Lawmakers examine children of incarcerated parents

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 15-Sep-2010

University of Oklahoma sociology professor Susan Sharp estimates that there are at least 4,500 minor children in Oklahoma who have a mother in prison.

Sharp’s presentation was part of a legislative study focused on how children are affected by the incarceration of their parents. The study was requested by state Reps. Jeannie McDaniel and Jabar Shumate, both Tulsa Democrats.

Sharp said that the children of incarcerated women experience school problems, emotional problems and behavioral problems directly related to their parents’ imprisonment.

They are also at a higher risk for mental and physical health problems, drug abuse and criminal behavior. She drew on data from the 2009 Oklahoma Study of Incarcerated Woman and Their Children and the 2009 Caregivers Study.

“I hope that this study will convince my fellow lawmakers to look seriously at what can be done to help address the problems these children face,” McDaniel said. “I think the study showed that this is a serious problem in Oklahoma with long-term consequences that we should address.”

“We must help to ensure these children do not fall through the cracks and can be representative of the best Oklahoma values when they grow up,” Shumate said. “I was pleased to get the information we need to move forward on this issue.”

Judy Gann is the director of New Hope Oklahoma, an organization devoted to helping the children of incarcerated parents. She said that all children need “five promises” in order to grow up to become successful adults: positive adults, a healthy start and healthy development, effective education for lifelong learning, safe places with constructive use of time, and an opportunity to make a difference by helping others.

She said that poverty issues often combine with the incarceration of a child’s parent to take away each and every of the five promises. New Hope Oklahoma strives to give the “five promises” back to the child.

Alice Blue of the Community Services Council of Tulsa said a cost-free way of producing better outcomes for the children of incarcerated parents would be agency coordination during the arrest, sentencing, intake, incarceration, and reentry of an offender who was also a parent.

Linda Terrill, the executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy told the story of a new father who, because of the incarceration of his partner, had sole custody and responsibility for a 6-day old child. He had two jobs and no extended family living close to him.

McDaniel said a number of small-scale studies suggest that the effects of parental arrest and incarceration on a child’s development are profound and devastating.

The children may suffer from multiple psychological problems including trauma, anxiety, guilt, shame, and fear, and negative behavioral manifestations can include sadness, withdrawal, low self-esteem, decline in school performance, truancy, and use of drugs or alcohol and aggression.

The National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s study of 36 children from five to 16 years old who were participating in a visitation program at a women’s prison found that three-quarters of the children reported symptoms including depression, difficulty in sleeping, concentration problems, and flashbacks about their mother’s crimes or arrests and poor school performance.

“The impact on children of incarcerated parents is lifelong and devastating,” said McDaniel. “Organizations such as New Hope have been able to positively address some of these problems, and I would like to see the state do their part.”