Voices of the Children of Incarcerated Parents by

Susan Magestro, Criminologist & Interventionist

When we read the gruesome details associated with Serial Killer Israel Keye’s crime, we do so with disgust.  For many, there is a morbid curiosity and fascination to know the details of the crime and for some people, there is a desire to “get inside the minds of infamous criminals”.  Media provides that for us. We read every detail about the kidnapping of Samantha Koenig on a busy street during rush hour traffic, to the disposing of her body parts several weeks after she was murdered.  We read about the shed where Samantha was taken, murdered, and left for several weeks before her body was disposed of. The shed set right next to a house. The house where Keyes lived with his girlfriend and elementary school aged daughter.  Neither of them realized what was happening or that Keyes led a double life.

We read with disgust and fascination about Travis Felder’s revolving crime sprees. Incarcerated at a young age for murder. After serving out his first sentence of a decade plus, he was released on parole. Travis shared with audiences that he was grabbling with years of mental health and other issues. In his latest crime episode, media provided the reader with the morbid details of a triple crime spree, which occurred over a period of just a few hours. Again, the reader is given morbid details of the sexual crimes and assaults, as well as detailed descriptions of the “odd” clothing Travis wore while he was committing these crimes, a black bra and Capri’s.

Imagine the impact of all of this on Felder’s family as well.

Our hearts go out to the victims of both of these crimes as well as to their families. We have compassion and accept their struggle to move forward from both of these unconscionable crimes. But there is another group of victims, we seldom think about. Those who can’t move forward as easily, who keep their struggles a secret, so those in their lives are unable to offer the compassion they so desperately need.  Those are the children of the people who perpetrated these crimes, ”the children of incarcerated parents”.   This is an invisible population. Who are they? Where are they? What agency is responsible for working with them?  The answer is no one knows.  These children are the collateral damage of these crimes and their parent’s incarceration.

Erroneously, many believe child protective services monitors and has a handle on working with these children.  And that would be correct for a very small portion of these children. My early "guesstimations,” from the statistics I am collection as a criminologist, is they are involved with less than 20% of the children of incarcerated parents. So who is raising these youth?

The two predominant groups raising children of incarcerated parents are “other” custodial parents or the grandparents.  This is a disfranchised group struggling alone to make ends meet and to deal with the anger the children are feeling as a result of their parents incarceration. They are the ones whom deal with the child’s emotions after a visit or telephone call with the incarcerated parent. These are the “caregivers,” whom deal with the children on birthdays and holidays, when the feeling of the missing incarcerated parents is barely cope able. They deal with the child’s school and behavioral challenges all by themselves.

Children of incarcerated parents have a six times higher chance of going to prison themselves. This is referred to as intergenerational incarceration. It is my "guesstimation", from working with these children, that approximately one third of them are “overachievers”. Their goal is to make very sure they do not follow in their parent’s footsteps. The other two-thirds? They struggle. They struggle to “reconcile their parent’s crime in some way”. They struggle to understand and forgive impact having an incarcerated parent has had on their family. They struggle to go to school, to behave, to do their homework. They are at higher risk to drop out of school. They have a lower chance of graduating from high school. Who are these children who keep this secret?

Some of these children have no idea where their parent is or that their parent is even incarcerated. They are told daddy is away at work for a few years, mommy is away at college. Then one day they find out the truth by overhearing it from other family members, neighborhood children, or upon their own searching on the Internet.

So how do these children feel after they find out the truth? How do they feel after they have spent seven hours driving to see their parents for a one-hour visit? How do they feel seeing the details about their parents, crimes, trials, and appeals in the news? The answer is angry! They are either explosive or implosive. Who helps them navigate this journey? It’s difficult for grandparents, as they themselves struggle with seeing their own child incarcerated So grandparents and children of incarcerated parents do a delicate dance to sidestep the real issues, each side not wanting to cause further heartache to the other.   These children suffer in silence, wondering if they will follow in their parent’s footsteps, if the parents of new friends will let there children play with them.

What does “Re-Integration into the community” and  “Re-Entry into the lives of their children” mean? Approximately ninety-seven percent of incarcerated inmates will be released back into the community. How do these newly released parents feel? Scared, awkward, yet excited. These are the same emotions these children are going through as they grapple with their parent’s re-entry.  The feel happy that daddy is coming home, but very stressed that daddy may start using drugs again and this process will start again. Oftentimes it does, at least 65% (+/-) of the time. Recidivism is high.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of incarcerated men has increased 77% just between 1997-2007 and the number of incarcerated mothers has increased 131% during that same time period.  More current statistics are hard to come by.

The Department of Corrections for the State of Alaska has approved and is implementing a groundbreaking program, which is in its infancy, but holds great promise. The program is called Progressive Prison Parenting, Reintegration, and Re-Entry for Incarcerated Parents. This four and a half month program is in its first phase of implementation, involving five of Alaska’s Prisons. Incarcerated fathers and mothers volunteer to participate and commit to exploring some very difficult issues; how their crimes and incarceration has affected their children.  They focus on topics such as  “Seeing Life Through Their Child’s Eyes”, “Understanding Their Child’s Anger”,” How and Where They Will Fit Into Their Child’s Life Upon Release?” How They Can Help Their Child Build Resiliency to Overcome Adversity.”,  and How To Handle the Inevitable Disappointment” that comes with being a parent and reintegrating back to their families and community”.  They are learning how to communicate with their children and family. They are learning about the unique characteristics their children and families have faced as a result of their incarceration.  And lastly, they create a detailed Re-Entry Case Plan BEFORE they are released. These self -created case plans address many issues crucial to reduce recidivism, to bridge the relationship between incarcerated parent and their children, their parents, their family, and friends. And for many, this will be a long road. Starting this process before they are released back into the community gives all involved a better chance of success to reduce recidivism rates and most importantly, prevents their own children from being a statistic of intergenerational incarceration.

While we are still in the infancy stage of collecting data about the parents and their children, we already know that in Alaska the average incarcerated parent, parent on parole, or parent on probation has 2.9 children. We are seeing success stories. Fathers and sons, whom have been estranged for many years, are reconnecting. It is joyful to hear what is discussed between parent and child; the parent is parenting from behind bars.  The children are given the unique opportunity to begin their healing through the guidance of the incarcerated parents. Together, they are both exploring the world they both kept secret for so long. It is a joy to watch. Grown

 men cry and are ready to now do what it takes. They are learning skills to re-connect with the families. This is not something they would have envisioned before. They never considered this a possibility  before. Mothers are now able to explain their addictions to their children in a responsible, matter of fact way, without making broken promises. Incarcerated parents are taking responsibly for being real with their children, of all ages, own up to their crimes, and help their children move forward so they can have a better life, and not follow in the footsteps of their parents. Re-Entry and Reintegration of incarcerated parents is about accountability, responsibility, not just to themselves, but also to their children.

So the next time, we read about a gruesome crime or watch the details on the nightly news, ask is there another invisible victim, the child of the incarcerated parent. And applaud Alaska’s Department of Corrections for reaching out to reduce intergenerational incarceration and bridge relationships between incarcerated parents and their children, in hopes of reducing recidivism in Alaska. I applaud their dedication, commitment and participation in this ground breaking program.  I applaud the parent’s working hard to face their own demons, recognize and make amends for the heartache they have caused to both their victims of crime and their families. They are taking a positive step to make a difference in the lives of their children so they do not follow in their footsteps.

Next column will include new programs coming for children of incarcerated parents as well as letters sent to me from fathers, mothers, grandparents, and the children themselves. For more information on this topic: “The Voices of Incarcerated Children”. There is a one and a half day new conference, for all professionals, being presented November 7 & 8, 2104.  For more information visit  click here.