Growing up is difficult for children and parents who live on the “outside”. Growing up with incarcerated parents is far worse. Meeting the needs of children and their non-incarcerated mothers who are in a low-income bracket (and these are the majority of incarcerated mothers), are issues that come to the attention of social workers in multiple fields of practice. Some of these children are in the child welfare system and others come into the system upon incarceration of a parent. When placed in foster care, they also may be less likely to achieve permanency through reunification with their mothers. Because more than 70 percent of incarcerated women are the primary caretakers of children, incarceration has resulted in a sharp rise in foster care demand. Incarceration elevates the risk of divorce and separation, diminishes financial resources, and increases children’s aggression, behavioral problems, and social marginalization. The child has to live with the stigma that she has a mother who is in prison, often resulting in bullying and ostracization from peers.In fact, it is the imprisonment of a parent that has the worst impact on the children’s future outcome. Incarceration in fragile families diminishes the life chances of poor children. Having parents with a history of incarceration is associated, for three-year-old children, with externalizing behaviors, such as having temper tantrums or “acting out” in other ways, but not with internalizing behaviors such as being anxious, depressed, or withdrawn.
School-aged children suffer negative changes in externalizing and internalizing behaviour. Their lives are affected by moving , new caregivers, losing touch with friends, and separation from siblings . They suffer confusion, fear, anger, guilt , and shame. Many of the children have to prematurely adopt adult roles of caring for younger siblings and trying to keep their mother off drugs or out of prison. About half of incarcerated women were teenagers when having their first child, many are pregnant when they go to prison, and some women are nursing babies at the time of admission. About half of their children have to change residences. Most incarcerated mothers are lone parents without a partner in the home to continue or step into the care -taker role., or they are involved with men who are unable or unwilling to take care of the children. The children change residence to live with grandparents, non-custodial fathers, or foster parents. Some are sent to group homes. This is usually accompanied by a change in schools and a loss of established friends. Siblings are frequently split among different households. The damages to emotional, psychological and mental well-being are significant and lifelong. Sometimes children also find themselves in physically and sexually abusive homes after they are forced to part with their mothers.
A mother-children relationship is compromised when she is released from prison since it can be difficult for a mother to regain custody. Her children may experience multiple placements which is highly destabilizing. And, according to the Child and Family Services Act of Ontario, lengthy and frequent periods in care can result in wardship. Children in foster care fair poorly in school in terms of performance, attendance, completion of homework, advancement to the next grade, and to post-secondary school. This is due to the frequent change of schools, missing school because of appointment and other issues of life in foster care. There is also a reluctance to bond with peers due to embarrassment and the anticipation of moving, difficultyconcentrating because of distractions associated with their situation, and because the focus of helpers in their lives is on other issues to do with care, so the children are less likely to receive help with schoolwork.Sometimes substitute caregivers improve children’s lives; other times they care little for their unwanted burdens. In all cases, the mother/child relationship suffers under such difficult conditions.
When Cheyenne was 13, her mum was caught trying to smuggle drugs into prison and earned herself a four-year sentence.As a result she has been moved around a lot, living with different relatives across south Wales. She is one of the growing number of children living apart from a mother locked up in prison. Cheyenne found it hard to cope. “I was angry and disappointed. I used to watch Bad Girls on the telly and it’s rough what they used to get up to and I’d think – ‘Is that what my mum’s doing?'” She ended up living with her granddad. She didn’t have a room of her own so slept in her aunt’s bed or on the sofa. Her belongings were kept in carrier bags.She had relatively few possessions. Diana Ruthven, from the charity Action for Prisoners’ Families, says it’s particularly difficult for children of Cheyenne’s age.”Being a teenager is a very transitional time, during which it’s particularly difficult to be without your mother,” she says.”In some ways, it’s more difficult for teenage children to be without a parent than it is for younger children.”Cheyenne was entitled to an hour-long prison visit once a fortnight. But the prison was in Gloucestershire – over 50 miles from her new home in south Wales so she only managed to visit five times in two years. Ahead of her latest visit Cheyenne experienced mixed emotions. “I am excited, nervous, scared. Teachers at school can tell when I’ve got a visit coming up because I am over-hyperactive and can’t shut up.”
“At least we’re able to hug and kiss at this prison. At other prisons they weren’t allowed because of the drugs which were being passed through lips. We weren’t even allowed to hold hands, but I did anyway and I made sure they saw it. Because at the end of the day, that’s my mum.” With only an hour to catch up, there is always a lot to squeeze in. As well as chatting about hair and nails, Cheyenne has to confess that she’s had problems at school. Being locked up doesn’t stop mum Yasmin giving her a ticking off: “Cheyenne you’ve got to learn to be humble. Do as I say not as I do.”
Before she knows it, the time is gone and it is time for Cheyenne to leave. Cheyenne’s mother welcomes visits from her daughter but mothers often don’t want to be visited by their family. Women don’t want their children to see them in jail, so they don’t have their families visit as often as men do. When Cheyenne’s mother was released life was more complex than either of them could handle. “She oozes attitude. I hear her on the phone saying ‘Shut up’ to someone older than her. She wasn’t brought up like that so we’ve got to sit down and have a good talk. I’ve got my hands full. I am not saying her attitude is to be expected, but sometimes her actions are because of me. And because of my guilt I allow her to get away with things,” her mother explains. Life together again meant sharing a cramped one-bedroom flat. And unused to each other’s company, tempers soon flared.
Cheyenne said: “It’s like she’s come back and wants to be in control straight away. I don’t like it one bit. She’s got to realise I am not a little girl like I was when she went away. I was all excited when she come out but now I don’t know what I want.” The arguments increased over the months until Cheyenne decided to move out. Now, she’s back in Wales where she’s living in a hostel for homeless teenagers. Cheyenne’s case is typical of children whose parents are released from prison. Often, they find it difficult to go back to their old lives.
The New Delhi prison, one of Asia’s largest, allows mothers to keep their children with them until the child turns five. While the environment does have a family orientation it’s still very much a prison where kids serve time with their mothers. The arrangement is not without its nurturing aspects. Female prisoners run a sort of playschool where they spend their day from 9 to 5. At the end of the day, the kids enjoy the bonds of motherhood but they do so within prison walls. Those there since birth know of no other life. And after the age of five, the kids must leave the prison for another home on the outside, a hostel, with relatives, or perhaps even on the street. A few states offer programs where newborns can stay with qualified mothers for varying lengths of time. In California for example, female inmates selected as fit mothers can live together with young children in small community-based facilities. Called “crime’s invisible victims,” children whose mothers are sent to prison can range anywhere in age, from several weeks to 18 years old. Even children as young as 14 months old may have vivid memories of visiting their mother in jail, or live out their childhood in the foster care system,without their birth mother at all.
Unlike those who grow up in a traditional family setting, these children may have no fond memories of baking cookies with their mothers or taking family vacations with her. Instead, “quality time” is spent talking to their mothers through bulletproof glass or watching as guards lead her into a metal cell. Children of incarcerated mothers grow up with the stigma of knowing that their mother’s “home” is a place that society considers disgraceful and instead of feeling proud to have a positive example, the child feels ashamed and rejected, angry and confused alone in a world that has difficulty understanding their situation. Often, these children cannot understand why their mother would want to be away from them. Similar to children of divorced parents, they often reason that it is somehow their fault she no longer wants to take care of them, even when told otherwise. According to statistics, such children are six times more likely to end up in prison when one or both parents have been incarcerated. Thus, along with imprisoned mothers, children become figuratively “locked” behind the metal bars of the U.S. prison system, thrown into a cycle that is hard to stop—whose ripples extend far beyond just the crime committed. Amazingly, children are more likely to be sent to live with their grandfather before their own father! This means that hundreds of thousands—approximately 1.9 million children across the country—live without both their father and mother.
Frances Franco, 42, who served a four-year sentence for selling drugs from her apartment in Astoria, Queens, before being released in 1990, said she was addicted to crack at the time of her arrest. Her children — three sons ages 24, 22 and 11, and a 17-year-old daughter — recall that she was seldom home then, but that there was always food on the table. After she left, the family unraveled. Her two older sons dropped out of school and went to jail for selling drugs. The daughter and the youngest son lived with their grandmother in the Bronx until child welfare officials removed them because of beatings by their step-grandfather. Before their mother’s release, the 11-year-old boy had been in two foster homes and the daughter in three group homes. The family is now back together, but the wounds of separation persist. The youngest son looks to his sister, not to Ms. Franco, for mothering. One older brother is in college, but the other is back in jail, at Rikers Island for violating his parole after a robbery conviction.
The daughter attempted suicide two years ago. She remains angry at her mother, who now counsels others about substance abuse and AIDS. “We did a lot of suffering,” said the daughter, who now has a 2-month-old son. “Because of her actions we didn’t get the right education, we weren’t treated right, we got the short end of the deal.” Children with incarcerated mothers also worry about the stigma. While her sister tells people her mother is in Las Vegas, Elizabeth C., 11, whose mother went to prison two and a half years ago, says she still does not know how to handle questions from schoolmates.
Many mothers lie to their children, especially the younger ones, about their whereabouts and say they are away at college or a job. But child psychologists warn that this may lead some children to feel abandoned, and many advise that it is better for children to know the truth. Tamika W., a chubby 11-year-old with dimples, visits her mother at Bedford Hills every weekend, driven by the nuns who care for her. Tamika lives at My Mother’s House in Long Island City, Queens, a home for children with mothers in prison, sponsored by St. Joseph’s Services for Children. Her mother is serving 15 years to life for two counts of drug possession.Tamika wishes she could see her mother after school or call her on the telephone. Only her mother can call from prison, collect. Many mothers are sent to faraway prisons, making it difficult and expensive for their children to visit regularly. One family in Niagara Falls travels 10 hours each way to Bedford Hills to see their mother.In New York, child welfare officials can terminate parental rights if a mother fails to maintain regular contact with her children by telephone and in visits. But advocates for the women and some judges say that prisoners are not in a position to control visits, either because of logistical problems or because they are repeatedly transferred among prisons. Many mothers feel guilty about the lasting damage their incarceration and absence can cause their children. Ms. Franco, for one, takes much of the responsibility for the troubles her children have gone through growing up. But her two sons blame themselves for their criminal behavior.
The oldest, who is going to college, works part time and plans to attend law school. Speaking on the condition that his name not be used, he said he had used his experiences to turn his life around. “The only way you can get rid of your past is burying it, by putting all the good things on top of it,” he said. Ms. Franco’s 22-year-old son, Daniel Caro, said he too wanted to straighten out his life. He said he planned to do demolition work when he left Rikers. From jail, he offered unconditional love to his mother.”I love my mother,” he said. “She can do a million wrongs and she would always be right.”