More Programs for Children of the Incarcerated, But Needs Still High

By Leon Fooksman

Despite a dramatic rise in the number of parents incarcerated in U.S. prisons over the past 30 years, efforts to help the children of these inmates remain scattered and underfunded in many communities, experts say.

Even after intensified federal initiatives to identify and work with these children, severe obstacles remain for many programs at the state and local level. Research on the effects of having an incarcerated parent is still relatively small, and in many cities there are no serious projects to identify them as an at-risk population, child advocates say.

What is clear, however, is that for these children, delinquency, aggression, depression, poor academic performance and emotional withdrawal are some of the more common behaviors that have been documented. Their need for services is stark: Nearly 10 million children in the U.S. have a parent who is or has been under some form of criminal justice supervision, according to National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (NRCCFI).

The Service Network For Children of Inmates is one of at least 70 national organizations and hundreds of smaller programs offering children help ranging from mentoring to academic support to establishing contact with their incarcerated parents, NRCCFI and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimate. Two decades ago, just a dozen or so comprehensive programs existed, said Carol Burton, NRCCFI chairwoman.

“There’s no question organizations are popping up every day and existing organizations are adding programs,” she said.

But Burton and other child experts agree that these programs reach just a small percentage of children. And despite many programs’ well intentions, much work remains to be done to make existing services more effective.

Many programs are limited by the huge distances that often exist between the prisons where parents are housed and the communities where their children remain. More than 60 percent of parents in state prison facilities and 80 percent of parents in federal facilities are held more than 100 miles from their last place of residence, according to a study published in 2000.

Another issue is the emphasis placed on mentoring, rather than on more comprehensive child development services, especially for children 10 and younger, who account for nearly half of the more than 1.7 million children with a parent in prison or jail, says Denise Johnston, co-founder of The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents (CCIP).

Yet another concern is that many people working in programs dealing with these children don’t have backgrounds in child development, Johnston says. She also questions efforts that put too much time and effort on the incarcerated parent.

“If we’re talking about the huge population of children of prisoners and we want to help them, we have to look at them first as children and then tackle the bigger issues, such as the way we raise poor children in this country,” says Johnston, who founded the California-based CCIP in 1989.

“Most agencies that work with children of prisoners, with the exception of the mentoring agencies, are focused at the prison and on the prisoners,” Johnston says. “And that’s very valid and it has its own benefits and outcomes, but it’s not probably going to make a difference for children who are already out of early childhood.”

Historically, few programs – public or private – existed to reach out to this specific population, mainly because these children traditionally had no significant public figures to champion their cause. Over the last decade, though, local and federal governments began paying more attention as the prison population mushroomed to record levels.

Service Network For Children of Inmates was formed three years ago with funds from Children’s Trust of Maimi-Dade to pay for coordinators to work with children and cover transportation for prison visits. The program reaches 500 out of the estimated 15,000 children of the incarcerated in Miami-Dade County.

In December 2000, Congress appropriated $4 million to the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections to work with groups that have “effective, tested programs to help children of prisoners.”

Building on that initial effort, President George W. Bush – who is widely credited with elevating the status of children of prisoners to the national agenda – outlined a three-year initiative in his 2003 State of the Union address that made more than $45 million available to organizations that provide both community-based and faith-based mentoring for children of prisoners.

The programs that resulted from this initiative generally had to link children with mentors, use positive adult role models and develop plans for extended families to reconnect the children with their imprisoned parent.

The model for these guidelines was the Amachi Mentoring Program, created in 2000 by Rev. W. Wilson Goode, Sr., the former mayor of Philadelphia. Amachi still remains the standard for many programs around the nation, including Children of Incarcerated Parents (CHIP), which works with AmeriCorps volunteers to mentor children in 14 communities.

“It’s very hard to do outreach in this field because these children aren’t readily identifiable,” says CHIP director Ursula Hill. “Sometimes we’ll have someone in foster care notify us, other times it may be someone at a school or parents themselves who have seen one of our flyers. The research is still very new and I don’t think the models are firmly established for working with these kids.”

In addition to the Amachi model, programs funded by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Institute of Corrections have focused on providing academic support to both children and their incarcerated parents, and increasing contact between the two.

For example, a Federal Bureau literary program has incarcerated parents read to their children. Families with a Future of California, meanwhile, offers support groups for children in Berkeley and San Francisco to express their feelings after extended visits with their mothers or fathers behind bars.

Congress also established the Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program to develop relationships between children and supportive adults. This year, the federal government spent $49.3 million to support 209 mentoring programs.

Burton expects more and more new programs to be added. But as the inmate population continues to grow -- in Florida alone, another 14,000 people are expected to be imprisoned in the next five years alongside the more than 100,000 behind bars today -- the needs of their children will rise as well.

“We still have a long way to go,” she said.

Leon Fooksman is a journalist who writes for Service Network For Children of Inmates. He can be reached at

** The Service Network of Children of Inmates has commissioned journalists to research and write articles pertaining to issues facing children of the incarcerated.