Monday, July 04, 2005


Friends and close readers know I was the court-appointed guardian of a child of an incarcerated parent (her father was deceased) from age 12-19. Before that experience, I never understood the variety of special problems -- economic, logistical, psychological -- facing children with a parent in prison and those who love them.

Family-oriented holidays like July 4 were especially hard. Even though Mom is a jerk, you've only got one, you know? Nobody loves you like your mother, and vice versa, and even when that relationship is destructive, it cannot be severed without causing significant harm.

In the last few years, a lot of new research has come out confirming my personal experience, some of which is referenced at the web page for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's GO-KIDS program, or Giving Offenders Kids Incentive and Direction to Succeed.
E.g., research shows that without intervention, children of incarcerated parents are 6-8 times more likely than other kids to adopt a criminal lifestyle. That's sure true of my daughter. By age 12, when she came to us full-time (she'd lived in the neighborhood and been very close to my family since she was five), she was deeply troubled by her isolation and strangely but profoundly guilty regarding her mother's imprisonment. Those emotions were at the root of most of her at-times-substantial misbehavior.

Nothing me, Kathy, nor any court-ordered therapist could do ever changed that, actually. Her depression was profound and moreover stemmed from something real -- the death of one parent and the incarceration of another. That kind of pain can't be overcome with drugs or therapy, though maybe time and maturity might help, down the line. It can't be wished away.

We didn't take her to visit her Mom as much as we should have, but the times we did were highly significant to her -- landmarks in time by which she measured the duration of her mother's absence. I didn't understand until late in the game how important it was. I now think it should be the state's responsibility to ensure that children get to visit their incarcerated parents if they want to do so. (Many kids never see their parents while they're inside.) Our daughter desperately needed to be able to visit her mother, maintaining (out of dire need) an unrealistic but unshakeably romanticized portrait of her loving family's relationships in the past. As a teenager, when her mother's misbehavior's on release generated new crises, those delusions proved to be extremely damaging, but they were also deep-rooted and inevitable, not something that could be argued away. My wife and I did everything within the means of a devoted middle class couple to help her and I can honestly say it was often more than we could manage. Folks with fewer resources to devote or less savvy about working the system would be completely at sea.

So if the government decides incarcerating an individual is so important they're willing to spend $16,000 per year for their upkeep, fine. But then it's only fair the state should pay for all related externalities, like travel for visitation, special tutoring, healthcare and other extra support services for that person's kids. I can assure you, that's not happening now.

Hell, we'd have benefited as parents from some counseling -- for damn sure nobody ever explained to me the basics about what to expect, what my goddaughter was going through, what we could do, or where we could turn for help. Even something as minimalist as the web links below weren't available.

Children of incarcerated parents fall broadly into two categories: those staying with a second parent, or those staying with someone else, be it a grandparent, foster parent, or, some other formal or informal arrangement. Ninety percent of Texas kids with incarcerated fathers live with their mothers, according to TDCJ, while just 28% of kids with incarcerated mothers live with their fathers. Those other kids instead reside with various relatives, friends, as wards of the state, or even alone as runaways.

Yesterday I mentioned that dyslexics made up 30% of Texas prisoners, compared to 10% among the free population. That's a big number. To learn, though, that children of incarcerated parents are
6-8 times more likely to commit crimes boggles the mind. If I'd not lived through the experiences I have, I'm not sure I'd believe it. But the psychological damage my daughter endured was systemic, not personal. Every child similarly positioned would endure the same stress. God knows I'm not sure how I'd have handled it -- given how traumatic my own mother's death was for me just five years ago, not well, I'd guess.

Certainly there are some things government cannot do. Mostly my daughter needed unconditional love and lots of personal attention and Lord knows the government can't give her that. But there are specific, targeted state expenditures that could really make a difference in these kids lives. What if the state committed to targeting two narrow groups of kids -- dyslexics and children whose mothers are incarcerated -- to receive special services as part of a long-term anti-crime solution? The needs are obvious: for dyslexics, more testing and training for more teachers, for prisoners' kids, regular visitation, personal tutoring, counseling, mentor programs, etc. Those are goals of significant but definable scope that, if achieved, would improve the lives of many troubled young Texans and substantially reduce crime.

Budgets represent values. What we spend our money on reflects choices we make based on decisions about what's important. If Texas is serious about increasing public safety and reducing crime -- not just racking up ever-higher arrest numbers -- we need to make more of these types of expenditures on the front end. Spending $16K per year on the back end to incarcerate dyslexics and troubled kids just isn't a fair or workable long-term solution.

Here are some resources from TDCJ that might be of help for folks with prisoners' children in their lives. I've added the GO KIDS logo and link permanently in the sidebar if you're looking for this information in the future:


Catonya said...

really hit home for me.
thank you for calling attention.


jdallen said...

I now see one reason for your strong, quick reaction to my opinion comment on instruction of prisoners. [I owe you an apology, too, for assuming that you were a lawyer.] As for this post – in the same vein – criminality seems to have almost a genetic tendency, doesn’t it? I feel that I can speak to this, as serial prisoners run in my family.

All things were open to those of my relatives who became repeatedly incarcerated, yet they found it inconvenient to expend the time and effort required to get an education, or the waiting and saving required to buy something they wanted, or to NOT have that one more drink. I could go on and on with examples.

I don’t know what makes some people so irresponsible – but I must have some of it, too, because I don’t feel responsible for their actions. You can only bleed so much for your family. At some point in their lives, they are going to have to pay their own way and suffer the consequences of their actions. Eventually, you must either despair or go down with them. In real life, Frodo most likely wouldn’t have made it out of the Shire, but that’s what made it a great story.

And – yes, I vote in all elections. I find candidates not in one of our two major parties and vote for them in vain hope of some sort of change – almost any sort would do. I enjoy your writing, and sometimes agree with what you post, but why would I respond just to agree? Are you doing one of those blogs where only similar opinions are accepted? Because I don’t HAVE to comment. I thought that if comments are open, a dialog is invited. I am prepared to be slammed, now.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JD, you're always welcome to comment, and I didn't realize I'd slammed you. I did think your earlier comments were a little glib.

No kid chooses to have their parent go to prison or to be dyslexic, and nobody said you're responsible, either. The question is, if teaching kids to read when they're young or helping them get healthcare, visitation access and counseling when Mom is incarcerated would keep them from robbing your house in a few years, shouldn't we do it? If not, your taxes will pay for 100% of their upkeep down the line, which I'm sure you'll also resent. Certainly some people will just be irresponsible and commit crimes no matter what. But the reasons children of prisoners are more likely to be incarcerated has nothing to do with genetics, in my experience, and everything to do with the situation in which they grew up. That's what I find ironic here: Your callous attitude actually invites more crime instead of deterring it.

Stop by anytime.

4theloveofkids said...

I have developed a coloring book to assist children of the incarcerated. There just aren't that many resources out there to help these kids. Find it at