Collateral Damage: Children of Incarcerated Parents

Okay, so I’ve been talking about incarceration, ex-felons and prison reentry frequently over the last few months, but there’s good reasons for this.  With the production of our upcoming documentary film, NOT FOR RENT! and my recent workshop presentation at the InterNational Prisoners Family Conference, these topics have been on my mind a lot lately.  My presentation that I gave at the conference was entitled, The Impact of the Sex Offender Registry on the Family, which helped attendees understand what families go through when they have a loved one on the registry.  My workshop was one of dozens of break-out sessions and keynote presentations revolving around prison issues including:  Ending the Destructive Cycle of Inter-generational Incarceration, Healthy Relationships and Strong Families, Insights from France on Prisoners’ Families, Getting off Drugs and Staying out of Jail, Technology that can Reduce Mass Incarceration, and many more.  It was a wonderful experience and I hope I’m able to attend in 2017.

InterNational Prisoners Family Conference

Children of Incarcerated Parents

In addition to these powerful topics, presenters and exhibitors came to the conference to discuss what many people agree is collateral damage due to mass incarceration: Children of Incarcerated Parents.  In addition, many scholars feel that children of incarcerated parents are the “Invisible Victims” of mass incarceration while suffering a wide range of emotional problems.  So how many children are effected in the United States?  According to the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents and a special project from the Osborne Foundation, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent and approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.  In addition, the study also reports that One in 9 African American children (11.4%), 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5%), and 1 in 57 white children (1.8%) in the United States have an incarcerated parent.

To put in simply, the problem is huge.  With over 2-million people behind bars in the United States, (E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2013, Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014) I’m vested in this issue for personal reasons due to my own arrest in 2006 and the affects it has had on my teenage daughter. While I was incarcerated I had the opportunity to become close with fathers who were struggling with connecting with their children from inside prison, and in some cases not speaking or seeing their child for many years.  I even wrote a short activity book for fathers behind bars and their attempts to stay connected with their children on the outside (I also cover parental alienation).  To this day I’m still trying with all my heart to rebuild a relationship with my daughter due to my poor choices and incarceration…it’s proven to be a very slow process.  I haven’t seen my daughter since 2007 but with recent email communication, I’m happy that she’s willing to correspond even though email tends to be somewhat impersonal.   I’m unsure of the exact emotional trauma that my daughter has suffered due to my four years in prison since we haven’t even reached that level of communication yet, but research states the trauma is massive to millions of children in this country and around the world as we will see…

Adverse Childhood Experience

Parental incarceration is now recognized as an “adverse childhood experience” (ACE) ; it is distinguished from other adverse childhood experiences by the unique combination of trauma, shame, and stigma.  Kristin Turney, an assistant sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine was recently interviewed for a Education Week news article where mentioned a study that found children of incarcerated parents have higher rates of attention deficits than those with parents missing because of death or divorce, and higher rates of behavioral problems, speech and language delays, and other developmental delays.  In separate but related studies, Ms. Turney also found higher rates of asthma, obesity, depression, and anxiety.  For education, the statistics are equally dramatic: Only 1 percent to 2 percent of students with incarcerated mothers and 13 percent to 25 percent of students with imprisoned fathers graduate from college, according to a 2013 report from the American Bar Association and the White House.  Ms. Turney also went on to state in an article for Population Reference Bureau that “We know that poor people and racial minorities are incarcerated at higher rates than the rest of the population,” she says. “Incarceration is likely compounding the disadvantages their children face, setting them further behind, and contributing to racial and social class inequalities in children’s health.”  She agrees that due to the strong links between parental incarceration and children’s health, rethinking of sentencing policies is strongly recommended.


Organizations are Helping

At the 2016 InterNational Prisoners Family Conference held in Dallas this last week, I was excited to meet leaders of organizations that are reducing the trauma for children of incarcerated parents.  One such organization goes beyond the U.S. borders and into Uganda and other developing nations where children of incarcerated parents are referred to as “forgotten victims of crime and the orphans of justice”.  Wells of Hope Ministries, founded by Francis Ssuubi is a nonprofit organization with a mission “that addresses needs of prisoners and their families, with great attention being give to children with a parent in prison through sustainable and compassionate programs.”  When I met with Francis at the conference he talked to me about how his Ministries organizes trips so children are able to visit their parents in prison.  He said that these visits are “powerful times of connection” and with most of the children not seeing their parents for ten or more years the visits can be very emotional.  The Ministry also provides children with food, shelter, clothing and education and filling them with the love of Jesus.

Francis Ssuubi, Founder and Director Global Engagement of Wells of Hope speaking with Carolyn Esparza, LPC Chair, InterNational Prisoner's Family Conference

Francis Ssuubi, Founder and Director Global Engagement of Wells of Hope speaking with Carolyn Esparza, LPC Chair, InterNational Prisoner’s Family Conference

The International Coalition for Children of Incarcerated Parents (INCCIP) was also present during the prisoner family conference.  A group came together during a panel discussion on necessary steps to moving forward on issues primarily based around the children of imprisoned parents and potential ways to spread awareness about the detriment to the child and ways to strengthen families.  Though I was unable to attend the meeting I did learn about INCCIP’s first annual 2017 Conference in New Zealand at their exhibit booth.  Since issues affecting children with a parent in prison are transnational, INNIP has recognized the value in connecting individuals, families and organizations worldwide.  To learn more about INCCIP’s mission and programs, view their intro video.

During my first day at the conference, I was excited to meet Camp David of the Ozark founders, Benjamin and Grace Smith.  Their website reads: “Camp David of the Ozarks is a 501c3 non-profit Christian summer scholarship camp uniquely designed to meet the needs of children of prisoners. Children of prisoners are often considered the most at risk youth in America. We have found that a week of camp can play a significant role in giving these children a better future. Located in Rolla, Mo, Camp David began as a small rustic camp in 2004, and has steadily grown since. But camp isn’t just for the kids, each summer we have over 100 volunteers who cook meals, wash dishes, help with crafts, play games, and are just there for the kids. So come join our team in giving hope to children of prisoners!”  I spoke briefly with Benjamin and Grace about their camp and my hopes to produce a documentary in 2017/2018 on the affects on children with a parent in prison, and perhaps even build the film around their camp.  I feel that camps like Camp David of the Ozark where children can come together and not feel so alone, is a wonderful way to reduce the emotional impact these children are feeling everyday because of incarceration.

Benjamin and Grace Smith

Benjamin and Grace Smith

One organization that I’m familiar with because I was mailed their “Bill of Rights” while I was in prison, is the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (SFCIPP).  Though they were unable to attend the conference, they are doing amazing work in the field of mass incarceration and the children it affects.  They are 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.   Their life changing Bill of Rights is so powerful I will list it in its entirety.  You can also download their brochure for free.


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.

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.

Transformative Projects

Metamora Films is committed to creating educational and thought provoking films resulting in a more emotionally engaged society.   The organization’s film projects assist in expanding compassion and tolerance in order to better understand our differences and similarities matter.  As mentioned earlier in this blog, we are currently in production of NOT FOR RENT!, a documentary film that addresses the issues of housing and ex-offenders.  Though I have not officially begun organizing a production team for a future film project, I would at least like to see if there are filmmakers, producers, and directors out there that are interested in the subject of children and incarcerated parents.  My goal is to produce either a documentary or a short narrative film on this subject by 2018.  If you are interested in collaborating, please contact me anytime.

Thanks again to the wonderful people at the 2016 InterNational Prisoners Family Conference and the amazing work they are doing for children, families, the incarcerated and formally incarcerated, and anyone affected by mass imprisonment.

Matt Duhamel, Film Director/Producer

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