An estimated 135,000 children in Kentucky have had a parent incarcerated, according to a Kids Count policy report released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
That amounts to about 13 percent of Kentucky’schildren who have had an incarcerated parent, nearly double the national average of 7 percent and the highest percentage in the nation, Kentucky Youth Advocates officials said in a news release.
“Policy debates about incarceration rarely focus on the impact on children,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “Yet, we know that when a parent is in jail or prison, it creates an unstable environment for kids that can have lasting effects, like poverty, changes in living situations, and mental and emotional health issues.”
The new report, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities,” highlights the lifelong obstacles facing children with incarcerated parents. It also focuses on solutions to mitigate the trauma children experience and ensure that they have the best opportunity to succeed. The report is available at AECF.org.
The report said that an increased reliance on incarceration for what are widely considered nonviolent offenses put more parents in jail or prison. Several states, including Kentucky, have worked to reform justice systems in recent years. Secretary John Tilley of the Kentucky Justice Cabinetwas among those who led the criminal justice reforms in Kentucky when he was a state representative.
“In 2010, Kentucky was the epicenter of a national crisis of prison growth, as our state’s population of inmates had increased nearly four times faster than the national average over the prior decade” Tilley said. “This wreaked havoc on Kentucky’s most vulnerable families, leaving too many households in turmoil and far too many children separated from a parent. With 2011’s House Bill 463, we took proactive steps to right-size our prison populations, reunite families, hold offenders accountable, increase drug treatment, and reduce re-offense rates. The legislation also calls for a better return on public-safety tax dollars, demanding transparency and accountability.”
“The good news is that Kentucky’s leaders have an array of ways to support kids during and after a parent’s incarceration,” Brooks said. “Kentucky has made several positive movements, but we have a long way to go to better support children who have experienced parental incarceration.”
Lisa Defendall, spokeswoman for Fayette County Public Schools, gave examples of the support the district provides.
“Our school social workers, counselors and family-resource center coordinators work very closely with students and their families to provide support in situations where one or both parents are incarcerated,” Deffendall said. “These interventions vary from school to school and from student to student, depending on the need of the child involved. Some examples of the supports include providing individualized counseling or support groups, and partnering with community organizations like Amachi and the Lexington Leadership Foundation to link students with mentors.”
The report offers several policy recommendations to help prioritize the needs of those children. As an example, when children can’t live at home because of parental incarceration, prioritizing placement with relatives and providing support, including access to child care, can minimize the disruption and trauma.
To help children safely reunite with their parents, prisons and community organizations can provide family counseling and parenting courses, even after the parents are released. Making more offenses eligible for being expunged from records for those people who stay on track after release, as the Kentucky General Assembly recently did, can help children, Brooks said.
The Fayette County Detention Center offers programs for incarcerated parents, spokeswoman Jennifer Taylor said.