When parents go to prison, the children suffer. The loss of a parent to prison can precipitate trauma and disruption that few experience without serious consequences.
When children are present at the arrest of their parent, the loss of separation can be compounded by powerlessness, and violence. The image of the person they love and respect being hand cuffed and taken away is devastating. Even for children who do not witness the arrest, the image is terrifying.
Fuelled by negative media images, children imagine the worst about their parent’s condition, regardless of their parenting or what their parent has done. Families and children rarely have information about the arrest, and justice process. They have no idea how, when and if they will ever see the arrested person again.
Many times, children of prisoners are not told the truth about where their imprisoned parent is. This leaves children confused and questioning.
Children with parents in prison feel vulnerable and unprotected and at fault. When children blame themselves for the loss of a parent to prison, they may rebel or withdraw. They are often afraid to talk to anyone about their situation, limiting the ability of others to understand and help.
Many children of prisoners exhibit symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder (with or without hyperactivity) and attachment disorders. Most children of prisoners are cared for by family members. Some remain in stable environments while others are moved to new communities or schools. Many children are plunged into economic hardship or deeper poverty as a result of the imprisonment of a parent.
As caregivers struggle to cope, some children will be exposed to the new or continued substance abuse of family members. They may also experience sexual or physical abuse. Children who are placed in foster care, often endure multiple placements and are at increased risk.
Children with parents in prison feel stigmatized even when they live in communities where many people have family and friends who are in prison. Some children even appear to be boastful as they defend against the pain and embarrassment.
Often, young people feel unable to talk about their pain with school friends or their peers and are teased and isolated. One risk factor continuously associated with delinquency in children is parental imprisonment. Often these children struggle with behavioural and social difficulties, which reflect a common dysfunction in their family / whanau.
Children of prisoners, who live with any or all of these conditions and risk factors, have difficulty in school and experience both academic and school failure.
Public reaction often dismisses the experiences of children of prisoners viewing them as not needing intervention, or are beyond help due to the complexity of the issues.
Visits to a parent in prison are usually helpful in keeping children connected to their parents. There are often however, behavioural reactions after visits as children adapt or re-adapt to their loss. These behaviours are difficult and can cause adults to recommend against visiting the imprisoned parent.
Studies show that most children are able to manage the crisis of parental imprisonment when they visit their parents. But it usually takes time for children and families to cope with the feelings that prison visiting brings. While not visiting is sometimes easier on the emotions in the short run, out of sight is not out of mind. Distance leaves a lot of confusion, questions, imagined dangers and fears for children to deal with. These feelings may show up in problem behaviours at home, school or both and can be harmful to the child over time.
Providing a mentor for these children will bring them new hope and direction. Children of prisoners can make many contributions to their communities. The more caring adults in their lives, the more likely they will develop into happy and productive adults themselves.
Most children of prisoners need: