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Broken bonds

The University's Rebecca Shlafer, Ph.D., partners with correctional facilities to find ways to support children of incarcerated parents. (Photo: Brady Willette)

What happens to kids when moms and dads go to prison?

It’s a festering problem affecting America’s kids that’s bigger than autism, bigger even than juvenile diabetes, but too often unnoticed, or unacknowledged, by teachers, doctors, foster parents, and child-care providers. Affecting more than 3 million children — and that number is on the rise — it’s often a shameful secret. The problem? Growing up with a parent in prison or jail.

Having an incarcerated parent, we’re learning, can have significant impact on the mental, emotional, and physical health of a child — and one of the scientists at the forefront of that study is here at the University of Minnesota.

“I want to see this issue raised to public awareness,” says Rebecca Shlafer, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics. “I want to figure out what the needs are for children with incarcerated parents, and how we can support them. This is our next generation, and they’re in a very vulnerable place.”

Shlafer is a bit of a lone wolf when it comes to studying this issue. No one else at the University — and few people across the country — has devoted his or her research to dissecting the ripple effects of incarceration on the children of inmates.

“No one discipline has claimed this issue,” Shlafer explains. “Criminologists study criminals and crime patterns, psychologists study behavior of criminals, corrections professionals concentrate on the systems that securely house criminals … but no one has taken the lead on looking at what happens when prisons and families come together.”

Inside prison walls

It’s no surprise that prisons are designed with security, not family bonding, in mind; in Minnesota state prisons, that means visitors and prisoners keep their distance. If a child has a “contact visit” with a parent in prison, the two share a brief hug and kiss on the cheek at the beginning and end of the visit. No hand-holding, no sitting on laps, no cuddling. Children are expected to sit in their assigned seats “in an upright position with hands in full view.” If it’s a “noncontact visit,” parent and child communicate via telephone, with a Plexiglas partition between them.

That separation between parent and child is nowhere more evident than at the Shakopee correctional facility for women, where pregnant inmates are sent to a hospital at the first sign of labor, then separated from their newborns after 72 hours. (Minnesota is not one of the handful of states that allow women to keep their infants with them inside a correctional facility.)

“Is separating mothers and babies after 72 hours a good idea?” asks Shlafer. “No. Many of these women want to be good mothers, but they’re in prison, and handing their babies over to family members, usually their moms, who, let’s face it, maybe weren’t the best parent to their own children. So the cycle repeats. It’s a very complex, heartbreaking picture.”

When she visits a prison in preparation for a research study, Shlafer says, she sees bleak environments and confining spaces not conducive to wiggly little kids; the corrections staff, she says, likes to show her where the security cameras are and explain how the booth layout contributes to the visitor’s safety.

“I’m seeing a mom trying to talk to her husband through Plexiglas while her little boy is jumping around. The correctional system just wasn’t designed to think about how kids are being impacted by time they spend in a prison setting. I wasn’t surprised when one prison warden admitted that he never really considered the fact that 55 percent of the men in his prison were fathers.”

What happens to the kids?

Scientists have identified a number of what they call “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs), which include trauma like sexual, physical, or verbal abuse, or having an incarcerated family member.

As the number of ACEs increases, the more likely the child is to experience a mental or physical health problem. Children who experience five or more ACEs have a noticeably higher risk for asthma, chronic drinking, anxiety, depression, and smoking. While incarceration of a parent isn’t the sole reason a child might suffer with physical or mental health issues, it’s been identified as a contributing factor.

“Does it matter more if the incarcerated parent is Mom or Dad?” asks Shlafer, pointing out that the number of women in prison has skyrocketed 800-plus percent in the past 30 years, and that two-thirds of female inmates are mothers. “Science isn’t there yet; we have more work to do to chip away at these questions, to get to the heart of the problems and find more solutions.”

Sesame Street characters Rosita, Alex, and Abby build toy cars and talk about their families as part of Sesame Street's 'Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration' initiative. (Photo: Gil Vaknin/Copyright 2013 Sesame Workshop)

Sesame Street weighs in

Alex, a quiet little guy with floppy blue hair and a chartreuse nose, is the newest Sesame Street muppet. He’s sad because, when his friends hatch a plan to get their dads together, he has to tell them that his dad’s in prison.

Alex is the central figure of Sesame Street’s multimedia outreach program— including a DVD, storybook, and resources packet — called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration,” which is designed to offer support and reassurance to kids with incarcerated parents, and to their caregivers as well.

As the point person for the Minnesota rollout, Shlafer is responsible for making sure that key people — corrections staff, social workers, educators — become aware of the Sesame Street resources.

Sesame Street has done a great job with this package,” says Shlafer. “It’s evidence-based, but child-friendly. I’m looking forward to digging deeper with it in my research study.”

The study she refers to is one of two projects currently under way. The first is an observational study in which she watches and assesses visits between children (ages 9 to 17) and their jailed parents. The second study, funded jointly by the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin - Madison, is designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the Sesame Street materials. That study will also be carried out in a jail setting.

Opportunities, challenges

Shlafer is definitely driven to spread the word about the impact of incarcerated parents on children, and on society. In her undergraduate class “Incarceration and the Family,” she takes students into prisons, transforming what she calls “the invisible problem” into a tangible reality.

Part of what keeps the problem invisible is that, unlike so many diseases and public health issues, there is no spokesperson for kids who have parents in prison. No Michael J. Fox or Susan G. Komen to champion the cause.

“The people who understand this issue best are the kids and parents who’ve experienced it firsthand,” Shlafer says. “But do we really expect those parents to go through the system, come out, and return to their neighborhoods to become spokespersons for children of incarcerated parents?”

Getting into the prison system isn’t easy for an outsider. And, Shlafer adds, our country has a history of exploiting prisoners for research, so she has to be patient and build trust with the inmates.

“That I’ve been allowed in to places like Shakopee women’s prison or the Washington County Jail, well, I take that very seriously,” she says. “The mothers in the Shakopee prison say, ‘Dr. Shlafer tells our stories.’ So, yes, I’ll do everything I can to help.”

Since she’s already been to the White House (for the Sesame Street launch this spring), she can check that off her list, but Shlafer’s got plenty of other, bigger plans.

“Incarceration impacts some of society’s most vulnerable individuals and their families. I see this as a prime public health opportunity — a chance to help and have people return to society better than when they came into prison,” she says. “Supporting the relationship between parent and child is critical; our challenge as scientists is to understand what happens in the prison environment, what happens when the child goes home with the caretaker, and how to minimize the negative impact that the parent’s incarceration has, so they can all come out healthier individuals.”

By Barbara Knox, a Minneapolis-based writer and editor and frequent contributor to the Medical Bulletin

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