|Recently, news stories have dominated the media regarding the tragic separation of children from their parents who entered the United States illegally. I would guess that most people, regardless of political affiliation, find these stories heartbreaking and feel deep compassion for the children, at the very least. Some might contend that the parents broke the law by entering the U.S. illegally and, therefore, must be held accountable. Others, many of whom would not disagree with holding lawbreakers accountable, argue that separating immigrant children (even illegal ones) from their parents is heartless. I find the subject complex, but I am moved with compassion for the children who are most affected and yet who have no culpability in their parents’ decision to migrate illegally. I also can’t help but think of the parallel stories that have existed in this country for several decades without any media outcry against the practice.
Ever since the prison industrial complex has taken off in the U.S., it has led to more than 2.4 million incarcerated people in this country alone (25% of the world’s incarcerated population in a country with only 5% of the world’s population). The population of incarcerated women in the U.S., by itself, has skyrocketed by more than 700% in the last three decades. This has left more than 2 million children without at least one parent due to incarceration. Half of these children are under ten years old, and more than a third will become adults while their parent is in prison. Among minority groups, the statistics are much worse. For example, one in fifteen black children have an incarcerated parent compared to one out of one hundred eleven white children.
The consequences for children of incarcerated parents are numerous, including increased school dropout rates, more adverse home conditions (and risks), increased poverty and obesity rates (and all the health consequences to go with it), lower college graduation rates (by half!), and a greatly increased risk of incarceration themselves, to name a few. Parents of both genders are being imprisoned further and further from their homes, leading to fewer contact opportunities with their children, and prison visiting rooms are not designed to cultivate parent-child relationships. Additionally, many incarcerated fathers have no contact with their children, even if they want to and they still have parental rights, because these rights are rarely enforced for prisoners. Whether or not an incarcerated father can remain in his children’s lives depends on the whims of the children’s mother or guardian. Increasingly, both the mother and father of many children are incarcerated, leaving those children vulnerable to the often corrupt and dangerous foster care system.
This problem is not new, but it has certainly not grabbed the media attention in the same way as the separation of children from their parents at the border. These are both disastrous problems that need to be urgently addressed; the incarceration problem requires courage, creativity, and compassion to find solutions that keep the public safe while reducing the many risks and consequences the children of incarcerated parents face. When children are involved in their parents’ lives, even parents who have made choices that land them in prison, they should still be able to be known and cared for by their parents. Even a parent who is unable to meet a child’s physical needs can provide emotional support and love that children need to thrive.
It’s time to rethink how we punish crime in America. It’s time to start using solutions that focus on healing and restoring victims of crime, including unintended victims like the many children who are forcibly kept apart from their parents in prison.
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Author: Bryan Noonan
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