Let’s not victimize the children of incarcerated parents
Investing in their education and support pays off for everybody
February 21, 2016 12:00 AM
By Anna Hollis
Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections, John Wetzel, is on point: Connecting children of incarcerated parents to high-quality early-childhood education, mentoring and other social services produces an amazing return on investment both in human and financial terms.
Mr. Wetzel this month announced a joint effort through the departments of Corrections, Human Services and Education to install a Child Resource Center in every state correctional facility’s visiting area. As a leader in supporting children and families, Amachi Pittsburgh gives a standing ovation to all the partners involved.
For much too long, innocent children have been invisible, silent victims of crime because their parents have been incarcerated. Finally, they are beginning to get the attention and care they deserve.
Eighty-one thousand Pennsylvania children have parents or guardians in state prisons alone (not counting federal or county facilities), and we now have a tremendous opportunity to reach more of these precious kids early on.
Many children and families lack the means to visit loved ones in prison to take advantage of vis-iting-room services, but this type of forward thinking nevertheless helps accelerate Amachi Pittsburgh’s “Victims No More” campaign to amass support across Pennsylvania for these unin-tended victims of crime.
Why is this so important?
1. We have almost as many kids with a parent behind bars as we do students in all of Pennsyl-vania’s state universities.
2. None of these young people ever asked to be a victim of a parent’s incarceration, yet they have, often suffering homelessness, poverty, inadequate education, trauma and poor health. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who experience trauma are more likely to struggle with learning difficulties and behavioral issues, including aggression and social problems.
3. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to get pulled into the criminal justice system themselves. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that, without adequate support, many will follow in their parents’ footsteps. In fact, two-thirds of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have had an incarcerated parent.
4. The high rate of incarceration in America, with its associated outrageous costs, is unsus-tainable. In Pennsylvania alone, the cost of imprisonment far outpaces investment in educa-tion and support for our children. Keeping a future generation out of prison and going to school or working instead would be great for society and for the economy. Plus, we’d save a boatload of taxpayer dollars.
5. Early intervention, mentoring and family strengthening work! National studies prove it, as does Amachi Pittsburgh. An evaluation conducted through the University of Pittsburgh found that Amachi has a 92 percent success rate in helping young people avoid the criminal justice system into adulthood. Support and guidance help young people become contributors to ra-ther than a drain on society.
Recognizing that you can’t effectively support a child while ignoring his or her family — even when broken — is key to providing the holistic, family-oriented programming that produces such impressive results. But Amachi hasn’t done it alone: We’ve capitalized on caring hearts among faith- and community-based organizations.
Churches, synagogues and mosques all play an important role in making connections and ex-tending a helping hand to children and families without regard to the stigma of parental incar-ceration. Schools, fraternities and sororities have made a difference, along with the generous grant-makers and donors who make it all possible.
But I’ve been most impressed by the young people we serve, particularly our Amachi ambassadors, who emerge as teen leaders by tackling the myths and stigma of parental incarceration and educating the public. They learn how to make change through civic engagement.
Right now there is a huge push for re-entry programs that help reintroduce former prisoners into society, which makes a lot of sense. After all, folks who have been locked up return home in droves every year.
But it’s also time that we build on Mr. Wetzel’s call to realize that the “best re-entry program is NO entry.” Prevention is essential, and spending at the local, state and federal level should reflect that. We could avoid the costs of incarceration — about $40,000 per year for adults and more than $100,000 per year for juveniles — in favor of education and the type of enriching support that organizations like Amachi Pittsburgh can provide at a much lower price ($2,500 per year).
We recognize that children of incarcerated parents are victims, too, and that is why we focus on ensuring that innocent children and families are Victims No More. A world of possibilities awaits us, if we just invest more in our children.
Anna Hollis is executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh (amachipgh.org).
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