fear and confusion
when a parent is arrested is an important first step. At a minimum, police
could be trained to inquire about minor children, and to rely—in the absence of
evidence that to do so would place a child at risk—on the arrested parent as a
first source of information about potential caretakers. This would minimize both
the possibility of children being left alone, and of children entering the child
welfare system unnecessarily when family members or other caretakers
are available.
Keeping in mind that safety is the first priority, the following steps might also
be considered when feasible:


• Avoiding the use of sirens and lights in non-emergency situations where
their use is discretionary, to reduce the fear and/or shame children may
• If the arrestee is cooperative, allowing her to explain to her children what is
happening and say goodbye, and walking her out of sight of the children
before handcuffing her.

I have the right

Many children are introduced to the criminal justice system when their
parent is arrested and they see her taken away in handcuffs. Most police
departments do not have protocols for addressing the needs of children
when a parent is arrested. The resulting experience can be terrifying and
confusing for the children left behind. Some wind up in the back of a
police car themselves, on the way to the first in a series of temporary placements. Others are left behind in, or return home to, empty apartments.
Arrested parents often prefer not to involve public agencies in the lives of
their children, out of fear of losing custody. Many children share this fear,
but at the same time long for someone to notice and attend to the family
vulnerabilities that can both lead to and result from a parent’s arrest.
Parental arrest is by definition a traumatic event for children. But if
children’s well-being is made a priority, it can also become an opportunity—
to assess a child’s needs, offer aid in what will likely be a difficult period,
and connect with and support vulnerable families.

• When it is not possible or appropriate for the arrestee to offer an
explanation, having an officer take children into another room and offer
them an age-appropriate explanation of what is happening and what will
happen next (e.g., “Mom needs to take a time-out and we will be taking
her someplace where she can do that. You have not done anything wrong.
We will make sure your mother is safe, and grandma will be here to make
sure you are safe.”)


Offer children and/or their caregivers basic information
about the post-arrest process: where the arrestee
likely will be held, how long it may take for him to
be processed, and visiting hours and procedures.
This information might be conveyed via a simple handout. Officers might also
distribute a resource guide with a list of community agencies and services to
children and families.

Rochelle, 25

“They arrested her
and just left us there.”

When I was seven, a lady knocked
on the door, and the police came.
They said, “We're going to the park
and we'll be back.” At that time, I

At age nine, Dave was left alone with his baby brother after their mother

really did think I was going to the

was arrested. Dave—who was 19 at the time of this interview—went on to

park. I sure didn't think I was going

foster care and then college. He never learned why his mother had been

to the shelter, where they ended

arrested, and saw her only once after the day of her arrest.


was nine when my mom got arrested. The police came and took her. I was
trying to ask them what was going on and they wouldn't say, and then
everything went so fast. I guess they thought someone else was in the house.
I don’t know. But nobody else was in the house. They arrested her and just
left us there.
For two or three weeks I took care of my one-year-old brother and myself. I
knew how to change his diapers and feed him and stuff. I tried to make breakfast in the morning and I burnt my hand trying to make toast. I had a blister.


70 percent of children who were
present at a parent’s arrest watched
that parent being handcuffed

I wasn’t really afraid. I was just trying to take care of my brother. That was
my goal—to take care of him. Sometimes he would cry because he probably
would want to see my mom.
When my mom was there, every day we used to take my little brother for a
walk in the stroller. I still did that every day, even though my mom wasn’t
there. Her friend across the street saw us and I guess she figured out something was wrong. She called Child Protective Services and they came and
took us.
My mom did come back eventually, but by that time we were already gone.
All I know is that they just rushed me in the system and that was that. They
didn't tell me why I can’t go back with my mom.
I was sent to a temporary foster home and my brother was in a different
foster home. Then I got placed in the foster home where I live now. I’ve been
there for about eight years.

up putting me.

I felt bad about being separated from my
brother. I should have had visits with my
brother, to at least know exactly where he
was. I just prayed that he was doing OK.
During that time we were split up, my
mom died. So then I was really mad
because my brother was the only person
I had left of my family and I didn’t know
where he was.
I think when the police first arrested my
mom, they should have looked around
the house and seen that we were there by
ourselves. Then I wouldn’t have had to
take care of my brother for that long.


30 percent were
confronted with
drawn weapons

The police should sit down and talk with
you. Explain the situation. Why, and what
are the going to do with you? How long do
they think your mother is going to be
there? And don’t just say, “She’ll be out in a
couple of days, we’re going to put you in
foster care and she’ll get you back,” and
then you don’t never get back out. They
should just be honest with you and tell you
what’s going on.

I don't think I really had an understanding about it. It was just, “My
mom is gone and I'm here with
these people. But I want to be with
my mom right now.”
What would have helped me is talking about it. When you don't know
where your mom is, it's really scary
for a child. And no one was talking
about it. Just, “Here's a placement
for you until she gets herself
together.” You don't know when
she’s coming to pick you up—
if she ever is going to come.
It would help to have someone
there for the child who would
continue to be with the child
through the process. There should
be some kind of task force that
specializes in dealing with kids
whose parents have been incarcerated. It’s all about consistency.
Someone there who they can
call on, and continue to grow a


I have the right




When a parent is arrested, children whose lives may already have left
them with little sense of control often feel even more alienated from the
events that swirl around them. Adults they have never met remove their
parents with little explanation, then decide where children will go without
consulting them. When children continue to feel unheard within the
institutions that govern their lives in their parents’ absence, their sense of
powerlessness grows.
There are aspects of children’s lives that must inevitably remain beyond
their control. Children cannot choose whether or when their parents will be
taken from them, nor how long their parents will be gone. But when young
people are offered a voice within the systems and institutions that come to
dominate their lives, they are more likely to respect those institutions, and
find some sense of control and optimism in their own lives.

Train staff at institutions whose constituency includes
children of incarcerated parents to recognize and
address these children's needs and concerns.
Any institution dealing with vulnerable youth—including schools and child care
programs—will likely serve numerous children of incarcerated parents. In many
cases, children do not feel able to talk about this aspect of their experience. If
they express their grief instead through anger or defiance, they find themselves disciplined, labeled, and often eventually jailed. When adults are sensitive to the needs—not to mention the existence—of the children of prisoners,
they are better prepared to offer support instead of stigma, and help avert this

■ Tell

the truth.

Adults often try to protect children from difficult realities by blunting or concealing
the truth. But children who are lied to—whether by police, social workers,
family members or others—about a parent’s arrest or incarceration are likely to
experience heightened confusion, shame and mistrust. They are also denied
the opportunity to express their own views and feelings about their family’s
situation. An explanation of that situation should be tailored to a child’s age and
level of understanding, but children deserve to be told the truth and to have
their questions answered honestly.

■ Listen.
Every interaction between a prisoner’s child and a representative of the
adult world—be it police officer, probation officer, teacher, relative or neighbor—
presents both a risk and an opportunity. If young people feel blamed or
unheard—if their feelings remain hidden and their needs go unexpressed—
the burden of parental incarceration grows heavier. But when adults make
the effort to listen without judgment and learn from children’s hard-won
experience, each interaction also provides an opportunity to offer
solace and encouragement.

Marie, 38

“What would have helped
me most is compassion
for my mom.”
Ahmad, 21, was born while his mother was in prison. When
he was five, his mother’s parental rights were terminated and he
was adopted. Ahmad reunited with his birth family at 16. He is
currently attending college.


hen my mother’s pareantal rights were terminated, I wasn’t even
allowed to be by her in the courtroom. But I just knew from her
expression, her tears, begging the judge, what had happened. I was reaching out to her, begging, trying to have that last hug. They picked me up
and just took me away. Me screaming and yelling, “Mommy, I won’t be
bad again.”
When I was adopted, I was totally separated from my mom and the rest of
my family. They said it was for my “mental stability”—that if I continued
to see my family, I would be confused. I was always taught to say nothing
about it.


THREE in 100 American children
will go to sleep tonight with a
parent in jail or prison.

That really impacted the way I felt about myself. Was I that bad of a child?
Was I that much of a problem that people don’t want to take care of me?
Later, I learned that it actually had nothing to do with me. It was something
my mother had to battle her way through herself, and I couldn’t change it.
When I was 12, my adoptive dad moved us out of state. Then one day, out
of the blue, I came home from school and he said, “Your mother called.” I
called her, and we were just talking like nothing is happening. It was good.
Eventually, I went to find her. My whole impression growing up was that
my family were drug dealers, or they were in and out of jail, but it wasn’t
like that. My sister was this working mom who went to college. My mom,

When I was about five years old,
my mother and her boyfriend and
my uncle were all arrested. I was
with them. I can recall, as I sat in
the police car, one officer saying,
“What are we going to do with

she’s gotten over her past. She still feels the
urge, but she doesn’t do drugs.

this kid?” The other guy said,

I know it affected her a lot being pregnant
and in jail with her baby—and after giving
birth, to have to hand me over. She told
me it was hard, and that the love she had
for me is what kept her alive.

children’s shelter.”

All the system saw was a drug-addicted
mother. “The baby could do better without
her.” They wanted to protect little Ahmad.
Why didn’t they care about his mother?

“Well, we’ll just take her to the

I said, “I’m not going to the children’s
shelter. You need to take me to my
grandmother’s house, or put me in
a cab.” I was already living with my
grandmother at that time, but they
never bothered to ask me, or ask
my mother where did she want
them to take me.


ONE in EIGHT African
American children has
a parent behind bars.

When there’s a mother struggling with an
addiction, struggling with herself, but is
not abusive towards her kids, then the system has to help better that situation. Help
the mother as well as the child. What would
have helped me most is compassion for my
mom. We have to bring the mom back, so
the mom can be a mother to the child.
Me and my mom, today we have a good
relationship. We argue a lot over little
petty things—I didn’t bring her car back
on time—but we love each other. I never
stopped loving her for my whole life.

I was very young at that time,
but generally, as children, we
do know what is happening.
I was terrified of the police at

that time. Very terrified of what I
had seen, what happened to family
members, what happened to my
mother. I felt I hadn’t done anything
wrong. It was a very frightening

I have
the right


Increasingly tough sentencing laws, which have caused the U.S. prison
population to increase fivefold over the past three decades, have also had
a tremendous impact on children. But as it stands, sentencing law not only
does not require judges to consider children when they make decisions that
will affect their lives profoundly; in some cases, it actively forbids them
from doing so. A more sensible and humane policy would take into account
the fact that sentencing decisions will inevitably affect family members—
especially children—and strive to protect their interests as much as possible
without compromising public safety.

■ Review

current sentencing law in terms of its impact on
children and families.
Ask the child of an incarcerated parent what might have improved his life and his
prospects and you're likely to get some version of this answer: “Help for my mom.”
Even if they have experienced years of trauma and abandonment, young people are
likely to see their parents as troubled and in need of support rather than as bad and
in need of punishment.
Public opinion polls increasingly echo this view: Growing numbers of Americans
favor rehabilitation and alternative sentences, particularly for those charged with
violating the drug laws. But this shift in opinion has not been sufficient to reverse
the growth of the prison population, which reached an historic high of 2.2 million
at last count. In this context, the impact on children of unnecessary or overlong
prison sentences—as well as the fiscal impact of associated costs such as foster
care or welfare for caretakers—warrants serious consideration, as does the
potential positive impact of a shift toward community-based alternatives to prison.
Children also deserve to have their needs taken into consideration when individual
sentences are handed down. The capacity of judges to consider children should be
expanded, and they should be encouraged to use the discretion they already have
to protect children’s interests.

■ Turn

arrest into an opportunity for family preservation.

Parental arrest can push an already-vulnerable family to the breaking point.
Reconceived, it could also be an opportunity to intervene and offer support. If
questions about the existence, status and needs of dependent children became
part of the intake procedure for arrestees, and efforts were made to connect
them and their children with services and supports, the criminal justice system
could play a role in bolstering families.

■ Include

a family impact statement in pre-sentence
investigation reports.
Parole and probation officers are frequently required by the court to prepare a
pre-sentence investigation report (PSI), traditionally aimed at helping judges
understand the background, and potential for rehabilitation, of those who come
before them. The PSI might be adapted and expanded to include a family impact
statement, which would include an assessment of the potential effect of a given
sentence on children and families and recommendations for the “least detrimental
alternative” sentence in this context. The PSI might also include recommendations
aimed at providing services and supports to children during a parent’s absence.

Adam, 30

“Take her away from me,
now you’re hurting me.”

Sending people to prison for
victimless crimes—for abusing
themselves—doesn’t really seem to
produce a solution. As a matter of

Terrence, 24, spent nearly six months on his own as a teenager after
his mother was arrested. Today, he is a student and a musician.


hen I was 16, the police came. They kicked the door in and took
my mom to jail. They told me, “Call somebody to come watch
you.” They were so busy trying to take her out, they didn’t care about me.
At first, I didn't know when she would be coming back. Then she called
and said she was in jail for possession for sale. She told me to be good and
strong. Keep going. After that I just did what she said.
I had to take care of myself for almost six months while she was in jail. I
cooked, cleaned, went to school. Stayed out of trouble. I never liked being
in my house by myself all the time. It got lonely and it got scary.
I had 56 dollars in a piggy bank. I cracked out some money and bought
some food. When the groceries got low, I did some work washing cars in the
neighborhood, sold newspapers door to door. That’s what I did to survive.


Nearly THREE QUARTERS of those
admitted to state prison have been
convicted of non-violent crimes.

The electricity got cut off, but I still had water. Then everything got cut
off. I was sitting around there in the dark. I had my friends come over and
we’d sit around and talk. Go to sleep together. Wake up and go to school.
In my head I was like, “I’m going to be the man. I’m going to pay the
bills. I’m going to try to do it.” But I just didn’t know what to do. I
basically had to eat noodles and do what I could until Mom came home.
I wanted to show Mom that I’m a man.
Around the fifth month, I ended up meeting some friends in a foster
home. When I really started trippin’ off the lights being cut off and
everything, I started staying over there a lot.

fact, the laws only perpetuate what

The foster father asked me, “How come
you’ve been spending the night so much?
What’s the matter?” I told him, “My mom’s
in jail.” He came back with some papers and
put me on emergency foster care with him.
My mom, they just put her in jail. Let her
do her time. Kick her out. She’s still the
same person. She didn’t learn.
The biggest solution I can think of is stop
bringing the drugs to the area. Just make
sure they don’t get it, somehow. If they take
the liquor stores off the corner and paint all
the buildings and clean the streets up, there
won’t be all these guys hangin’ out, and
there won’t be as much drugs.

they’re trying to prevent. You take
somebody that’s in a bad situation
and you put them in a worse situation. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon
to figure out that sending people to
prison only perpetuates the prison
system, that they become professional convicts. You’re also sending a
very bad message to their children.
The message is that the law and
government don’t care about the
integrity of the family.
Violent criminals, rapists and


Of every DOLLAR spent on drug abuse
and its consequences, only FOUR
CENTS goes to prevention and treatment.

should be
But there’s
so many

I think they shouldn’t have took my
mama to jail that first time. Just gave her
a ticket or something, and made her go
to court, and give her some community
service. Some type of alternative, where she
can go to the program down the street, or
they can come check on her at the house.
Give her the opportunity to make up for
what she did.

people stuck in there for drugs.

Using drugs, she’s hurting herself. Take her
away from me and now you’re hurting me.

for them to be productive people.

People become convicts and then
after that, if they come back out in
the real world, they can't get a job.
How is that going to help them
become better people? They need
to be healed internally, educated
mentally, and given skills physically

■ Support

children by supporting their caretakers.

In many cases, relative caretakers receive less financial support than do
non-related foster care providers—or no support at all. When a caretaker is an
impoverished grandmother—as is often the case—it can prove particularly difficult for her to meet her family's needs alone. Equalizing payments for relative
caregivers would be an important first step towards supporting the children
for whom they care. Additional help for grandparents—including respite care
and support groups—could also help sustain struggling families.

■ Offer

I have the right


When a child loses a single parent to incarceration, he also loses a home.
In the most extreme cases, children may wind up fending for themselves
in a parent’s absence. Some will spend time in the foster care system,
where 97 percent of administrators say they have no specific policy in
place to address those children’s needs. The majority stay with relatives,
often elderly and impoverished grandmothers who may be strained personally
and financially by the challenge of caring for a second generation.

subsidized guardianship.

Children deserve an opportunity for stability without being asked to sever
permanently their bond with their parent. Guardianship—in which a caretaker
gains most of the legal rights of a parent, but biological parents do not
permanently lose their rights—is one way of providing this. If guardians were
routinely offered the same level of support as are foster parents, more friends
and family members might feel able to step into this role. When reunification
is unlikely—as when a parent is serving a very long sentence—an open
adoption can also provide both a permanent home and an ongoing connection
to an incarcerated parent.

■ Consider

differential response when a parent is arrested.

Differential response laws—now on the books in more than ten states—
allow child welfare agencies to respond to families in crisis by offering support,
often through referrals to community-based agencies, without opening a
formal investigation. Differential response offers a promising model for how
agencies might support families struggling with the incarceration of a parent.
Workers could interview caregivers, incarcerated parents, and older children
to determine their needs, and offer referrals to services, without the risk of
sanction and long-term separation a formal investigation can trigger.

Amanda, 16

“Am I in this
world by myself?”

All my life my mom’s been in and
out of jail for stealing, drug possession, forgery. I never met my father.
He’s been in and out of prison too.

Antonio, 23, spent 11 years in foster care wile his mother was in

Since I was four, I’ve pretty much

and out of jail and prison on drug-related charges. At the time of

lived with my grandma. I used to

this interview, he was working as a peer counselor.

leave. She’s been in and out so


many times that my heart doesn’t

hen I was four years old, my mother started doing drugs. She used
to be in and out of jail, and then she started going to prison when I
was seven years old. That’s when we first got taken from her. Her friends
took me to Social Services, dropped me off, left me there.
I've been in about 18 different group homes since then, and three or four
foster homes. I don’t care how bad whatever we were going through, I still
wanted to be with my mom.
At the foster homes they would try to talk to me and I would say “yes”
and “no.” I didn’t tell them anything else, because I was so hurt about it.
One foster home I was in, I called the lady there my grandmother, ‘cause
she took care of me. She always made sure that I got in touch with my
mom. Even if my mom was locked up and tryin’ to call collect, she could
call there. My grandmother knew that mattered in my life.
The other places, they didn’t care. There was only a couple of people that
I lived with that actually took me to see my mom.
In the group homes, they knew my mom was in jail and they would just
tell me, “Oh, it’s gonna be alright.” But they don’t know how I feel because
they’re not going through it.


HALF of all children with
incarcerated mothers are cared
for by grandparents.

At school kids would ask where my mom was at and I’d say, “jail.” Some
kids would be like, “Oh, that’s cool.” The good ones would be like, “Oh,
that’s all bad. Your mom’s crazy.” When Mother’s Day used to come around
and people would be chillin’ with their mothers, kids would say, “What are
you gonna do on Mother’s Day? Oh, I forgot, you don’t have a mother.”

always cry when my mom would

allow me to cry any more.

Maybe I didn’t have a family, but when
my daughter was born, I knew for sure
that was my family. I knew I could make
something better out of my life. When
she was born, I cut all my friends loose. I
started working at a warehouse, picking up
50-pound bags for $6.50 an hour.
My daughter is always smiling. She’s always
happy. I love having a family. Before, I
would think, “OK, do I got a family, or am
I in this world by myself?” Even to this day,
there’s that fear that I can lose my family,
‘cause I’ve already lost my first family.

I don’t like telling my friends that my
mom’s locked up because then
they’re like, “Oh, well, that family’s
all bad. They’re low class.” They’ll
talk behind your back.
When they see that children don’t
have fathers and the mothers are
incarcerated, they need to give
the grandmothers more financial
support. My grandmother gets SSI
and welfare gives her 140 dollars a
month for four children. I don’t
know if she’s going to have any
money for next


Nearly TWO THIRDS of
children being raised by single
grandmothers live in poverty.

Now that I have kids, I don’t know why
anyone would want to leave a little precious
thing like that by themselves. I don’t understand why they would let that happen.
I don’t care what I have to do in this world,
if I have to do everything right, I will, just
to make sure that my daughter gets everything that I didn’t have.

month’s rent.
My mom’s
always calling
from prison.
My grandma’s

phone bill is like 500-something right
now. My grandma takes the calls
‘cause she says it’s her daughter.
Besides financially, I think my grandma
also needs someone there for her,
‘cause it’s not right that she’s always
stuck inside the house taking care
of us. She needs to get out.


I have the right

Visiting an incarcerated parent can be difficult and confusing for
children, but research suggests that contact between prisoners and their
children benefits both, reducing the chance of parents returning to
prison and improving the emotional life of children. Because increasing
numbers of incarcerated parents are held at prohibitive distances from their
children, too many children are denied the opportunity for contact with
their parents. In 1978, only eight percent of women prisoners had never
received a visit from their children. By 1999, 54 percent had not received a
single visit.

■ Provide

access to visiting rooms that are child-centered,
non-intimidating and conducive to bonding.
Visiting a jail or prison is necessarily challenging for a child, but much can be
done to reduce fear and anxiety and improve the quality of the experience.
“Window visits,” in which visitors are separated from prisoners by glass and
converse by telephone, are not appropriate for small children; contact visits
should be offered except when security concerns or the nature of an offense
preclude them. In facilities such as county jails where window visits are the
norm, separate accommodations should be made for children. In facilities
where contact visits already take place, visiting rooms should be designed
with children’s needs in mind, or separate accommodations should be made for
prisoners with children. Opportunities for extended contact—onsite weekend
visits, summer camps, weekend furloughs—should be supported and extended.

■ Consider

proximity to family when siting prisons and
assigning prisoners.
Many of the prisons built in recent decades have been sited in rural counties
far from the urban centers where most prisoners come from, and where most
of their children remain. In the long run, this practice should be reconsidered.
In the meantime, proximity to family should be a priority when decisions are
made about prison assignments and transfers.

■ Encourage

child welfare departments to facilitate contact.

Children in foster care—who must depend on over-extended social workers or
foster parents to arrange and accompany them to visits—often have a particularly
hard time gaining access to their parents. At the same time, social services
departments have a legal mandate to make “reasonable efforts” to help families
reunify—and regular contact is generally a prerequisite for reunification.
One option is to establish units within child welfare departments dedicated to
serving children with incarcerated parents. Workers in these units would be
trained to deal with prison visitation and other issues specific to this population,
and could also establish long-term relationships with prison authorities in order
to facilitate contact.

Danny, 18

“When it’s hard times,
you stick together.”

I remember one time, when I was
10 or 11, my father came to pick me
up so I could meet my mom on
Mother's Day. He took me to a

Malcolm was four years old when his mother was arrested. He

prison. I remember the prisoners

lived with his grandmother until his mother was paroled nine

were sitting at tables on one side,

years later.

and we were sitting on the other,
and there was a gate in between all


really don’t remember the first couple years after my mother went to
prison, but I remember that it was a long, long time that I didn’t see my
mom. Then, maybe after the first couple years, we started seeing her once
every month or two. My mom started finding people to drop us off and
give us rides. Then it came to like twice a month.
We made the most of each visit that we had. My mom was very special
about trying to give time to each little child. Like for my sister, she would
sit there and braid her hair while she had her little private time to talk to
her. She would try to make the three-hour visits enriching.
I remember she used to teach me karate. I remember her pushing me on a
swing. Me showing her my muscles, even though I didn’t have any. Just me
being relaxed and having fun with my mother is what I remember most.
And me really realizing how much I missed her towards the end of the
visit, when someone would tell us we would have to say goodbye.
I couldn’t even begin to express to you in words how fulfilling that was to
my soul to give my mother a hug. For her to give me a kiss. For me to sit
in her lap. If I hadn't been able to do that, I would have felt very empty
then, as a child, and maybe as well now.


Prisoners who have regular visits
are SIX times less likely to reenter
prison than those who have none.

I wanted her to always be in my presence—for me to always have contact
with my mother. That’s what I always wanted. Me as a child, and me still,
growing up.

the way down. I threw a rose over
the gate.
It really messed my head up, ‘cause
you can only see your mom through
a gate, and that’s supposed to be
your blood parent. The last thing I

Family is very important in my life. And I
try always to indulge myself in that, after
having that stripped away from me.


remember is I had to turn my back
to her and leave. It was hard.

More than 60 percent of
parents in prison are held more
than 100 miles from home.

Because I didn’t have that permanent
separation—I always had contact in some
form, whether it was writing or phone calls
or visits, with my mother—I understand
the strength of a family. When it’s hard
times, you stick together. And that was just
a hard time.

That was
the last
time I saw
her until I
was 13 or

14. If there had been some time set
up where I could talk to my mom
consistently on a one-on-one basis,
I think my life would be completely
different. Just knowing I had a
mother that cared. You’re living life
solo, but there’s a mother out there
that you came from.

■ Train

adults who work with young people to recognize
the needs and concerns of children whose parents are
Any institution dealing with vulnerable youth will likely serve numerous children
of incarcerated parents. In many cases, children do not feel able to talk about
this aspect of their experience. If they express their grief instead through anger
or defiance, they find themselves disciplined, labeled, and often eventually
jailed. When adults are sensitive to the needs—not to mention the existence—
of the children of prisoners, they are better prepared to offer support instead of
stigma, and help avert this cycle.

I have the right


Children whose parents are imprisoned carry tremendous burdens.
Not only do they lose the company and care of a parent, they also must
deal with the stigma of parental incarceration, and fear for their parent’s
safety and well-being. Researchers who have interviewed children who
have experienced parental incarceration have found them vulnerable to
depression, anger and shame. One study found many showed symptoms
of post-traumatic stress reaction—difficulty sleeping and concentrating,
depression, and flashbacks to their parents’ crimes or arrests. In the face of
these difficulties, many young people will tell you that they rarely receive
the support they need as they “do time” along with their parents.

■ Provide

access to specially-trained therapists,
counselors and/or mentors.
The same issues that can make counseling valuable for many children
whose parents are incarcerated—repeated loss, heightened fear of authority,
discomfort in institutional settings, difficulty in forming trusting relationships—
can also make providing that care particularly challenging. Children need access
to therapists or other supportive adults who have the experience and training
to surmount these barriers.

■ Save

five percent for families.

Each state, and the federal government, should allocate five percent of its corrections budget to support prisoners’ families both during and after a parent’s
incarceration. This investment will likely be more than recouped via reduced
recidivism and lower rates of intergenerational incarceration. In the meantime,
trimming excessive sentences would produce the immediate savings to fund
such an initiative.

Amanda, 16

“There is more in the
world than bad stuff.”

School is hard, ‘cause I’m thinking,
“When is my mom going to get
out?” It's hard for me to concentrate. I tell my teachers and they

Shana, 19, was adopted by her aunt and uncle as a result of her

say, “Yeah, I understand, but you

mother’s addiction and repeated arrests. She was a sophomore in

still need to do your work.” My

college at the time of this interview.

English teacher helped me by just
hearing out my problems and asking


hen I was seven years old, I was taken away from my mother
because she was addicted to crack cocaine. My father was never in
the picture. He was in and out of jail.
Before I was taken away, my mom would get arrested sometimes and my
brothers and I would be on our own. I didn’t really understand what was
going on, but I knew it wasn’t right. Eventually, our lights, our phone, our
water were all turned off. I know it’s not the teachers’ responsibility, but I
wish they would have come by just to see how we were living. Just to see
that we were on our own, in a dark room sometimes, with candles.
Finally, my older brother said, “I have to tell. I can’t wash clothes. I can’t
cook every day. I can’t do all that by myself. It’s getting too hard for me.”
He went to my aunt and uncle and told them the situation, and they just
took me out of the house. My oldest brother went to another aunt’s, and
my other brother stayed with my grandmother.


Only 6 state child welfare systems have
a policy in place to address the needs of
children of incarcerated parents.

I think there should be a program to help kids cope with the fact that their
mother is arrested. Therapy, to see how the child is feeling and let them
know what's going on. I know I needed something.

me what’s wrong, how’s my day.
Me and her would eat lunch and

When I was five, I wasn’t in a five-year-old
place. I shouldn’t have been able to know
what drugs smell like, to see my mom
doing it. When a child is exposed to that
type of stuff, you can’t take it away, but
you can put them back in a child’s place by
getting them involved in childlike things.
In my community, all the resources for
kids, like the rec centers, are gone or shut
down or taken over by drugs.

discuss my problems.

I would have liked to go camping.
Horseback riding. Rock climbing. At a
young age, that’s when you develop your
talent. Drawing. Singing. Dancing. Acting.
Something like that would shown me that
there is more in the world than bad stuff.
You need to know you can go through bad
stuff, get out of it, and do so much more.
Be so much more.

They called an ambulance and she

My sister is 11. It affects her so
much. At school she sees everyone
talking about their mothers, and she
just cries. Someone was teasing her
at school ‘cause she didn’t have her
mother, and she had an anxiety
attack and couldn’t catch her breath.

was in the hospital for a week.
I think the schools should have a
daily sheet where kids can explain
how they feel, or if they need
someone to talk to. I don’t like how
for youth to get anger management,
you have to get in a fight or try to
kill someone. They should attack the
problem before it gets to that point.


I have
the right


Incarceration carries with it a tremendous stigma. Because young
children identify with their parents, they are likely to internalize this
stigma, associating themselves with the labels placed on their parents or
blaming themselves for their parents’ absence. As they grow older, many
report feeling blamed or stigmatized by others—neighbors, peers, teachers
and other authority figures, even family members—because of their parents’
situation. Some try to keep a parent’s incarceration secret. Many describe
the shame and stigma they have experienced as the heaviest burden they
carry, lasting long after a parent is released or a child grows up.

■ Create

opportunities for children of incarcerated parents
to communicate with and support each other.
The shame young people experience when a parent is incarcerated is enhanced
when they believe they are alone in their experience. The company of other children whose parents are in jail or prison—whether in support groups, recreation
programs or summer camps—can allow young people to unburden themselves
of a painful secret, learn that they are not to blame for their family’s troubles,
and perceive themselves as having potential.

■ Create

a truth fit to tell.

“If I were the one placing a child,” says Rochelle, 25, who spent her early years
with a drug-addicted mother before entering foster care, “I’d say, 'Your mom is
away in a place where she’s going to try to get some help. For now, you’ll be
placed with family members, or if not, in a foster home. And I’m going to be
there for you and with you.”
If this were the truth, it would be easier to tell. If arrest meant acknowledging
a problem and was followed by an attempt to solve it; if children knew they
would be reunited with their parent as soon as possible and well cared for in
the interim; if those who claimed custody of the parent also offered support
and solace to the child, then the criminal justice system might not be so
cloaked in shame and stigma that children felt compelled to hide their parents’
involvement in it, and view themselves as tainted as a result.

“It’s hard to find a sense
of value if everybody
tells you you’re not
worth anything.”
Early incarceration—starting with juvenile hall—marked
Rachel’s mother’s life. When Rachel was two years old, her mother
left her with her great-grandmother. At the time of this interview,
Rachel was 21 and working as a waitress. In recent years, she
and her mother have reconnected.


hen I was around six, my mother got locked up. I was already living
with my great-grandmother. I really missed my mom a lot of the
time. If she wasn't locked up, she was gone doing something else.
When I was 11, I got taken away from my great-grandmother because I
was deemed incorrigible and her home was deemed neglectful. After that,
I was in a lot of placements. I can count ten on my hands, then some of
them just blur.


1 in 10 children of prisoners
will be incarcerated before
reaching the age of 18.

In juvenile hall, a psychologist evaluated me and said I was nuts, basically.
She said I was sociopathic. I was all types of crazy. It stuck. It’s hard to find
a sense of value if everybody tells you you’re not worth anything. If you
don’t feel like you're worth it, you're never gonna do for yourself.

My mother was sent to juvenile hall when
she was a teenager. She blames that for
why she started using drugs, because she
met this girl that got her on drugs.
My mom needed someone who cared.
Someone to show her how to go to school
and invest in life. Someone to take her
camping, biking, to the water. She needed
someone to get her out of her environment.
That’s what made a difference for me.
After I was placed in foster care, I ran away
a lot, and in my runnings I would hitchhike to different cities and states. Instead
of letting the community make me feel
like I was trapped, I completely defied it.
Even in juvenile hall, I was very optimistic.
I had people that brought me books, and
I’d live in my books until I could get away.
I’d read about heroines that were kept in
towers. I read about women who survived
obstacles, and reading about survivors
made me feel like one. If they could leave
slavery and defy Rome, I could do it.

Richard, 18
I grew up with other kids whose
moms used drugs, so I knew I
wasn’t the only one. I have a couple
friends now, their moms use drugs,
and we can sit down and have a
conversation about it. It helps just to
realize that we’re not alone, and that
we can still do what we’re put here
to do, ‘cause I feel everyone was
put here for a reason.

I think for young people in my

No matter what your mom does, she’s still
a person. After a while, you realize that
people screw up. You realize that your
mom’s not the only screw-up. You either
hold it against her and have this big old
knot in your stomach, or you let it go. It
feels so much better to let it go.

situation, talking amongst each

I was able to do that when I realized that I
was probably going to go a lot farther than
my mom ever went. And that I was going
to take my mom with me—not physically,
but in my heart. That one day I’d be able
to show her something beautiful. I’m going
to show my mom the door.

you and I both told a kid not to go

other would be really good. Have
an adult present in the room to help
guide the conversation, but I notice
that it’s better if young people talk
about things amongst each other. If

touch that stove, it’s hot, he most
likely might listen to me, ‘cause I
got burned by that stove.

I have the right

Abiding family bonds are the strongest predictor there is of successful
prisoner reentry. For children, sustained attachments form the building
blocks for successful development. But changes in child welfare law—
specifically, accelerated timetables for termination of parental rights—
have increased the odds that even a relatively short sentence will lead to
the permanent severance of family bonds. When this happens, children are
forced to forfeit the most fundamental right of all—the right to remain
part of their families.


Re-examine the Adoption and Safe Families Act.
Under the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), states must begin
proceedings to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for
15 out of the past 22 months—six months if the child is under three. Dependency
cases involving children whose parents are incarcerated should be looked at on an
individual basis, and viable families preserved, whether or not sentences exceed the
ASFA timelines. ASFA should be revised to allow for such flexibility. State statute in
Nebraska prohibits filing a termination proceeding “if the sole factual basis for the
(termination) petition is that…the parent or parents of the juvenile are incarcerated.”
This statute could provide a model for federal legislation revising ASFA.
Unless and until that happens, better use should be made of what flexibility the
law already allows. Under ASFA, exceptions to the timelines for termination are
permissible under two circumstances: when a court determines that “reasonable
efforts” have not been made to support reunification, or that termination is not in a
child’s best interest. Given the minimal efforts that are generally made to maintain
contact and plan for reunification between incarcerated parents and their children—
and the obstacles even the most energetic social workers face when they do try to
support reunification—terminations in cases involving an incarcerated parent ought
to receive automatic scrutiny under the “reasonable efforts” clause. When children
enter foster care simply because of parental arrest, rather than evidence of abuse or
neglect, these cases deserve careful consideration under the “best interests” clause.
At the same time, arrested parents whose children are in, or may enter, foster care
should receive complete information about ASFA prior to any plea bargain that could
lead to a sentence long enough to trigger the ASFA timelines.

■ Designate

a family services coordinator at prisons and jails.

Incarcerated parents often have a hard time arranging visits from behind bars
and fulfilling the multiple mandates required for reunification. Investing in a staff
member whose job it is to facilitate contact and support reunification could result
in reduced recidivism and significant child welfare savings.

■ Support

incarcerated parents upon reentry.

The most basic tasks of parenting—providing food, shelter, and clothing—are made
immensely more difficult by a criminal record. Beyond the challenges of finding
work and re-establishing oneself after a forced absence, federal laws passed as
part of welfare reform bar those with felony drug convictions from receiving public
assistance. Removing felony restrictions on employment, housing, TANF and food
stamps is crucial to giving struggling families a chance to rebuild.
continued on last page

“Now I’m getting
my mama back.”
As a child, Mark, 18, cared for his younger siblings while his
mother was in and out of jail. Later, he entered foster care and
she went to prison. At the time of this interview, he was about to
emancipate from a group home and was planning to attend college.
When I was about eight, my mom started smoking crack and leaving me
home late at night. Then she’d go to jail and wouldn’t nobody know I’d be
at home watching my brothers and sisters the whole time.
When I was about nine, we were home alone and my little brother busted
his head on a piece of wood. I had to call 911, and that’s when Child
Protective Services started coming in. After that, we didn’t see my mom.
My mom’d start calling the house crying. She’d be in jail. She’d say she’s
sorry, won’t do it again. She’d get out. Do the same thing. It got to the
point where my mom was going to the penitentiary like that’s all she knew.
But she couldn’t explain it to us—that she had a problem.


Appellate cases involving termination of prisoners’ parental rights
have gone up 250% since 1997.

I got to the point where I hated my mom, but that was before I understood
what she was going through. See, she was lost. When we were with my
mom, she knew she couldn’t pay the bills. She knew she couldn’t feed us
right. She was stressin’, and the only way she could hide it was go smoke
some crack. Steal something to get more crack. When we were separated,
it made it worse.
One time, when I had just gotten out of juvenile hall, my mom brought
me something for my birthday. I knew she was my mom, but the only
time I’d felt loved was around the time when I was little—four, five, six.
Now I got that little kid feeling again.

She started coming around and taking us
out. Then she got locked up again. That’s
when I finally understood—she needs help.
‘Cause she tried to be a mom. She just
needed help.
Later on, when I was 16, we were both at
my grandma’s, just visiting. I told her,
“You’re disturbed. You need help.”
She burst out crying. Then the next day
she sat down and told me she’s going to fix
herself. The next time I talked to her, she
was doing good. She put herself in rehab
and got her a sponsor, and they’ve been
helping her. Today, she works at the church.
She’s got her own two-bedroom. And she’s
clean, about two years.


Malcolm, 17
I met a couple people that were in
foster care. I always had that over my
head—like if they say my grandma is
too old to take care of us, we might
be going to foster care. Whatever the
parent may have done, you shouldn’t
demonize or punish the child by taking the child away from everyone that
he or she has loved and tearing away
all values, all sense of family. That’s a
crime in itself to me, and it is very
saddening to me when I hear it. I
have some friends from the visiting
room and they were shipped away,
taken away from all their loved ones.
I know someone who is from the
Bay Area and his younger
sisters and brothers got
moved all the way to Texas,
‘cause they were adopted.
The older one was over 18,
so he wasn’t adopted.

The average term being
served by parents in
state prison is 80 months.

What made it happen is love from me and
my family. That little piece that’s lost—it’s
filled the gap there. At first I used to think
my mom would be dead, but now I know
she’s going to see my kids. I know she’ll see
me graduate from high school, see me go
to college.
I used to pray at night for a new mommy
and daddy. I’d see people in magazines and
go, “Oh, I wish she was my mama.” And
now I’m getting my mama back.

I didn't expect my mother to get out
till I was 26, but she was paroled
when I was 13. Because the contact
I’d had with my mother was only for a
couple hours at a time, it wasn’t easy
when she moved back in with us.
We had to get used to each other.
One thing I’d really missed was her
walking me to school. I remember
one day when she first got out, she
walked me to school. A lot of kids
are ashamed that their mom’s
walking them to school. I was so
happy for her to be in my presence,
and for the first time in my life for
my mom to even come to my
school, that I couldn’t care less
what people thought.

Right 8 continued:

Prison and jail family services coordinators could also develop pre-release
plans for parents, and refer them to community agencies that might assist
them in securing housing and employment. Probation and parole departments
could establish family service units dedicated to serving clients who are
working to re-establish themselves as parents.

■ Focus

on rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration.

The most valuable intervention on behalf of children could take place before a
parent ever saw a jail cell. Diversion programs, treatment for drug addiction,
and other rehabilitation-focused alternatives to incarceration could make a
tremendous difference to children.

Linda Evans
All of Us or None
Ruth Morgan
Community Works
Marcus Nieto
Ginny Puddefoot
Charlene Wear Simmons
California Research Bureau
Krea Gomez
Marlene Sanchez
Center for Young Women’s Development
Katie Kramer
Tara Regan

Deepest thanks go to the children of formerly and currently incarcerated parents,
and to the parents, who shared their time, stories and insights.
Thanks are also due the following, for providing introductions to young people
willing and able to speak about their experience, and for their valuable work:
Margaret Norris of the Omega Boys Club; Linda Evans, Dorsey Nunn and Donna
Willmott of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children; Christa Gannon and
Winnie Johnson of Fresh Lifelines for Youth; Jennifer Tait and Loretta Everhardt
of Friends Outside of Santa Clara County; Gretchen Newby of Friends Outside;
Lauren Ostbaum of Community Works; Geri Silva of Families to Amend
Mandatory Minimums; Sayyadina Thomas; Alfred Perez of the Pew Commission
on Children in Foster Care; Whid Medford, Amy Lemley and Deanne Pearn of the
First Place Fund for Youth; Ida McCray of Families with a Future; and Shirley
Melnicoe of the Northern California Service League.

Peter Breen
Child Welfare League of America
Omowale Satterwhite (provided
facilitation in early stages)
Community Development Institute
Sydney Gurewitz Clemens
Children of Incarcerated Parents Interest
Forum of the National Association for the
Education of Young Children
Ida McCray
Families with a Future
Gretchen Newby
Friends Outside
Judy Crawford
Carla Roberts
Martha Ryan
Homeless Prenatal Program

Cassie Pierson
Karen Shain
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Barry Krisberg
Angela M. Wolfe
National Council on Crime
and Delinquency
Valerie Lau
Shirley Melnicoe
Yolanda Robinson
Northern California Service League
Nell Bernstein
SFCIPP Coordinator
Susan Arding
San Francisco Department of Human
Jeff Adachi
Kathy Logan
San Francisco Public Defender’s Office
Karen Levine
Leslie Levitas
San Francisco Sheriff's Department
Sonja Lenz-Rashid
San Francisco State University
Clare Nolan
M. Anne Powell
UC Data Archive & Technical Assistance
Ellen Walker
Zellerbach Family Foundation