Offer Hope, Restore Dignity, & Transform Lives

What can be done for children with incarcerated parents?

By Greta Compton

There are few things more heartbreaking than seeing families who are affected by incarceration fall apart because they aren't aware of family social services that are available to them.

Through my experience in Indianapolis as the current program coordinator of Volunteers of America Indiana's TANF program, a past treatment counselor at our behavioral health clinic, and a past social worker at the Indiana Women's Prison, I have interacted a lot with families trying to deal with issues stemming from parental incarceration.

I have seen a grown man cry because his son told him that he didn't want him as a father anymore. I've seen mothers lose hope of ever seeing their children again. And I've seen children struggle with trying to deal with the complexity of having a parent in prison.

Can you imagine being a child, trying to understand where your mother or father was taken, why they were taken, and who took them? Since children often don't know how to handle their emotions associated with incarceration, they may react in several different ways. For example, they may withdraw from their parents, act out in school, or distrust authority figures, police, and the law.

To make things worse, the problem is often exacerbated because their caregiver may be too embarrassed about the family's situation to tell other people, so they don't get the help they need in school or in other situations. Indiana also has the second highest rate of children with an incarcerated parent in the nation.

So, what can be done to help children dealing with parental incarceration?

  1. Educate children about how they can cope. A few years ago, because of the success of our Look Up and Hope alex_-_sesame_street_character.jpgprogram, Volunteers of America helped Sesame Street produce a new character named Alex, and online resources with the intent to help children learn how to handle the complex issue of incarceration. It provides activities to help children learn how to cope with the complex feelings, emotions, and situations they may encounter as a result of parental incarceration. Learn more on their website, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.
  2. Visit websites such as youth.gov, childwelfare.gov, and parentinginsideout.org for more tips about helping children.
  3. Raise awareness of community resources for families in this situation. For example, the program that I am in charge of (the TANF program) helps fathers with a felony find a job, have healthy relationships with their family through individual and group counseling, and find stable independent housing.
  4. Be kindly aware of the situations that families may be in. Be compassionate when interacting with children - you never may be sure of what they're trying to deal with.
  5. Donate to a nonprofit organization who provides services and counseling for children who have a parent in prison, such as our Look Up and Hope program in Marion County. These resources will help children learn more about the possibilities of the future besides incarceration.

Through these means, the community can help families affected by incarceration and reduce recidivism and crime in the future. There's nothing better than to see children in a stable family again, flourishing in their environment and moving forward to break the cycle of poverty and incarceration.

For more information about the TANF program, contact Greta Compton at gcompton@voain.org