- Lifelong consequences of childhood trauma: A landmark study you need to know about
- Childhood emotional abuse: An invisible problem that lasts into adulthood
- Physical abuse of children: The long term effects that never go away
- Stolen innocence: Long term effects of child sexual abuse and how to protect your child
- Children of incarcerated parents pay the price of their crime forever
- Effects of divorce on children in the long term
- Effects of witnessing domestic violence on children: What happens when they grow up
- Growing up with addicted parents and the adult children of addicts
- Growing up with a parent with mental illness: The lifelong impact
- Physical neglect: Lasting consequences of growing up hungry, cold, unhealthy, and unsafe
- Emotionally neglectful parents: How they harm their children in adulthood
- Adverse childhood experiences: 5 protective factors that build resilience in children
Childhood trauma presents itself in many guises, and the loss of a parent is a significant trauma. An often forgotten trauma is the child with a parent in the justice system. For these children, this situation represents a tangible and significant loss. This, coupled with the shame of what their parent may have done, or been accused of having done, can further exacerbate the trauma the young person is experiencing. As with all trauma, different individuals process it in different ways. And as we are learning, however it is processed, the victim of trauma, never escapes unscathed.
For me personally, the closest experience I had ever had with jail and the justice system was when a did a short stint as a substitute teacher in a children’s prison. The experience still haunts me today, but I was lucky enough to have the choice to leave the position and the sadness behind. It was here I assumed my experiences working with young people impacted by the justice system would end. I should however have been more canny. Statistically I should have known better because in the United States, 7% of children have at some point had incarcerated parents. That is a lot of kids without Mom or Dad at home.
Dad was a murderer
Some years later, at a hastily called staff meeting early one morning, our school community became acutely aware of the impact of incarceration of a parent on young children. As staff in a very ordinary Catholic school, with good kids, good parents, and part of a generally fabulous community, we were told that a parent within our school had been arrested on suspicion of a pretty horrific murder. The grim details of the murder had unfolded on internet feeds and television screens for days. And now we were learning that it was a parent of 2 of our own students. The silence was deafening as our scrambled thoughts tried to comprehend why someone would do something so horrific, and then to the 2 beautiful children who were part of our school community. Those poor, poor kids.
James* was in my class. A cheeky kid, who had a thirst for learning, but an attitude that kept me on my toes. James and his brother had requested that no one mention jail, the crime, or their dad to them. They did not want to speak about it. We respected that and allowed them the space to process in their own way. However, James’ attitude, appearance, and general demeanor rapidly changed and the impact on James was becoming visibly apparent.
With Dad in jail, James’s mom was now going alone. She was trying to raise 2 adolescent boys on a single parent pension, while grappling with her own feelings. Things got really difficult for her. The lack of services for families of prison inmates became very visible. She let things slide into a state of physical neglect. Where in the past her beautiful boys had been well dressed and had food in their bellies, they became scruffy and clearly not eating properly. The cheeky kid in my class, who exuded personality, disappeared, leaving me with a withdrawn and sullen young man, who had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Being the family of the accused, support resources were limited. There were no counseling services available to the family who were reeling in shock at their father’s sudden disappearance, while still trying to process his involvement in the horrific crime. There was no financial aid, no practical support, and definitely no sympathy. The family was guilty by association it seemed.
In the investigation process, when the house was raided, James lost his phone and computer. Evidence apparently. They were his pride and joy and they were never returned. James was fast becoming another victim of his father’s crime. As a school community we were able to subtly help James and his brother with clothes and food, without them feeling like a charity case.
James lost motivation for just about everything for the next 2 years. School work was not his priority and his appetite for learning disappeared. His work output was minimal, his organization haphazard, and his interactions with his peers, fractious. He was traumatized. With his dad in prison for a really serious crime, he was struggling with processing that. He was struggling with watching the impact it was having on his much loved mom. James had to step up and do things that his dad had once done. He was bereft, lonely, angry, fearful, and confused. He was struggling.
James shared with me that he visited Dad, often weekly. He shared that visits were tough because of the long journey to get there, the short time they had together, and the other people listening and watching. He told me he hated seeing Dad there, but he needed to see him. Carefully I would chose each word that I used to respond to James. He wanted to talk, but he did not need judgments. This man, however we saw him, was James’s father and it was very clear that James loved him very much.
Sadly James would not be the only young person I taught, with a parent on the inside. Sienna*, a feisty young woman, who could be both fearless and frightening, appeared in my class. As teachers we dreaded seeing the family name on our class list, because we knew we were in for a tough year.
Sienna had a set of records in our school that would often lead to questions about why she was still with us. Swearing at teachers, throwing furniture, storming out when she didn’t get her way, point blank refusing to do anything she was told were some of her less spectacular efforts.
The subject I was teaching provided me with an opportunity for the students to develop a project where they could share their life story, in any appropriate manner they chose. Sienna chose to journal her story. The painstaking effort Sienna had invested in sharing her story was evident on every page. Every one of her 7 siblings had a page, her nana had a page, her mom’s best friend had a page, her dad had a page, uncles, aunts, dogs and cats, they all had pages. Last was Mom’s page. It simply said, “I miss you.” Of course, her painstaking effort earned her a spectacular mark and in my verbal feedback I gently enquired where Mom was. Jail.
A monosyllabic single harsh word, gave me the answers to all the struggles Sienna presented me with every single day. Sienna was living out her mom’s sentence every single day, but on the outside. She was a prisoner of her own trauma and her mom’s. Sienna had to grapple with her own grief every day, and somehow step into the role of helping her siblings with their grief too, as well as running the chaotic household with the limited skills that she had.
Life was unimaginably tough for Sienna. The exceptionally limited support networks available to her did not go anywhere near addressing the needs she had. Our school, while having some understanding of her difficulties, did not have the expertise or resources to support this young woman. Sienna was another victim of crime.
Witnessing both Sienna and James’s journey was sad. I learned first hand, that sometimes the people who are responsible for the heinous crimes are also very much loved people too. I learned that their victims extended far wider than the actual victim of the crime. I learned that there was not much support for those whose parents were incarcerated, but there needed to be. Most importantly I learned that the very different behaviors these 2 incredibly young people displayed were as a direct result of their trauma: the incarceration of their parents.
Impact of parental incarceration on child development
The tales of woe for James, Sienna, and each child of those incarcerated parents is that the damage and impact is far greater than the behaviors we witnessed in school. The damage has life long consequences that can impact on every aspect of their lives. Research tells us that these children are at far greater risk of entering the justice system themselves. Their health outcomes are poor too, with significant increases in depression and other mental health conditions. Ongoing and increased violence was a common factor too, as these kids battle with regulating the massive emotions they experience. Once they become adults themselves they don’t suddenly learn to regulate. These violent behaviors follow them and create new cycles of violence, perpetuating the impact of trauma. For many of these children their education attainment is often far less than their capacity. Learning takes the back seat when survival becomes a priority.
James lives in my local community now and I occasionally bump into him. He is working, but he didn’t get to go to university like he wanted to. He wants to travel, but supporting his mom is his priority, so he says that can wait. James still sees Dad each week and he still looks up to his dad. His dad, to him is like any other dad, his hero. James is not responsible for what his dad did, but rather is one more victim of his crime. I do not see Sienna around the community and when I enquire there are hushed whispers about her following her Mom’s footsteps, whatever those were.
How to help a child whose parent is in jail
Having someone we know and love in prison is tough, really tough, and unfortunately they are often the forgotten and silent victims. As people begin to understand more about the impact incarceration has on children, the more support groups for families will emerge. While there may not be many support groups, there are books that you could explore to help your child navigate the feelings of abandonment, shame, loss, and fear. The Night dad went to jail: What to expect when someone you love goes to jail deals sensitively and honestly with these feelings and helps children understand that their feelings and fears are okay, and that they are not alone.
My journey with James and Sienna was such a learning journey for me. Since teaching these 2 young people, many students similar to them have crossed my path. Each and every one of them, significantly impacted by the crime they didn’t commit.
If, in your travels, you meet someone who has someone close to them in jail, I implore you to remember to be compassionate and kind. Listen without judging. Talk without prying. Compassion and kindness are key. If we want to support the children and families of the incarcerated, the unseen victims, it has to be rooted in kindness and compassion. These silent victims need that from us. The impact of trauma can be, and normally is, significant. Small acts of kindness and demonstrations of compassion really can help these victims find their way again in their cruel world, and begin to heal.
*James and Sienna are pseudonyms. They are composite personalities based on several children I have worked with.