Serving the Whole Family of an Incarcerated Person

Serving the Whole Family of an Incarcerated Person

August 7, 2013 | Dee Ann Newell, Executive Director, Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind


I was recently honored as a Champion of Change by the White House for my 25 years of work on behalf of children whose parents are incarcerated. Like many children of prisoners whose parents miss the important events in their lives, I wished my own parents were able to witness the occasion.

I was recently honored as a Champion of Change by the White House for my 25 years of work on behalf of children whose parents are incarcerated. Like many children of prisoners whose parents miss the important events in their lives, I wished my own parents were able to witness the occasion.

As a kid coming of age in the 1960s South, I intended to become a human rights activist, particularly on behalf of children. When I began working with incarcerated parents, their children, and youthful offenders 25 years ago, I found I had a special affinity for these children who were separated from their parents.

My own father and I were separated for more than a year in the 1950s when he was institutionalized in our state mental hospital, a place with bars on the windows and that children were not allowed to visit. Consequently, I experienced the stigma of a child who is forcibly disconnected from a parent. Seeing my dad placed in a straitjacket, struggling, and taken away in the dark of night is similar to what children of incarcerated parents witness at the arrest of a parent.

It is very hard to dim the memories of trauma caused by separation from a parent; they linger over a lifetime. My traumatic separation was 57 years ago, but I am still affected. The children with whom I work—both those who know their parents and those who only know of them—grieve their losses. The grief and anger, the sense of isolation and loneliness, the careful secret-keeping, the anxiety—all of these experiences are palpably painful to our children for whom trauma is inflicted by mass incarceration. These experiences are also unnecessary, as many of our incarcerated parents could be diverted into productive programs that prevent the parent-child separation.

Until the White House event earlier this month to honor 12 “Champions for the Children of Incarcerated Parents,” federal policies to address or soften the impact of criminal justice practices on these children have NOT existed—with the exception of the agreement by the Bureau of Prisons and US Marshals to end the shackling of incarcerated women during labor and childbirth. Our failure to adopt needed policies and offer funding for long-term support of children and families affected by incarceration has been a recipe for mental health difficulties that impact many children throughout their lives.

I have learned over 25 years that we cannot expect positive outcomes by serving the children alone and only during the period of separation. That is why Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind provides supportive services to affected families over a sustained period, initiating our work with children, parents, and families at pre-entry through reentry, and often years beyond. We serve the entire family, as they define their family. We have a “no drop” policy that allows families to resume services with little administrative processes. We employ a trans-disciplinary team of staff with varied backgrounds and expertise, borrowing elements of multi-systemic therapy and Assertive Community Treatment. We regard ourselves in the original role of social workers, defined as “family friends.” We avoid office-based services, instead offering in vivo services where the clients are most comfortable and the risk of “us” and “them” is avoided. We offer peer-led support groups, home visiting, art camps, self-advocacy services, leadership training for all family members, counseling, and peer-led educational forums. These families are the experts and we contract with them for their expertise.

We know that ensuring the well-being of these children and families requires sensitized, caring communities. These communities need sufficient funding, training, and targeted resources. Further, as we look beyond the impact of separation of children and parents by incarceration, we find other harmful barriers faced by homecoming parents. We need a repeal of the federal ban on TANF access by drug felons. Remembering that these individuals already have been punished, we should remove employment bans to the extent possible.

Finally, we need to make concerted efforts to diminish the extant risk factors in the lives of children of the incarcerated that precede a parent’s involvement in the criminal justice system. These include the cascade of harmful events that accompany poverty, living in communities of violence, addiction, unemployment and underemployment, low literacy, hunger insecurity, and the dreadful racism that abounds within the criminal justice system and in our communities. Without a focus on these risk factors, we will only soften some of the collateral damage of parental incarceration without addressing the actual problems.

As a student of restorative justice, I must also mention dismantling the prison-industrial complex, using restorative justice principles to ensure restorative resolutions rather than our megalithic, one-size-fits-all remedy of punishment. Where is the opportunity to learn from the harm committed and the reconciliation that is so meaningful between the offender and victim? Our craving for retribution needs to end. We need less vengeance and more compassion.

A compassionate response to mass incarceration would include treating addictions and mental illness without separating children and parents. Intensive family development services, rather than incarceration, could be court-ordered. Economic instability could be rectified with micro-lending, cottage industries for entrepreneurial positions, and job coaching. Why not part-time work in lieu of parents working full time at low wages and then paying for costly child care? Why not co-op child care where parents log time as providers and no money is exchanged, while they learn child care skills for future employment? Even more significantly, where is the dignity so needed for those who have paid for their crimes?

My hope is that our continuing work, combined with a campaign initiated by this White House to provide more support to children of incarcerated parents, will bring forth more empathy and caring communities with the will and the resources to reduce mass incarceration. We must use this occasion to elicit greater sensitivity, compassion, and the political will to make the needed changes; if not, we will have failed to make the best use of these White House initiatives and we will once more fail these children.

I have already been more than blessed to do this work for 25 years, but I know there is much still to be done, as the children are waiting.

Dee Ann Newell is the executive director of Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind. Her organization has offices in five major counties of the state. In 2006, she received the US Senior Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Institute to provide technical assistance to 14 states seeking to improve policies and practices for children of the incarcerated, particularly those who entered the child welfare system. She was recently honored at the White House as a Champion of Change for her work with children of incarcerated parents over the past 25 years.