Hewing a Stone of Hope Out of a Mountain of Despair: The Children of Incarcerated Parents’ Bill of Rights
“The children of prisoners are guaranteed nothing. They have committed no crime, but the penalty they are required to pay is steep. They forfeit, too often, much of what matters to them: their homes, their safety, their public status and private self-image, their primary source of comfort and affection. Their lives and prospects are profoundly affected by the multiple institutions that lay claim to their parents—police, courts, jails and prisons, probation and parole—but they have no rights, explicit or implicit, within any of these jurisdictions.” – San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership
An estimated 2.7 million children nationwide are left behind by having at least one parent in jail or prison. In 2003, the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (SFCIPP) developed a Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents, based on the experiences of children. Nell Bernstein, with her groundbreaking book, All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, helped to launch this initiative. In 2005 they deepened the blueprint by launching the Rights to Realities Initiative, outlining steps toward implementation. In case you are not familiar with them, here are the eight rights:
1. I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent's arrest.
2. I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me.
3. I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent.
4. I have the right to be well cared for in my parent's absence.
5. I have the right to speak with, see and touch my parent.
6. I have the right to support as I face my parent's incarceration.
7. I have the right not to be judged, blamed or labeled because my parent is incarcerated.
8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.
If you work with children or with prisoners, it is obvious to you that each one of these rights is violated every day through the policies, practices, and lack of resources affecting children and families of prisoners. Of course, advocates for children cannot simply sue to enforce these rights; it is up to us, listening to the children and families affected, to effectuate policies and programs to bring these rights into reality.
Based in needs that children and families themselves articulated, this Bill of Rights does not list the child’s right to have a mentor, but you wouldn’t guess that by how resources are allocated. The greatest federal funding has been devoted to mentoring programs, which seem to outnumber programs that support parent-child visits by more than two to one nationwide. There are 52 mentoring programs listed in the resource directory of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, and just 24 programs that specifically support children’s visits with their parents.
The lack of resources and of sound policy reflects the lack of respect for families impacted by the criminal punishment system. It reflects the racism that the past week’s national response to events in Ferguson is challenging. Many are hoping that this tragedy and others like it may become the opportunity for true dialog and substantial change; in the meantime, advocates and families of prisoners are striving to make these rights realities.
Due in large part to the efforts of advocates such as SFCIPP, organizations around the country are working to develop awareness of children’s needs. The Osborne Association, Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, and others are working to support children, reduce stigma, and improve policy. Soros Fellow Dee Ann Newell of Arkansas Voices convened 14 state coalitions under the Bill of Rights Initiative to work on implementing rights at the state and local level. Several coalition partners worked on law enforcement training and arrest protocols to address the needs of children. Some worked on child-friendly visit programs, resulting in establishment of contact visits for children of parents in pretrial detention, with toys, books, and appropriate furniture. Visits in jail usually take place through Plexiglas no matter how young the child is, preventing meaningful parent-child visits, so these programs, though few and underused, are crucial for the children they serve. Newell found that being part of the national coalition gave traction to state efforts, although they were limited by prevailing political will. Several cities initiated Family Impact Statements at sentencing so that courts will consider children’s needs, weighing in context of the harm done by the offense and the harm that will be done to the family by a parent’s prison sentence. Several states have reduced permanent termination of parental rights by extending the reunification period mandated by the Adoption and Safe Families Act, so that children in foster care can reunite with parents after release. The White House has shown support for greater awareness and more research into best practices.
Recently the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs along with the International Association of Chiefs of Police released a model policy, Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents, to guide police interaction with children when a parent is arrested. This is a huge step forward that has the potential to be implemented with police and sheriff’s departments nationwide. Ann Adalist Estrin of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated provides training nationwide to help professionals in schools, health care, and law enforcement reduce harm and create safe space for kids and families.
We are light-years away from true respect for the rights of children, and from policy that applies the “my child” test to consider what decision-makers would want for children in their own families. But these early steps may provide building blocks to deep, long-lasting change in how the criminal system affects our families.