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When parents of school children go to prison

Keep their children on track with mentoring, specialized clubs and other approaches in education
  • GOING ALL IN—Students in the POPS club at Lawndale High School in southern California layer their hands during an end-of-meeting ritual. POPS, which stands for Pain of the Prison System, offers students who are affected by parental incarceration a place to talk about the challenges.
  • YOU’RE NOT ALONE—POPS the Club students at Venice High School in California gather during a rehearsal to read their writings about friends and family members who have been incarcerated. The club, now in nine other K12 schools across the country, launched at Venice High.
  • USING VOICE IN EDUCATION—Venice High students deliver speeches during the 2016 POPS club fundraiser at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California.
  • USING ART IN EDUCATION—Venice High students showcase portraits during the 2016 POPS club fundraiser at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California.

More than 10 years ago, when she was in sixth grade and her mother was incarcerated, Alisha Murdock skipped classes, fought with other students, got suspended and missed so much school she had to repeat the grade.

Murdock says no one at school reached out to help, and she doesn’t want today’s students to face the same predicament.

“It would have been good if somebody had noticed something had happened,” says Murdock, program coordinator for Project WHAT!, which partners with San Francisco USD to support students of incarcerated parents.

She says it would have made a difference if a teacher or someone else in the school had said, “Are you OK? Do you want to talk? I know something has changed. I’m here if you want to talk.”

More and more districts are looking for ways to keep children of incarcerated parents from falling behind in class or winding up in the discipline pipeline. This includes training staff about their specific challenges and developing a more welcoming school culture.

Schools also facilitate mentoring and after-school programs, often in partnership with social service agencies and community organizations. In some states, teachers even conduct conferences over the phone with parents in correctional facilities.

“I think if schools are not engaged, they soon will be engaged,” says Sybil Knight-Burney, superintendent of the Harrisburg School District in Pennsylvania. In her district, school officials reach out to families affected by incarceration, and counselors lead small, trauma-focused student discussion groups.

“It’s something that is impacting many of our homes,” Knight-Burney says. “Whatever is impacting outside of our schools always finds its way inside.”

A culture that doesn’t judge

In the United States, the incarceration rate more than quadrupled from 1972 to 2012, according to the National Research Council.

More than 2.7 million children—about 1 in 28—have an incarcerated parent, and about 10 million have experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point, according to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University-Camden.

This affects all racial and economic groups, but it disproportionately impacts minorities. One in nine African-American children, 1 in 28 Hispanic children, and 1 in 57 white children have an incarcerated parent, according to the center.

Parental incarceration affects children on every level, says Katelen Fortunati, a clinical social worker who counsels students of incarcerated parents in about 25 schools in Illinois.

“Incarceration touches every system within a child’s life, starting with the intimate personal relationship with that parent that is disrupted,” she says. The ordeal causes a child to feel insecure about money, housing and future caretakers—who will take care of them?

“That creates so much stress and instability in a child’s life,” she adds.

One of the challenges for schools is identifying the children because no one is required to tell school officials that a parent has been jailed. Also, families may not feel comfortable sharing the information.

“A lot of the information is not shared due to shame or embarrassment or lack of trust, or fear that the school is somehow treating them differently or judging them,” says Eric Rossen, a school psychologist and director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists.

The children become silent victims, adds Christophe Beard, management analyst in the early learning division at the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which trains early education staff on how to help children of incarcerated parents.

“We have to change the culture where we make people feel more comfortable,” Beard says. “That will help to eliminate the stigma.”

One of the first steps is training staff, which doesn’t have to be costly, says Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated.

A trainer can be hired, or staff can lead sessions using materials on the center’s website. Even Sesame Street has developed a guide for parents and caregivers called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.”

Training often includes explaining what incarceration is like and how it affects children, and how to spot warning signs in students, such as changes in behavior. Some training also focuses on attitudes.

Staff members are taught not to assume that children are bad, or consider them prime suspects when someone’s sneakers vanish from a locker.

Educators are shown how to use inclusive language, such as “caregiver” rather than “mom” or “dad.” They also learn not to ask students about what the parents did but instead to show compassion by being open to talking and offering other resources, such as counseling.

Trainers also point out ways to make the school more welcoming, such as adding books about incarceration to the school library.

C. Diane Wallace Booker, executive director of the U.S. Dream Academy, which offers after-school, literacy and mentoring programs in seven cities, says such a supportive environment “is going to allow kids who are dealing with a myriad of problems to share appropriately—it’s a culture that says we’re not going to judge your child based on the challenges” that their parent may be dealing with.

Reach out to willing partners

Some of the longest-standing efforts addressing the needs of these children started in communities and led to partnerships with school districts. Seedling Foundation, founded in 1997 to support special projects in Austin ISD in Texas, started in 2006 a school-based mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents.

In 2015-16, when the mentoring program served 623 students, an evaluation showed that 60 percent of the teachers surveyed found behavior improved, and a similar figure found improvements in academic efforts.

The U.S. Dream Academy—founded in 1998 to help at-risk youth, especially the children of the incarcerated—first opened in Washington, D.C., in 2000. Centers have been added at schools in Baltimore, Houston, Indianapolis, Orlando, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City, serving about 700 children a year.

Services vary by location. Booker says the group initially partnered with social service agencies but realized it would be more effective inside the school.

About a decade ago, Project WHAT!—part of Community Works, a nonprofit which advocates for a more humane justice system—began working with Bay Area youths, ages 14 to19, whose parents were incarcerated.

It now serves students in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, reaching participants via fliers in schools and counselors’ offices.

Project WHAT!—which stands for We’re Here and Talking—trains San Francisco USD counselors about the impact of parental incarceration. Students learn to express their feelings about their parents’ situations.

It is also developing classroom curriculum, using videos of youth relating their experiences and books that describe life in prison. Lessons should help students cope with trauma, says Project WHAT! Program Manager Matice Moore.

San Francisco USD provides curriculum and textbooks to the San Francisco County Jail so incarcerated parents can follow what their children are learning at school.

The district also intends to send teachers to the jail to conduct student conferences with parents in custody, says Mary Richards, executive director of the Student, Family and Community Support Division at San Francisco USD.

The Washington State Department of Corrections also began allowing some inmates to participate in parent-teacher conferences by phone in 2006. Inmates have written letters saying how important the conferences were, says Beatrice Giron, a corrections specialist.

While some efforts started in the community, POPS the Club—named after Pain of the Prison System—started in Venice High School in California about four years ago. It has expanded to nine clubs at schools across the country, with more groups in the works.

Aimed at anyone affected by incarceration, POPS offers high school students a chance to meet over lunch to talk and listen to speakers. Students choose to attend and do not have to reveal their own situation.

“The kids walk into the room and say, ‘Oh, my God. I’m not alone,’” says Amy Friedman, co-founder and executive director of POPS.

Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh, which provides mentoring and other services outside school to children of incarcerated parents, says a program’s location isn’t the most important consideration.

“What’s really important is for us to understand how we can facilitate better interactions between students and teachers and counselors.”