Putting Kids First When a Parent is Incarcerated

By Patrick McCarthy

Alisha Murdock remembers the moment in her life when she essentially became an adult, responsible for fending for herself and finding her own way.

She was 11 years old.

Neighbors came to pick her up from her middle school in northern California because her mother had been arrested. Alisha returned to a ransacked apartment, the result of what she now realizes must have been a police raid. The door was smashed in. Mattresses cut. And no one was there to answer basic questions: Where would she sleep? Who would take care of her? What now?

No one ever showed up to answer those questions. She was alone.

“At that age, I didn’t have contact information for my family,” recalls Alisha, now 24. She and her mom weren’t in the habit of telling people their business, and her father, who lived in another state, had been arrested the previous summer while she was visiting. She packed up what she could and remembers thinking, “Now I have to figure stuff out.”

Not every child's story is the same as Alisha's, but, like her, far too many kids and families are left to figure things out for themselves — whether it's where they'll live, how they'll make ends meet or how they'll handle the trauma of separation and people's judgment — when a parent is incarcerated. And far too often, the various agencies and organizations that serve kids and families, including the ones that should have been there for Alisha, fail to step in to help guide them through one of the toughest periods in their lives.

According to the latest estimates, more than 5 million U.S. kids — many of them younger than 10 — have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their lives. That number only includes children who lived with that parent. Kids of color, particularly black children, are much more likely to have a parent behind bars than their white peers.

For these children, what may already be a difficult life becomes even harder. Their families struggle with lost income, frequent moves and broken relationships. Their parents’ criminal histories raise new obstacles upon release: Stable, steady jobs and housing can remain elusive as employers and landlords alike shy away from individuals with a record. And their communities, many of which are burdened with high poverty and incarceration rates, tend to be ill-equipped to provide the kinds of schools, housing and resources that could bolster kids and families dealing with the devastating and multifaceted toll of incarceration.

But if we changed the way our correctional systems, courts, schools and community- and faith-based organizations work and communicate with one another, we could make a challenging — and, at times, even treacherous — road easier for children to travel. We could help strengthen their families and communities so that they can, in turn, provide the financial and emotional support that kids need.

Take Alisha: She spent years of her childhood bouncing from one friend’s house to another as her mother went in and out of the system. She didn’t tell anyone who didn’t already know about her situation what was going on in her life. Even as her inner turmoil surfaced in the form of fights and acting out at school, her teachers asked no questions. No one from a police department or social service agency checked to see if she was all right. She made her way into adulthood driven by a strong sense of what she didn’t want — with little else guiding her beyond her own sense and the mentors she discovered along the way. She learned life skills, such as what foods to refrigerate to extend their shelf life and how to put on makeup, through trial and error.

Today, Alisha uses her experiences to help other young people dealing with a parent’s incarceration.

But it didn’t have to be that way. More importantly, it shouldn’t be that way for any child. What if someone had been waiting for her at school or at home to answer her questions and help her find relatives or a stable family to live with? What if someone had been there to make sure she had what she needed to deal with her anger, fear and embarrassment as her mother came and went in her life? What if someone at school or in her community had asked why she was acting out?

No debate about mass incarceration should lose sight of the children, families and communities left behind when a parent is serving time. They share in prison and jail sentences long after the gavel falls, and our nation stands to lose alongside them if we continue ignoring the burdens they shoulder with little or no support.

For Alisha, the day she came home to an empty, raided apartment stands out as “the one time in my life that I wish there had been a social worker around.

“I feel like I would have had that chance to live with somebody and build stability,” she says. “Life wouldn’t have been so difficult.”

Millions of children are living in the shadow of their parents’ sentences, unable to dream big dreams for their future because they and their families are consumed with the real loss, anger and fears of their present. It’s time we made their lives less difficult. It’s time we let kids be kids.

Patrick McCarthy is president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Foundation recently published A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parent Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities.