CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An estimated 34,000 West Virginians are the children of incarcerated parents, putting them at risk for serious long-term effects of emotional and financial instability, according to a new Kids Count policy report released Monday.
“It’s really sad to think that one in 10 of our kids is growing up with a parent in jail or prison. It’s really hard to imagine and the impact on children is tremendous,” said Laura Gandee, interim executive director of West Virginia Kids Count.
“It’s almost as bad as abuse or domestic violence in terms of its effects on their development.”
Authors from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in their report “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities,” concluded that states spend heavily on corrections but commit few resources to support those left behind at home.
“The most traumatic things that happen to you when you’re a young child, the harder it is for you to overcome them and to be a successful, productive adult,” she said. “What we need in West Virginia is more people who enter the workforce ready and healthy to do a good job and find a good job.”
Recommendations for changes to policies and practices are offered in the report for the benefit of individual kids and families along with communities where widespread incarcerations take a toll.
Generally, those recommendations cover three areas:
- ensuring children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return
- connecting parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment
- strengthening communities, especially those disproportionately affected by incarceration and re-entry, to promote family stability and opportunity
For example, the report recommended judges consider the effects on kids and families during sentencing and when making decisions about where parents are confined and require courts to inform local social service agencies and community-based organizations when a parent is incarcerated.
For states, there are calls for more funds for prison education and training for in-demand jobs; reforms to how criminal records are reported on employment forms; additional financial, legal, child care and housing assistance access for affected families; opportunities for state assistance, like SNAP and TANF benefits, to cover basic needs; and incentives for housing authorities and private landlords to allow people with records to access affordable housing.
Local governments, the report suggested, could create additional pathways with anchor institutions, like hospitals and universities, to ensure economic inclusion.
Even in tight budget times, “We have to keep children at the top of our policy agenda and demand from our lawmakers and those who are running for office that they make children their top priority,” said Gandee.
The 34,000 West Virginia kids who had incarcerated parents in 2011-2012, the most recent numbers available, joined five million nationwide who were in similar situations.
By percentage, the state with the highest rate of mothers and fathers behind bars was Kentucky at 13 percent.
For more on the report, click here.