The Forgotten Children of Incarcerated Fathers
By Kelly B. Kendall
The sound of slamming metal doors with automatic locks is deafening. It’s a sound I will never get used, no matter how many times I enter to facilitate InsideOut Dad® classes. It is not only loud, it echoes through the concrete hallways like nothing I have ever heard outside of a jail. The sound is emphasized by the veracity of what it means to incarcerated dads who will enter the classroom from their cell block.
Teaching incarcerated fathers about the importance of engaging with their children has been one of the most exhilarating, rewarding, and exhausting experiences in my life. It has given me a weighty epiphany that, no matter our situation or life circumstances, we all have similar hopes and dreams, worries and concerns about our children. It is rarely so profound and raw as with incarcerated fathers who not able to see, interact, hug, provide for or protect their children.
According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, “2.8 million children in the U.S. have a parent in prison, and many more minors have experienced a father or mother in jail. Research results show that when a parent is incarcerated, the lives of their children are disrupted by separation from parents, severance from siblings, and displacement to different caregivers.”
Other statistics increase substantially for children of incarcerated parents, such as abuse, neglect, poverty, and violence. The social, economic, and emotional impacts of parents who are incarcerated are clearly suffered by the children, and the National Institute of Corrections noted that, “Parental arrest and confinement lead to stress, trauma, stigmatization, and separation problems for their children. In addition to the trauma of losing a parent to jail, children face implausible uncertainty in their living arrangements, relationships with loved ones, and family financial stability. Short-term coping responses and heavy stigma are common, both of which may lead to long-term emotional and behavioral challenges and as a result, the children often exhibit a broad variety of behavioral, emotional, health, and educational problems that are compounded by the pain of separation.” (LIS, Inc. for NIC, 2002, p.1).
In addition, children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely than other children to be incarcerated at some point in their lives (Departments of Justice Appropriation Bill, Senate Report 106-404, 2001). The parents and children feel an incredible strain of separation from their families, however, parental contact can build supportive and healthy relationships that help both the parents and children, especially upon the offender’s reentry into the community.
InsideOut Dad® is focused on the “basics” including what it means to be a man and father. The key to developing good fathers is to first develop good men, which must come before focusing on fathering skills. The InsideOut Dad® program has been implemented locally at Purgatory Correction Facility, Kane County Jail, Iron County Jail and Beaver County Correctional Facility, and is also being facilitated in more than 25 state Departments of Corrections facilities and countless Federal of Bureau of Prison locations.
InsideOut Dad® is the nation’s only evidence-based fatherhood program developed specifically for incarcerated fathers. InsideOut Dad® connects inmate fathers to their families, helping to improve behavior while still incarcerated, and break the cycle of recidivism by developing pro-fathering attitudes, knowledge, and skills, along with strategies to prepare fathers for release. Incarcerated fathers get the tools they need to become more involved, responsible, and committed in the lives of their children—providing increased motivation for them to get out and stay out.
Interestingly, the annual cost of incarceration per inmate is $25,000-$40,000 depending on the state. However, the cost for materials for a prison or jail to take one incarcerated father through the InsideOut Dad® program is as little as $60 per father, and it is making a difference in recidivism.
Prisoner reentry is an entirely different subject, however, it is a serious problem due to a lack of reentry education and coaching. Each year, more than 600,000 individuals return home from prison, which has profound consequences for the children of prisoners. Research reveals a number of interesting findings, including record numbers of prisoners returning home after longer terms behind bars with inadequate assistance to aid in their reintegration, both into the community and their families. Most prisoners have difficulties reconnecting with families, obtaining housing, and securing jobs. Many prisoners remain plagued by substance abuse and health problems upon reentry into the community, which leads to ‘revolving door incarceration’, where they return multiple times due to inadequate reintegration. The cycle of imprisonment is staggering, especially in minority men and poorer areas in urban communities that are already encountering enormous social and economic challenges and disadvantages.
Children with a parent behind bars are more likely to experience: Poverty, parental substance abuse, poor academic performance, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and problem behaviors, including crime. The real victims and the forgotten are the children of the incarcerated. Many youth blame themselves for their parent being in prison, and somehow rationalize that if they would have done something different their parent wouldn’t have gone to jail. It takes a toll on their self-esteem, including sharing with their friends why their dad is not at home or why he doesn’t come to the elementary school ‘Dads and Donuts’ activity, ball games, theater productions, or weekend activities.
There are two goals with fatherhood education to incarcerated fathers: Connecting with their children, and reducing recidivism. When a father engages with his children and really takes on the role of being a dad, he provides for them and protects them, and their paradigm is shifted from being selfish to selfless, and also means that they must get—and keep—a job, so they can put a roof over their children’s heads and food on the table, and also keep them busy so they are more likely to stay away from the type of activities that will land them back in the ‘slammer’.
There are few things in life that ‘really matter’, and those things REALLY matter. When they are taken away, we tend to want them even more, and even begin to crave them. At the end of the day, one of the most important things conveyed to the incarcerated fathers is simply hope. Hope for a brighter future, and hope for the opportunity to be a dad to their children.