A parent behind bars

by Katie Reeder

The comment came out one day when he was talking to the school counselor about his anger management issues — his father is in prison.

“Well, my dad has anger issues,” he said. “He’s in prison, and I’m like him.”

A school counselor in a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City elementary school, who wished to remain anonymous, said situations like these are often how she finds out about children who have incarcerated parents — which is often by chance.

There are other children in his school in similar circumstances.

At the beginning of the school year when the counselor sent out a survey asking students if they would be interested in different kinds of support groups, only one child requested to be in a support group for children with incarcerated parents.

She said this child had a family member other than a parent in prison, and she said there is less of a stigma attached to that situation.

“He was very surprised he was the only one who signed up,” she said.

Nationally, there are 2.7 million children, or one out of 28, who have an incarcerated parent, according to a 2010 study by The Pew Charitable Trust.

North Carolina is home to an estimated 26,000 of these children, said Melissa Radcliff, executive director of Our Children’s Place, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit that seeks to raise awareness about the challenges children of incarcerated parents face. In North Carolina prisons, 5,522 male inmates have children and 557 female inmates have children.

Radcliff said you would need the Dean E. Smith Center at UNC-Chapel Hill and its parking lot to hold all of the children with incarcerated parents in the state.

A loss of stability

Dee Ann Newell, a developmental research psychologist who has worked with children whose parents are in prison, said witnessing the arrest of a parent is distressing for children.

According to a fact sheet from Rutgers University’s National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, an estimated 67 percent of parents arrested were handcuffed in front of their children.

Newell said many of the children she has worked with struggle to get memories of the traumatic event out of their minds.

“They will tell me that it’s as if they were arrested too,” she said.

“They had to go down on the floor. They had to keep their hands to their sides. Weapons were pulled on them.

“They will describe this event with as much intensity as if it happened a month ago.”

Furthermore, a 2010 study from the University of Illinois Chicago found that children who witnessed the arrest of a household member were 57 percent more likely to have elevated post-traumatic stress symptoms than children who had never witnessed an arrest.

Such an experience can lead to a decline in a child’s overall school functioning because of the loss of stability in the child’s life, Newell said. Some children show externalizing behaviors, where they convert their feelings into aggressive and defiant behaviors, while others internalize their feelings of grief and loss.

Some of the other challenges these children face include low grade-point averages, decreased graduation rates and greater distrust for authority figures, said Nelsa Feaster, a principal of a Piedmont-area elementary school.

‘Told to fly under the radar’

Feaster said it is crucial for schools to identify the children with incarcerated parents and get involved early on to circumvent problems that come later.

One of the challenges educators face in meeting the needs of these children is a lack of resources — specifically a lack of people trained to help children work through these situations appropriately. She said having trained professionals leads to a reduction in time spent on discipline.

“It helps me be an instructional leader instead of a firefighter putting out fires all over the building all the time,” she said.

But identifying these children is complicated, especially when a student’s right to confidentiality conflicts with a parent’s desire for the situation not to be talked about in the first place.

Brenda McNeely-Allen, a social worker at East Chapel Hill High School, said she does not let the parents know what their children have told her, and she does not tell students’ teachers.

She does not know of any students with incarcerated parents at East Chapel Hill High School, but she said if she did, she would not share the information with a teacher unless a parent had given her permission.

“I have to keep it that way because otherwise they’ll never trust me again,” McNeely-Allen said.

Many parents don’t even want teachers to know.

“Some kids are told not to talk about it,” Radcliff said. “They’re told to fly under the radar.”

A need to connect

Despite the complex situation, Newell emphasized the importance of schools and said it is teachers’ responsibility to create an atmosphere where children feel comfortable coming to them to talk about these issues.

“I do not want to try to turn teachers into professional therapists,” she said. “But I do think school can be brought to the children as a safe, trustworthy place.”

However, the school counselor said she has often found that it is social workers and counselors who are the primary contact for students, simply because teachers do not have the time.

McNeely-Allen said this only worsens when students get to high school and face end-of-course testing. She said teachers do not want their students to be pulled out of these classes.

“(Students) need that support, and you’re trying to find that balance of how do you meet the needs of these children who have these emotional struggles, and they need to be in class but they need to see you,” she said.

The counselor’s main concern was whether there should be a more formal system in place, such as an intermediary between the school and prison system. However, Feaster said the school is still an important place for this remediation because everyone has to go to school.

“(Educators) have to step into the gap and fill those voids where the parents aren’t able to do so,” she said. “We’ve just got to be multipurpose now, but we need the skills to be able to do that,” she said.

The counselor tries to avoid focusing her conversation with children on their incarcerated parents.

The boy who came to her struggling with anger management spearheaded the start of a lunch group for him and two other boys with the counselor.

Neither of the other boys has an incarcerated parent, and they do not know their friend has a parent in prison. The counselor said it’s just a lunch group, not a therapy group. They play games, and the boys especially love to talk about wrestling.

“He knows that I know, and I think that’s helped our relationship,” she said.

Despite this lack of direct therapy, she thinks it has helped because it does not focus on his having an incarcerated parent.

“I think that’s really what kids in crisis seek — some kind of connection,” she said.

“And that’s where I see the role of the school.”