1 Child. In 14.
1 Child out of every 14 children, in America.
More than 5 million children.
Do you know what that stat means?
It means that you probably know one of these children.
Maybe they live in your neighborhood Or, they could be in your child’s class at school. They may be in your own family. And, I hope that they are in your church, because you attend a church welcomes these children.
These are children who have a parent that is incarcerated.
A new study, released yesterday by Child Trends, is making a huge splash and garnering much attention. Their findings show that 7% of all American children have a parent who they have lived with at some point, in prison. It does not take into account the potentially thousands and thousands of children with a parent who they have not lived, who is incarcerated.
Folks, there are a lot of hurting children out there.
I’ve read through the study in its entirety. You can locate it at this link here: Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children? It’s not a difficult read, but it is a research study, so you may not be interested in digging through the stats and implications and correlations and vocabulary and charts–unless you are nerdy, like myself.
But, maybe you’d be curious–or interested–to hear from a parent of children in such a situation.
So, if you’d permit me, I’d like to share, from my soul, what I see, as a mom of four remarkable kids who has an incarcerated father (my ex-husband).
Now, let me preface what you are about to read, with this: My children–and myself–we are the fortunate ones. We live in a community that has embraced us and cared for us in incredibly, amazing ways. Our church family–and, they truly are that: family–has been phenomenal over the last six years, since their father’s incarceration. I’ve written about that before, in this space. There are not nearly enough words to describe our gratitude to our church, to other area churches (including the one we rent our home from), the school system, and the community. As a result of the loving care we have been gifted with, many of the traumatic results of having a parent who is incarcerated have not materialized in my kid’s lives. Oh, friends, I can’t tell you, as a mother, how grateful I am for that. So grateful. My kids are well. I am well. And that is a result of God’s grace, poured out on us, by those who He has placed in our lives.
Even so, it is no walk in the park for them. It’s a tough thing. They do great, they are great, they are amazing.
However, they are not unscathed.
And neither are the other 4,999,996 children in America, who are in similar–and much, much worse–situations.
But, please read to the end. Because there is hope, and you–and I–and communities, churches, schools and children–need to hear that hope.
It’s Tough, Emotionally
Having a parent in prison is tough stuff. Even when a child understands that a parent has committed a crime and has a consequence to pay, or even in the cases where the child is safer if an abusive parent is in prison, it is–most of the time–very hard to lose that parental figure. Certainly there are cases where that is not true, but many times there is void that is left. An emptiness. They can’t come home and share the “A” they received on their spelling test, or embellish the details of their football touchdown during PE or cry over being picked on at school to a parent who is sitting behind bars. There is often a deep, aching missing.
And that void is compacted with trying to wrap their minds around how a parent–the person who is responsible for teaching the child right from wrong–could have done something so wrong as to necessitate being removed from the child’s life. That’s bewildering. Throw into the mix situations where children experience things they should never have to experience: being a witness–or victim!–of the crime, watching their parent being arrested, social service and police interviews, courtrooms, and the overwhelming experience of walking through clanging razor wire fences, being patted down, and eventually sitting down to visit a parent sitting behind bullet proof glass and talking through ventilation speaker holes–people, that’s tough stuff.
It’s Tough, Socially
Of the entire research study, it is this line that struck me most deeply:
The social stigma associated with parental incarceration, which teachers and peers may reinforce, may be one explanation for this finding. Having an imprisoned parent is an example of a loss that is not socially approved or (often) supported, which may compound children’s grief and pain, leading to emotional difficulties and problem behaviors. (pg. 8)
There is great truth in this, I’ve found, as I’ve worked with a handful of other spouses across America who have found themselves in similar situations, and as I recall those early, harrowing days. Again, my kids are the fortunate ones, and yet they still had to struggle with tremendous grief and loss compounded by embarrassment and shame, even though no shame belonged on their shoulders, at all. Divorce, (sadly) is something kids have become used to, and they freely discuss it among themselves. Not so, with incarceration. A child may be quite comfortable saying “I’m staying at my dad’s house this weekend” in the case of divorce; but a child with an incarcerated parent is going to have a tougher time saying “I’m going to the state prison this weekend, to visit my dad.” How do you even explain that to, or answer the barrage of questions that might follow, from your peers?
It’s Tough, Physically
Many, many children with incarcerated parents end up being shuffled from caregiver to caregiver. Or, they may find themselves in foster homes. That’s exhausting. If they are living with the parent who is not incarcerated, often that parent is having to work multiple jobs to survive financially, so they are not always in the home in the evenings in order to ensure good meals are eaten, homework is done, and regular bedtimes are enforced. I remember those early days, when I was working two jobs–sometimes I would leave the house early in the morning before the kids woke up, and not return until 10pm or later. We were all, so very exhausted. Incarceration is tough on children, physically.
It’s Tough Financially
When divorce occurs, there is often child support and medical insurance. Not always, I understand that. But the possibility is there. If a parent dies, a child is entitled to a Social Security check each month, and sometimes there is life insurance. When a parent is incarcerated, and income is lost as a result, there is no safety net. None. The income is just gone. The medical insurance is just gone. The non-incarcerated parent may find some relief through Social Services in the form of Medicaid for children, and Food Stamps, but for the most part, there is nothing. Again, let me be very transparent here–we survived because our dear, precious community of faith, and community in general, were God’s grace to us. They gave us a place to stay, they sent job leads my way, they provided food, Christmas–so much. So much that I’ll never be able to repay, or express enough gratitude for. But we are the anomaly. My children never, ever went hungry. There are children, tonight, in America, who are going to bed hungry, because they have a parent–or, maybe two parents–in prison. My soul, that wrecks me.
It’s Tough, Spiritually
Trying to orient one’s soul, toward God, when one has a parent who is incarcerated, is tough. Especially as a child, in crucial formative years. Questions abound–Why did God let this happen? Why did mom, or dad, do such a thing if they knew it was wrong? Does mom (or dad) love me? Does God love me? Maybe I’ll end up in jail just like dad, so why bother trying to be “good”? Will God forgive my mom, even though they are in jail? If He does forgive them, why do they have to stay in jail? Is there even a God?
It’s a tough place, for these young, tender souls to be in. They need much time, from people who are willing to hear their questions, without brushing them aside. They do not need to hear responses such as “You know better than that.” They need patience. They need love. They need people willing to invest deeply in them, unconditionally. They need grace, grace, grace and more grace. And, I suppose that is the one thing that I ache most for my crew; none of the four have really had anyway step into their lives in that manner; apart from our landlord from the church we rent our house from, who has been so good to be a substitute “grandpa” for my kids; especially my youngest boy. For that, I will also be forever grateful.
So, where’s the hope?
It’s right here, in Romans 5:2-5:
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
These children with incarcerated parents, can find hope, in God’s grace. And they can stand in that grace. They can stand fast, in that grace, because the sufferings they are enduring, can produce character and hope.
And, that hope will not put these children, who may be susceptible to shame because of the situation that their incarcerated parents have put them in (it is NEVER the child’s fault, but there still is often undeserved shame)–that hope will not put these children to shame. Instead, God’s love can help them to lift their heads.
They are beautiful, these children. They are resilient, and smart, and funny, and obnoxious, and witty, and frustrating and they are just like every other kid. They are kids, and all that being “kids” entails.
But—here is what I want you to hear, dear reader. Here is what I need you to hear. And what these kids need you to hear:
These children need you to be that conduit of grace in their lives. Be it your neighbor, your student, your child’s friend, your Sunday School student, your own family member–your own child, possibly, though heaven forbid you ever encounter that; I pray that you will not–regardless, these children need to see and experience God’s grace, through your actions.
And church, these children need for you to welcome them in with open arms. Yes, its messy. Yes, its hard. It may mean providing transportation to and from church. It may mean providing funds discretely, so these children can participate in the same activities that other children participate in through church–summer camps, bowling trips, pizza parties. It may mean dealing with behavior problems–but do not assume that will be the case! They do not deserve that stigma, but you need to be aware that it may be a possibility.
And it may mean that you have a hurting child, in your midst, who is hungry for something normal in their life. Treat them as such. Give them the normalcy, but be ready to be “present grace”, in their lives, too. And in the lives of their caregivers.
O, my soul, how grateful I am, how very grateful I am, for grace. And, for grace upon grace.
So. There is probably a 1 in 14 child, in your life somewhere. And, if not, there very well may be, some day. If you find yourself in that situation, and would like to discuss further what being a conduit of God’s grace to that child might look like, please, please–contact me. I would love to help.
And, if you are in need of practical resources for a child with an incarcerated parent, or need to steer a caregiver toward some assistance, I have an entire page of Resources for Children with Incarcerated Parents. There you will find a wide variety of links–some for caregivers, some for children, and some for those who may wish to volunteer in programs that focus on these children. You can find the link here: Resources for Children with an Incarcerated Parent.
Matthew 19 tells the story about how Jesus welcomed little children. In fact, He told his disciples to not “hinder them”, from drawing near to Jesus. Let’s do the same. Let’s ourselves draw near to God, and ask how we can show His grace, to “the least of these.” And let’s not hinder children with incarcerated parents from experiencing the grace of God, through our practical actions that will demonstrate to these precious ones, that God sees, He knows, and they are so very loved.