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Children's Voice Article, September/October, 2004

A Bill of Rights for Children of Prisoners

By Nell Bernstein

More than two million American children have a parent behind bars today, 50% more than a decade ago. Approximately 10 million--one in eight of the nation's children--have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.

Little is known about what becomes of children when their parents are imprisoned. There is no requirement that the various institutions charged with dealing with offenders--the police, courts, and the prison system--inquire about children's existence, much less concern themselves with children's care. Conversely, there is no requirement that the front-line systems serving vulnerable children--public schools, child welfare, juvenile justice--inquire about or account for parental incarceration.

Children of prisoners have a daunting array of needs. They need a safe place to live and people to care for them in their parents' absence, as well as everything else a parent might be expected to provide: food, clothing, medical care.

But beyond these material requirements, young people themselves identify an array of less tangible but equally compelling needs. They need to be told the truth about their parents' situation. They need someone to listen without judging so their parents' status need not remain a secret. They need the companionship of others who share their circumstances so they can know they are not alone. They need contact with their parents and to have that relationship recognized and valued even under adverse conditions. And rather than being stigmatized for their parents' actions or status, they need to be treated with respect, offered opportunity, and recognized as having potential.

Too often, these needs go not just unmet but unacknowledged. Over the years, a series of court cases has delineated the rights of prisoners in the United States. These rights are limited, but the notion that they exist is at least recognized.

The same does not hold true for the children of prisoners. They have committed no crime, but the penalty they are required to pay is steep. They forfeit, in too many cases, virtually everything that matters to them-their home, their safety, their public status and private self-image, and their source of comfort and affection. Their lives and prospects are profoundly affected by the numerous institutions that lay claim to their parents--the police and courts, jails and prisons, probation and parole--but they have no rights, explicit or implicit, within any of these jurisdictions.

The San Francisco Partnership for Incarcerated Parents (SFPIP) is working to bring children's rights into the center of the emerging dialogue about the effect of incarceration on families. SFPIP, of which I am a member, is a coalition of social service providers, representatives of government bodies, advocates, and others who work with or are concerned about children of incarcerated parents and their families. Hosted by the Zellerbach Family Foundation, SFPIP works to improve the lives of children of incarcerated parents and to increase awareness of these children, their needs, and their strengths.

A Children's Perspective

SFPIP came together in 2000 through the efforts of Zellerbach's Ellen Walker, who had noticed that several current and potential grantees had raised the same issue--the unmet needs of children of incarcerated parents. The Zellerbach Family Foundation was particularly concerned about the challenges incarcerated mothers face when they try to reunify with their children after release, especially when the child welfare system has been involved. At the suggestion of Susan Arding of the San Francisco Department of Human Services, which has worked with the San Francisco jail to address those challenges, Walker convened the group that became SFPIP.

The goal, Walker says, is "to increase understanding of the children of prisoners, who shouldn't be stereotyped and dismissed; to identify where their needs are not getting addressed; and to stimulate development of the best ways to address them, through better services and policies."

After studying the issues affecting these children and their families in San Francisco, SFPIP members agreed that a children's perspective was the logical framework from which all future work should evolve. Gretchen Newby, Executive Director of Friends Outside--a California-based organization that serves prisoners and their families--drafted a bill of rights for the children of incarcerated parents, based on her experience working with prisoners and their families.

Working from these rights, and from interviews I conducted with more than 30 young people who had experienced parental incarceration, I drafted the booklet Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Bill of Rights, which SFPIP members and others currently use. The booklet is meant to introduce readers to some of the views and experiences of young people affected by parental incarceration, and to begin to codify a set of principles on which future policy might be based.

A Lifelong Relationship

In November 2003, SFPIP launched the Bill of Rights at a well-attended event at the San Francisco library. Young people who had experienced parental incarceration spoke of their experiences and their ideas for reform.

"I struggle most to have people truly understand our loss as children of incarcerated parents," said Emani Davis, who is developing a mentoring program for children of prisoners at Center-force in San Rafael, California. [See "Mentoring the Children of Prisoners," page 8.] "Many people have convinced themselves that we're special families, unique families; that we're a different kind of kid. And we're just like everyone else. We love our parents as deeply as everyone else. They love us as deeply. And loss is as painful for us as it is for anybody else. "

Davis, whose father is imprisoned, highlighted Right Number 8: "I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent."

"Many people think that when a parent is doing life, we're doing a service to children in having them sever contact," she said. "As children, we understand who we are as human beings by understanding who our parents are, and we should have the right to determine when and if we want to sever that relationship."

Not Routine

San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessy, who introduced the November event, welcomes the Bill of Rights and believes law enforcement agencies would benefit from increasing their focus on children's needs.

"Most of the issues raised by the Bill of Rights are eminently doable if law enforcement agencies would meld them into their routine," he says. "They are common sense, or would be if we as a society thought about what we should be doing. But they're just not part of the routine."

Hennessey says making the rights "routine" will likely require legislation and regulation. "Bureaucracies do today what they did yesterday," he observes, and children have not traditionally been at the center of criminal justice policy. To remedy that, he says, "These concepts need to become rules."

Hennessey cites Right Number 1, "I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent's arrest," as an example. If regulations were in place requiring police officers to ask whether arrestees had children, and help make arrangements for their care when needed, then children would have a real shot at having that abstract "right" respected.

Several California state legislators are working toward that end. AB1941, introduced by Assembly Member Wilma Chan (D), would require law enforcement and child protective services agencies to develop protocols, in collaboration with local educational, judicial, correctional, and community-based organizations, for cooperating in their response to the arrest of a caregiving parent.

Chan's legislation would also give arrested parents three extra phone calls to arrange for the care of their children, encourage local correctional administrators to consider home detention rather than county jail time for low-risk offenders who are the sole caregivers of children; and require the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to develop standards to ensure child safety at the time of a parent's arrest.

"Approximately 850,000 children in California have a parent in the criminal justice system," Chan notes. "This bill creates policies that allow for these children to be treated with respect and care."

Fighting Silence and Secrecy

The Chan legislation and the Bill of Rights reflect a growing awareness among California public officials of the needs and strengths of the children of incarcerated parents. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, for example, recently launched an initiative within his office that includes hiring a social worker to help incarcerated clients maintain their relationships with their children and educate other criminal justice professionals about this constituency.

The social worker will also work to support children and their caregivers on the outside and connect them to community resources. Adachi's office will also work with the trial courts, police and sheriff's departments, and department of human services to develop protocols for the children of arrestees. His office will use the Bill of Rights in trainings with these agencies, and distribute copies to clients who have children and to county social workers assigned to those children.

Copies of the Bill of Rights are available free as a training and education tool. SFPIP members and others use them to initiate conversations about prisoners and their families among those who may work with the children of incarcerated parents--such as teachers or child welfare workers--but who may not have received much training around these children's needs and issues.

Ida McCray--an SFPIP member who founded the visitation and support organization Families With a Future--distributes the Bill of Rights at speaking engagements because, she says, "Something written with the children in mind keeps people focused on the children rather than other issues." Her goal is to see the rights adopted internationally and funding distributed based on the bill's principles.

Sydney Gurewitz Clemens is an SFPIP member and early childhood educator who trains teachers and child care workers in programs such as Early Head Start. She uses the Bill of Rights booklet--containing interviews with young people who have experienced parental incarceration--as "a way to open the subject of children who have parents in prison. People in early childhood education have these kids in their population, and they don't know what to say, so they say nothing."

When Clemens offers workshops on helping children deal with parental incarceration, she sometimes meets foster parents who have been instructed not to tell children their parents are in prison. One teacher told her a 3-year-old had said to her, "My daddy is in jail, but don't tell my mama--she doesn't know." The teacher did not know how to respond.

Clemens says the Bill of Rights can help teachers and other adults break through the silence and secrecy that often surround incarceration. "Grownups are fond of pretending kids don't notice and don't care. But kids do notice and care and have deep feelings and need someone at school, or anywhere in life, with whom they can talk about it." In that context, Clemens says, Right Number 6, "I have the right to support as I struggle with my parent's incarceration," is central to her work.

Inclusion and Power

Dee Anne Newell, is the director of the Centers for Youth and Family in Little Rock, which received federal funding to launch a mentorship program for the children of incarcerated parents in Arkansas. Newell has ordered 2,000 copies of the Bill of Rights and plans to use them in training mentors. "As the mentors go out and connect with the systems that impact these children, it will help them challenge those systems," Newell says. "The Bill of Rights says, 'Hey, criminal justice. Hey, child welfare. Let's look at things differently, from a truly child-focused perspective."

Sayyadina Thomas of San Francisco's Center for Young Women's Development uses the Bill of Rights in her work with juvenile detainees, many of whom have experienced parental incarceration, and some of whom are parents themselves. Thomas, who grew up with her great-grandmother and in foster care as a result of her mother's drug use and intermittent incarceration, says the notion of rights is powerful in and of itself.

"I didn't know I had rights," she says of her own experience growing up. "I thought I was worthless, somebody without a family that nobody cared for."

Thomas says she has responded most powerfully to Right Number 4--"I have the right to be well cared for in my parent's absence." Because she was shuffled through as many as 30 foster and group homes before she walked away from the system at 14, she says, "I felt that whenever someone cared about me, I owed them my life. If somebody gave me a meal that was more than Top Ramen, I thought they had done me a favor.

I didn't want to accept help because I felt I'd owe a debt I couldn't pay--not realizing that care was my right as a child."

As an advocate for youth, Thomas uses the Bill of Rights to "draw attention to this demographic. We need to oblige society to these youth, and that's what the Bill of Rights does. It doesn't give you much of an excuse to say, 'No, I don't want to offer my services,' or 'No, I don't have time.' It clearly states the need. If young people were kept safe and informed at the time of their parent's arrest, for example, we wouldn't need a Bill of Rights to say so."

In her work with other young people, Thomas says, she uses the rights to offer a sense of inclusion.

"When you see it, you realize there's somebody out there who cares about you. If there is a Bill of Rights drawn up for you, you are a citizen and you have power."

Nell Bernstein is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
Children of Incarcerated Parents:
A Bill of Rights
  1. I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent's arrest.
  2. I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me.
  3. I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent.
  4. I have the right to be well cared for in my parent's absence.
  5. I have the right to speak with, see, and touch my parent.
  6. I have the right to support as I struggle with my parent'so incarceration.
  7. I have the right not to be judged, blamed, or labeled because I have an incarcerated parent.
  8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.

The complete booklet, Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Bill of Rights, is available in hard copy from Friends Outside, 2540 Pacific Avenue #8, Stockton CA 95204; 209/938-0727. Or download it from CWLA's website at

4. I have the right to be well cared for in my parent's absence.
Antonio, 23
When I was 4 years old, my mother started doing drugs. She used to be in and out of jail, and then she started going to prison when I was 7. That's when we first got taken from her. Her friends took me to Social Services, dropped me off, left me there.

I've been in about 18 different group homes since then, and three or four foster homes. I don't care how bad whatever we were going through was, I still wanted to be with my mom. At the foster homes they would try to talk to me and I would say, "yes" and "no." I didn't tell them anything else, because I was so hurt about it.

One foster home I was in, I called the lady there my grandmother, 'cause she took care of me. She always made sure that I got in touch with my mom. Even if my mom were locked up and tryin' to call collect, she could call there. My grandmother knew that mattered in my life.

The other places, they didn't care. There were only a couple of people I lived with that actually took me to see my mom.

5. I have the right to speak with, see, and touch my parent.
Malcolm, 17
We made the most of each visit we had. My mom was very special about trying to give time to each little child. Like for my sister, she would sit there and braid her hair while she had her little private time to talk to her. She would try to make the three-hour visits enriching.

I remember she used to teach me karate. I remember her pushing me on a swing. Me showing her my muscles, even though I didn't have any. Just me being relaxed and having fun with my mother is what I remember most. And me really realizing how much I missed her toward the end of the visit, when someone would tell us we would have to say goodbye.

I couldn't even begin to express to you in words how fulfilling that was to my soul to give my mother a hug. For her to give me a kiss. For me to sit in her lap. If I hadn't been able to do that, I would have felt very empty then, as a child, and maybe now as well.

Because I didn't have that permanent separation--I always had contact in some form, whether it was writing or phone calls or visits, with my mother--I understand the strength of a family. When it's hard times, you stick together. And that was just a hard time.

8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.
Ahmad, 21
When I was 5, my mother's parental rights were terminated. I wasn't even allowed to be by her in the courtroom. But I just knew from her expression, her tears, begging the judge, what had happened. I was reaching out to her, begging, trying to have that last hug. They picked me up and just took me away. Me screaming and yelling, "Mommy, I'm sorry, I won't be bad again."

All the system saw was a drug-addicted mother. "We don't want this baby to be affected by this drug-addicted mother. The baby could do better without her." They wanted to protect little Ahmad. Why didn't they care about his mother?

There are mothers out there that are abusive to their kids, so the system has to step in and do something about that. That's understood. But when there's a mother struggling with an addiction, struggling with herself, but is not abusive toward her kids, then the system has to help better that situation. Help the mother as well as the child.

My mother was abusive to herself, not to Ahmad. Ahmad ate. Ahmad had clothes. Ahmad had love. But the system associated her abuse of herself with abuse of me. Were they right to do that? No. What would have helped me most is compassion for my mom.

All Adapted from Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Bill of Rights. Names have been changed.

Putting It to Use

A wonderful example of how to use the Bill of Rights as a teaching and activity tool for children of prisoners is McGruff and Scruff's Stories and Activities for Children of Promise from the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC). This activity book is designed for use by mentors with children of prisoners.

One story activity, "My Mom and Me," involves a young girl named Julie. Julie is at her friend Susan's house. Julie gets quiet and sad because she misses her mother. Julie's mother is in jail, and Julie has not written to her for a year. That night, after talking with Julie's grandmother, Susan and her parents help Julie write to her mother and express her feelings. Susan's parents also contact Julie's mentor to find out different ways they can help Julie.

Under the story about Julie, McGruff says in a bubble, Did you know? You have the right to be taken care of while your parent is gone! You have the right to a relationship with your parent!

For more information, visit NCPC's website at

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