More than 5.1 million U.S. kids have a parent who has served time, including 65,000 in New Jersey
NEWARK — In a new KIDS COUNT report released today, A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities, the Annie E. Casey Foundation recommends policy reforms that would help millions of children who struggle with emotional and financial instability as a result of having an incarcerated parent.
More than 5 million children in the United States have experienced the separation of a parent due to incarceration, including 65,000 in New Jersey, or 3 percent of the state’s child population. Although the overall societal and financial implications of mass incarceration have prompted calls for reform from policymakers, advocates and activists, the needs of children who face increased risks and significant obstacles in life are usually overlooked.
Research shows that the incarceration of a parent can have as much impact on a child’s well-being as abuse or domestic violence. Yet while states spend heavily on corrections, few resources exist to support those left behind. The new report offers commonsense proposals to address the increased poverty and stress that children of incarcerated parents experience.
“While unlike most states, New Jersey has reduced its prison population by 26 percent, more can be done to help minimize the trauma children face when separated from a parent due to incarceration,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
“Our nation’s overreliance on incarceration has left millions of children poorer, less stable and emotionally cut off from the most important relationship of their young lives,” says Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation. “We are calling on states and communities to act now, so that these kids – like all kids – have equal opportunity and a fair chance for a bright future they deserve.”
The Foundation’s three policy recommendations are:
1. Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return.
2. Connect parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment.
3. Strengthen communities, particularly those disproportionately affected by incarceration and reentry, to promote family stability and opportunity
The Foundation calls for the following:
• Consider the impact on kids and families when making sentencing and decisions about where parents will be confined.
• Require courts to inform local social service agencies and community-based organizations when a parent is incarcerated so he or she can connect with families.
• Build family connections and offer programs and resources tailored to children with incarcerated parents.
• Provide family counseling and parenting courses through prisons and in neighborhoods.
• Create additional pathways to employment for ex-offenders with anchor institutions, such as hospitals and universities, to ensure economic inclusion.
• Direct more funds toward prison education and training for in-demand jobs to help parents resume their role as providers once released.
• Minimize the negative effects of a criminal record once a parent has successfully reentered society through “ban the box” policies.
• Facilitate access for affected families to financial, legal, childcare and housing assistance.
• Enable families impacted by incarceration to access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs to cover basic needs and become self-sufficient.
• Provide incentives to housing authorities and private landlords to allow people with records to access safe, affordable housing.
New Jersey is already implementing these recommendations. New Jersey’s Opportunity to Compete Act or “ban the box” law became effective March 1, 2015.
For close to 10 years the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) has provided parenting programs to help offenders reconnect with their families once released from prison. These programs focus on managing expectations of their children and themselves, appropriate parenting and helping them regain the trust of their children and other family members.
Highlights from the NJ Department of Corrections’ 2014 Annual Report include the following:
• The department implemented mandatory education legislation that stipulated that inmates should be reading at a 12th-grade level within 10 years of their release dates. The average monthly enrollment was 2,171 inmates, a 38 percent increase from 2013.
• In 2014, the pass rate on GED exams for people serving time was 74 percent. Fourteen inmates at a facility for women received their associate’s degree from a community college.
• The NJDOC and the Department of Human Services developed a protocol to ensure that inmates are enrolled in Medicaid upon their release from prison.
• The NJDOC continues to offer programs centered on supporting inmate reentry. These programs focus on emotional wellness and encourage personal responsibility for individuals once they are released from prison.
More recently the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) successfully piloted a Fatherhood Program at the NJ Training School. While small, pre- and post-tests demonstrated that participants saw significant improvement in all areas – relationship skills, parenting skills, fathering skills, caring for self, and self-awareness. Because residents who are fathers are dispersed at programs throughout the state, the JJC is seeking federal grant funds to expand the initiative to other programs.
“It is the Juvenile Justice Commission’s goal to provide our residents with the skills they need to be successful when they return home, said Kevin M. Brown, Executive Director. “We have a unique opportunity to work with our residents who are fathers to help them learn about themselves and develop the skills they need to provide love and support to their children. The 24/7 Dad program has demonstrated positive results that can have lasting impacts on our families.”
Detailed recommendations can be found in A Shared Sentence, which will be available April 25 at 12:01 a.m. EDT at www.aecf.org/resources/a-shared-sentence. Additional information is available at www.aecf.org.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation creates a brighter future for the nation’s children by developing solutions to strengthen families, build paths to economic opportunity and transform struggling communities into safer and healthier places to live, work and grow. KIDS COUNT® is a registered trademark of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For more information, visit www.aecf.org.