Three years ago, the little girl would hide under a table when confronted with reminders that both her parents were in prison.
Now almost 10, she’s a confident, popular student, and ace recruiter for the program that helped her, says Daniel Howell, a case manager for New Hope Oklahoma. It offers after-school programs, weekend retreats and summer camps for about 500 Oklahoma children annually who have parents behind bars.
Nationwide, there are few comparable programs, despite a vast pool of children who might benefit.
Child Trends, a research organization, released a report Tuesday estimating that 5 million U.S. children have had at least one parent imprisoned — about one in every 14 children under 18. For black children, the rate was one in nine, the report said.
The report was based on data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health — a phone survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that collected input from parents and other caregivers.
Experts who study these children, or work with them, say parental incarceration is distinguished from other childhood woes by a mix of shame, stigma and trauma. Research indicates that many of the children face increased risk of problems with behavior, academics, self-esteem and substance abuse — in some cases resulting in criminality passed from one generation to the next.
Echoing recommendations by other groups, Child Trends said prison systems, schools and communities could do more to support these children. Suggestions include improving communications between parent and child, making prison visits less stressful, and educating school teachers on how they can help affected children overcome stigma.
“Progress has been slow,” said Child Trends researcher David Murphey, the report’s lead author. “This is a vulnerable group of kids that is often hidden from public view. We need to pay more attention.”
In some places, that’s happening. Washington state has won plaudits for establishing child-friendly visiting areas in all its prisons; so has a program in southeast Michigan that facilitates playful, 2-hour visits between imprisoned parents and their kids.
As for New Hope Oklahoma, it has grown steadily over two decades while relying entirely on private donations, and there’s now a waiting list for its programs. Oklahoma has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates; a task force calculated that on any given day, 26,000 Oklahoma children have a parent in prison.
“These children face ostracism among their peers because of it — despite the fact that the child is totally not at fault,” said New Hope’s executive director, Clayton Smith. “They don’t speak about it. They don’t want anyone to know.”
The program seeks to foster a camaraderie among the children that encourages them to share experiences and emotions.
Daniel Howell, the case manager who works with after-school programs in Tulsa, recalled his encounters with some of the children, whom he could not identify due to privacy policies.
“I really want to live with my mom,” one boy told him sadly, “and I can’t right now.”
Then there was the girl who entered the program as a 7-year-old and would hide when discomfited.
“We’d have to go sit under the table with her to talk to her,” Howell said.
“Now, she’s able to identify her feelings, talk about it really openly with other students,” he added. “She’s been a top recruiter, telling friends about New Hope and what we do.”
While New Hope works with children at a distance from prison facilities, Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency’s program in Michigan unites children with their incarcerated fathers in jails in Oakland and Wayne counties, plus three state prisons. Visiting areas are decorated and stocked with playthings, and music is provided for twice-monthly play-oriented visits for perhaps a half-dozen families at a time.
Linda VanderWaal, the agency’s associate director for family re-entry, noted that some jails in Michigan don’t allow contact visits, while other facilities insist that child visitors remain seated.
“We move the chairs back so there’s room to throw a ball,” VanderWaal said. “It’s fine if a dad wants to toss his kid in the air or wrestle on the floor. It’s a true play date.”
When the program started 12 years ago, some corrections officials were hesitant, she said, but the wariness dissipated as they saw how participating parents adjusted more positively after they were released.
According to federal statistics, only about 42 percent of incarcerated parents with children under 18 get visits from those children. Long distances are a deterrent: A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative calculates that 63 percent of state prison inmates are confined more than 100 miles from their families, often requiring a full day just to make a brief visit.
The issue of children’s visits is complicated. Some children are frightened by the prison setting and rigorous security procedures, yet there’s also a wealth of evidence that many are reassured when they can see and hug an incarcerated parent.
Groups advocating for these children urge corrections officials to ensure that visiting protocols, including processing and searches, are child-friendly.
In Maryland, a veteran advocate says it’s a challenge bracing children for the visitation policy at the Frederick County Adult Detention Center. They talk to their jailed parent by phone from behind a glass partition.
“For a number of children, there’s anxiety waiting to go into the jail — some are scared,” said Shari Ostrow Scher, president of the Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. “The lack of physical contact with your parents is hard.”
After 14 years of advocacy work, Ostrow Scher remains struck by the plight of the children she serves.
“If your parent is a soldier overseas, everyone says, ‘Oh, you’re brave,'” she said. “When your parent is in prison, it’s the same issue of loss and separation, and in neither case did the kid sign up for this. But you’re not viewed in the same heroic way.”
Among the states, Washington has been at the forefront of efforts to enhance bonds between incarcerated parents and their children.
Jody Becker-Green, a deputy secretary of Washington’s corrections department, says one goal is to break the intergenerational cycle by minimizing the emotional damage to children whose parents are imprisoned.
“These kids are overlooked and invisible in our society,” Becker-Green said. “They feel shame, they feel guilt in having a parent incarcerated.”
Unlike most states, Washington has a child-friendly visiting area in each of its 12 state prisons — supplied with books and games, cartoon characters painted on the walls.
In another innovation, the corrections department inaugurated a three-day summer camp in June for children of inmates, with department personnel serving as counselors.
Applications for spots at the camp were submitted by the imprisoned parents themselves, and Becker-Green said there were plenty of tears at the camp’s closing ceremony when children read portions of those applications in which the mothers and fathers expressed devotion to their kids.
One of the camp staffers, Bea Giron, recounted how a camper said she wouldn’t want people to know she had a parent in prison. The girl was asked why.
“Because they’d think I’m a killer,” she replied.