Through a Plate Glass Window: A Child’s Perspective on Parental Incarceration

Through a Plate Glass Window: A Child’s Perspective on Parental Incarceration

July 3, 2013 | Nichole Carlisle, Program Associate, NCCD

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It’s hard to know what to say to help people understand what it is like to be a child whose parent is incarcerated. It’s hard to help people understand the hurt, the shame, the sense of helplessness, and the profound loss that is felt when your parent is taken into custody. To experience these feelings as a child is utterly overwhelming. To discuss them as an adult is difficult at best.

It’s hard to know what to say to help people understand what it is like to be a child whose parent is incarcerated. It’s hard to help people understand the hurt, the shame, the sense of helplessness, and the profound loss that is felt when your parent is taken into custody. To experience these feelings as a child is utterly overwhelming. To discuss them as an adult is difficult at best.

I was just about to enter kindergarten when my father was taken to jail. My sister and I entered foster care shortly thereafter. We were lucky in that we had a very loving foster family who made sure that we maintained contact with our father throughout his incarceration. While my father was not thrilled with the idea of his little girls seeing him in an orange jumpsuit, I often looked forward to it.  It’s strange to think now how I looked forward to cramming into a little booth with my sister and my foster mother so that I could talk to my father on a phone through a plate glass window. Those talks with my dad were often the highlight of my week. It was how I maintained contact with who I was and where I came from.

What I remember best about that time is how angry I was. I was angry at the police for taking my daddy away. I was mad at my mom for not being there. I was mad at the baby at daycare because he had two loving parents to come pick him up at the end of the day and all I had was Bob and Amy. I can look back on it now and realize that these are natural responses to what was a very traumatic experience. But I wish that, at the time, someone had talked to me about my feelings. Not just about what had happened to me, but about how I felt about it—how I interpreted the situation and how that interpretation impacted how I felt about myself and the world around me.

Eventually my sister and I were reunited with our father. We returned home and I started kindergarten. I was the new kid in the middle of the year who somehow, at age five, felt that this experience I had lived through made me different from all of the other kids. And I was no longer angry. Now I was sad. I was shy. I was different, which, if you remember being a young child, is the last thing that you want to be. In hindsight, I wish I had had someone to talk to about those feelings. Sure, we went to see a social worker, but she worked mostly with my dad. I was happy about that because I knew that if she could help him that everything would be okay. I didn’t realize then that I needed help too. I needed to talk about my feelings and how my father’s incarceration and my time in foster care had fundamentally changed who I was and how I saw the world. I needed to know that there were other kids out there like me; at the time I was convinced that my sister and I were the only ones. I needed to not feel so alone and so alienated from other kids.

It is strange now to think that my sister and I did not talk more about that experience. I believe that, as children, we did not have the vocabulary to discuss what had happened. We needed an adult to guide us through the healing process. We did not have that. Our family did not talk about it, even over the years as my dad returned to jail time and again. And so, for many, many years, I did not talk about it either. 

Then I went to college, where I was serendipitously introduced to the field of social work. I realized that a lot of kids who went through what I went through did not end up in college. They were not honors students with scholarships. I also realized that I needed to talk about what happened to me. It was not something to be ashamed of. It was something to be proud of.

Mine was a story that needed to be shared because people need to know that kids with incarcerated parents and kids who have been in foster care are not statistics. We can be just as successful as other kids. If we can take our experiences and turn them into something positive, we are in a position to make an unbelievably positive impact in the world. We know that life isn’t fair…that it isn’t always sunshine and roses. And yet some of us have learned what it means to be resilient. We know what it is to suffer, but we also know what it means to persevere. But we need help to get there.

We need loving, supportive adults who will normalize the situation that we are in and who will help us understand that we are still loved and still cared for. We need to be given the chance to maintain contact with our parents…even if that means cramming three people into a cubby meant for one, just so we can talk to our parent on a phone, through a plate glass window, for 30 minutes. Because sometimes that 30 minutes makes all the difference in the world. 

Nichole Carlisle is a Program Associate at NCCD.