Supporting Children with Incarcerated Parents


Supporting Children with Incarcerated Parents — April Message from Dr. Jocelynne Rainey, GOSO President & CEO

During our recent forum with New York City mayoral candidates, a youth activist from the Osborne Youth Action Council highlighted how thousands of children across New York City are living through parental incarceration. One in every 12 children, more than 5.7 million kids under the age of 18, have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. This devastating reality is why Wilaja Mercer asked mayoral candidates, “With COVID, it’s been a year since children could visit their parents on Rikers Island and seven months since they could visit them in prison. How will you ensure that children of incarcerated parents are supported, and ensure that all New York City agencies are addressing their needs – including having access to their incarcerated parents and supportive services?” 

This was one of the most poignant questions of the evening.

A daughter and her dad

Many of the young men involved in GOSO’s programs are fathers, and they have all expressed feelings of extreme guilt for not being available for their children during incarceration. One such father is Tyrelle, a proud father of a young girl. “I felt horrible that I didn’t have a chance for her to get to know me. Now it is something I will have to explain when she grows up,” he said when reflecting on his time incarcerated. 

This is why Tyrelle stresses how important it is that the city and state address the lack of access that parents have to their children when incarcerated. This is a dilemma that gets further complicated when the relationship between two parents is fractured, which can be an unfortunate fallout from justice involvement. In Tyrelle’s particular situation, he was co-parenting with his former partner prior to being incarcerated. His daughter never visited with him in person while he was incarcerated because her mother would not bring her. When he was arrested, it was as if custody had been granted to her by default, which left him with little influence over when and how frequently he would communicate with his daughter. 

A clear and present need

It’s not always easy to know when families are going through a crisis. Some families are adept at shielding their hardships from the world. Others are simply doing their level best to keep pressing on. But when someone with children is incarcerated, there should be no doubt that their children need our immediate support. 

As we discussed in February during a fireside chat with Dr. C. Nicole Mason, CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, when people become involved with the criminal justice system, they are rarely there alone. Parents, extended family members, and loved ones are all psychologically locked behind bars as well—collectively experiencing the trauma of incarceration. This trauma is especially acute for children, who suffer from the emotional and physical absence of their parents, not to mention the stigma of having a parent in the correctional system.

Within New York City, among the 442,837 children living in poverty, 30.6% (135,780) are under the age of five years, reported the United States Census Bureau.  While the National Institute of Justice points out that it may be difficult to predict exactly how a child will respond to parental incarceration, there is no question that they are more likely to face a host of challenges – including psychological strain, antisocial behavior, school suspension or expulsion, and more. Further, what makes this risk factor so insidious for these children is that because of the stigma, they often suffer in silence – which, in turn, makes it difficult for teachers and counselors to identify the root cause of behavioral issues when they appear.

Supporting children with incarcerated parents

The exchange of ideas with each of the mayoral candidates was extremely thought provoking. And it was encouraging to see that each of the candidates share our belief that we need to draw a line in the sand when it comes to the welfare of children whose parents are incarcerated. 

We need to de-stigmatize parental incarceration for young children. They are not responsible for their parents’ incarceration, and they need and deserve access to all of the social services at our disposal. 

Organizations like Children of Promise, NYC provide programs and services for children who are impacted by incarceration. And here at GOSO, we are doing our best to support many of the young fathers involved in our programs.  But the city’s government also needs to be an active part of the solution.

When an individual is incarcerated, we should immediately put a coordinated plan in place to make sure that these children receive the support they need – both in and out of school settings.

The city’s government also needs to be an active part of the solution. When an individual is incarcerated, we should immediately put a coordinated plan in place to make sure that these children receive the support they need – both in and out of school settings.

Teachers and school social workers need to be able to work with children and their families, asking them, “Do you have all the resources you need? How can we help?”  But we can’t stop there. Simply asking the questions is the first step. But connecting families with the necessary support services is essential if we’re ever going to bridge this gap. Regardless of whether their challenges are academic, social, or emotional in nature, we need to build out a coordinated approach that addresses the challenges the children face and provide the support they need. 

Over the years, GOSO has been grateful for the support from the mayor’s office and the other dedicated public servants who share our concerns over the current system of mass incarceration and its impact on families and children. We were encouraged to hear each of the mayoral candidates voice their support for the children of incarcerated parents. And in the days ahead, we look forward to collaboratively building a system that supports all of the people touched by incarceration.  

Please find the full Criminal Justice and Mayoral Forum video available here.