Imagine that as you read these words, someone bursts into the room and holds a gun to your head. Your body and brain react instantly to the threat in ways that can be measured scientifically as cortisol floods your system.
The same level of cortisol is found in young children when separated from a primary caregiver. That absence feels as life-threatening as a loaded gun, explained Ann Adalist Estrin, currently the Director of National Resource Center on Children of Incarcerated Parents.
The adult calms down, she continued, when the threat is ended. Dopamine floods the system with relief. But in a young child, the dopamine response comes from contact with the caregiver. So what happens if the caregiver is gone? Toxic stress can change the chemistry and actual architecture of the developing brain, potentially with lifelong consequences.
Today, approximately 2.7 million American children are separated from a parent because of arrest and lockup in prison or jail. Do we simply accept that these kids will be collateral damage in our culture of mass incarceration?
Toxic stress can lead to problems with impulse control, over-the-top reactions to small uncertainties and losses, anti-social behavior, truancy and diminished school performance, separation and attachment problems, depression, eating and sleeping disorders, anxiety, substance abuse and addiction as the person seeks the dopamine effect through self-medication.
If we look at the toxic effects of a parent’s incarceration, says Estrin, we may tend to label the kid “maltreated” and think he or she is better off without the parents. Many of us have heard statistics about the likelihood of children of the incarcerated ending up in prison themselves. Estrin has grown impatient after hearing this repeated over and over again. There’s no research to back it up, she said. The statistic is a made-up figure that’s been repeated over and over again after it was said, without any verification, on the floor of Congress.
When young children are looked at merely as future thugs and criminals, how much sincere concern can we expect for them?
When young children are looked at merely as future thugs and criminals, how much sincere concern can we expect for them? Certainly our society shows little for their parents. Estrin quoted a man who attended one of her training sessions: “Incarcerated parents should be fed to the hungry in a Third World country.”
Estrin reminded us that each child is an individual with his or her own temperament and coping skills. Risk factors don’t lead to inevitable outcomes. Instead of stigmatizing children and tearing families apart, Estrin wants us to maximize protective factors and resilience. Kids are more resilient, she said, when they have skills, emotional competence, faith and hope. And maintaining the relationship with an incarcerated parent—absent a history of actual abuse or neglect—turns out to be one of the best things we can do for the child. Among other advantages, contact minimizes the chance the chance will cling to unrealistically frightening or idealized images of the absent parent.
According to the Honorable Marguerite Downing of Los Angeles Superior Court, until very recently, these children were rarely considered. They were an invisible population though even babies don’t escape the traumatic effects when a parent is taken. Besides creating psychological problems, there are practical consequences with serious effects: very often the arrested parent is the main or sole economic support of the family. The children are then left in poverty. Older children must cope with the stigma, the conspiracy of silence, and often a sense of guilt, believing they are somehow at fault.
For years, family reunification was written off by agencies as an improbable or undesirable goal. And only recently has the court understood that multiple placements increase trauma and that it’s important for the child to continue interaction with former caregivers. These days, Judge Downing considers the situation of kids in foster care who are seeking to return to post-incarceration parents.
I heard both Estrin, who has worked for decades with this heretofore “invisible” population and has offered trainings in every US state except for Idaho and Nebraska (and would love an invitation from an agency or school district in either place), and Downing, who chairs the Incarcerated Parents Working Group for Los Angeles County at Children’s Court, in Long Beach on Tuesday, December 2 at a summit meeting-- Children with Incarcerated Parents: Trauma, Toxic Stress, & Protection--convened by Friends Outside Los Angeles County.
I already knew Friends Outside from the trailers they operate outside California State prisons where they provide acceptable clothing on visiting day when guards decide a visitor is dressed inappropriately and cannot enter. Turns out, the organization does much more: escorting kids to visit mothers in LA County Jail, providing support and services to returning dads, serving in many ways as a bridge between the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, their families, and the larger community.
Their educational videos include one, available in English or in Spanish, that lets kids know what will happen when they go to the County Jail to visit Mom. I burst into tears when I saw that these visits take place behind glass. No contact, no touching, no hugs or kisses allowed.
Reportedly, the Sheriff’s Department plans to allow contact visits in the future. In the meantime, no hugs in jail. And though contact visits are possible in California State prisons, most are located in remote areas not accessible by public transportation making visiting itself difficult to arrange. Phone calls home must be made collect at exorbitant rates.
Does it have to be this way?
In Philadelphia, people in jail get a free 10-minute phone call home each week. Some jurisdictions in the US have experimented with using Skype so that incarcerated parents can attend parent-teacher conferences or talk with pediatricians, and remain involved in the lives of their children. (Using technology to maintain communications and contact has reduced at least some stress for children in military families when left behind by deployed parents.)
To my surprise, a formerly incarcerated dad at the meeting expressed gratitude to the Child Support Unit of the District Attorney’s office for helping him reunite with his children.
The children of the incarcerated are less invisible than they used to be. Sesame Street recently added a new character, Alex, whose father is incarcerated. Author Jacqueline Woodson, winner of many prestigious awards, including the National Book Award, has now written a picture book for children, with illustrations by James Ransome, about a little girl going with grandmother to visit Daddy in prison. Visiting Day will be published in August.
At Venice High School, kids from families affected by incarceration get together in the POPS (Pain of the Prison System) Club where they express themselves through writing and drawing. Said Angel de la Cruz, one of the founding members, “Sharing stories made me feel more powerful and comfortable.” Another founding member, Bianca Lopez said that before the club “I always felt like a judgment towards me.” After watching a Sesame Street video featuring Alex she commented, “The way Alex felt is just the way I felt. I could just relate.” Amy Friedman, one of the adult founders of the club would like to see a POPS club in every high schocrol around the country.
In 2013, as part of its reconsideration of our policies of mass incarceration, the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice launched the Safeguarding Children initiative (IACP-SafeguardingChildren) to create a new protocol for police departments to follow when arresting a parent whether or not the child is present. The intention is to set up a framework that lays out how to interact with a child, minimizes trauma, and includes pre-planning and collaboration with other agencies so that the best placement can be determined and official custody avoided.
Children’s advocates, including Estrin, were invited to participate, but the drafting was put in the hands of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. A wise choice, thought Estrin, as police departments are more likely to follow the policy if they get to write it.
The new protocol needs more detail and Estrin hopes the people most directly affected—the families—will have a chance to offer input. For now, she finds police departments are cautious. Commander John Perez of the Pasadena Police Department pointed out that “policies are beautiful things that are written on paper.” We want to care, he said, but don’t always know how to care. “We feel so frustrated. You want to bring relief to a 5-year-old and you just don’t know how to do it.”
So can a protocol help without jeopardizing safety and the integrity of an arrest?
Child welfare agencies are ambivalent. If caseloads are already out of control, what will it mean when the police call them at the time of every arrest of a parent? Jennie Feria of the LA County Department of Children and Family Services worried about follow-up care. The agency only takes on cases where there’s outright abuse or neglect, so in the case of an incarcerated parent, who will step up? They have set up an expedited response program so that a social worker can get to the scene of an arrest and care for a child quickly instead of the police officer having to wait for hours.
Families—still reeling from Ferguson and all the other Fergusons coast-to-coast—are skeptical. Law enforcement sees officer discretion as at the core of good policing, but families are concerned that unless cops must comply with specific rules-or else--they can’t be trusted.
Estrin saw benefit in the discussions. One example: Police automatically confiscate cell phones at the time of an arrest. If the children aren’t present, how will they know what’s happened? Telling a mother or father to phone the children from the precinct often won’t work if the children have been told to never answer the phone if the call comes from an unknown number. So why not allow a parent one phone call to the kids before the cell phone is taken away? The police representatives at the meeting agreed it made sense.
I am disappointed that ICE doesn’t seem to have been included in the development and adoption of the protocol. The children of undocumented immigrants who are detained and deported suffer equal if not greater trauma.
We’re at a moment in our history when it’s become necessary to assert over and over again that Black Lives Matter. Most of the children of incarcerated parents are black or brown. And they matter, as do all children. As do the incarcerated, their loved ones, the undocumented, the trafficked. But beyond that, our culture must recognize the broad issue: Even as we dutifully recite “All men (and women) are created equal…”, we must stop behaving as though some people matter a helluva lot more than others.
For resources, see the website of the National Resource Center on Children of Incarcerated Parents. Most materials are in English though some have been translated into Spanish and Mandarin. Offers to translate into other languages are very welcome.