When a Parent is in Prison - Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My five-year-old son’s father has been incarcerated.

He’s had a sporadic track record as a Dad the past two years, but now it looks like he’ll be forcibly absent for the next eighteen months. Is it worth the hassle to try to keep a relationship going? My dad and brother are very involved with my son, as is my mother, but is it important for him to have a physical visit with his father once in a while? I guess I’d have to explain the bars and jumpsuit.

Not His Wife Anymore

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Dear NHWA,

Despite the presence of a loving family, your son may have wondered why his father hasn’t been around as much as other children’s fathers. And now that he can’t come around at all, this reality must be addressed. Sooner or later your son needs to understand that his father is being punished for having broken a law. Despite your ex-husband’s minimal contact, your son probably has an idea of what a father is “supposed to do” and is due an explanation.

Parental Rights
Use your best judgement in pursuing communication and visits between your son and his father. Unless parental rights have been terminated, your son’s father has the right to maintain a relationship with his child. He may use his time in prison to reflect on fatherhood and to resolve to do better. It could be good for both of them.

Reality
You might want to start with sending artwork and dictated letters. Work up to a phone call or better yet a video call, if permitted, before the first visit. After a few visits to the prison your son will grasp the reality of what “behind bars” means. He may be relieved of wondering where Daddy is and why they’re not spending more time together. It may also relieve him (and you) to see that there are other children who go to visit a parent in prison. The Family League of Baltimore estimates that currently 3.5% of the children in this country have an incarcerated parent. According to a Fact Sheet published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Sixty-three percent of federal prisoners and 55 percent of state prisoners are parents of children under age 18.” This means that visiting day will include many other youngsters.

A Visit With Daddy
Hopefully the visits go smoothly by keeping the children’s needs in mind. Ask ahead about what is provided, then fill in with approved activities and refreshments. Your son will soon look forward to a reassuring routine of sharing toys, books, games, crafts, snacks or lunch, and other activities during the visits. If you can, help your son make a ritual of starting and ending each visit with his father, just as you do with him at the start and end of his school day or your work day. If your family members will be doing some of the transportation, share with each other the best way to carry out an enjoyable father-son experience. The Casey Foundation reports, “There is evidence that maintaining contact with one’s incarcerated parent improves a child’s emotional response to the incarceration and supports parent-child attachment.”

The Future
For better or for worse, your son’s father is his father. Part of the process of growing up is to accept our parents’ imperfections. There may be ways we find ourselves to be similar to each parent – in appearance, in talents, in personality – but a goal of independent adulthood is to follow one’s own unique path toward self-sufficiency. It helps, however, to know who we come from as we uncover our individuality. Better for your son to deal with the fact of his father’s incarceration than to let their connection with each other wither away. The Family League of Baltimore states, “While parental incarceration is now recognized as an adverse childhood experience, there is no basis for a popular misconception that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be incarcerated than their peers, and are predisposed to criminal activity.” Your stable parenting, with the support of your family members and others, will be the foundation for your son’s development.

See if there are initiatives– through the prison itself or other community resources – to support your son through the experience of being the child of an incarcerated parent. A variety exist across the country in recognition of the adverse effect a parent’s prison sentence can have on a child. It is possible to lessen the negative effect with intentional positive experiences. One such program, sponsored by the Judy Center of Anne Arundel County Public Schools and Anne Arundel County Public Library is Open Book Family Reading Program. Inmates at the county’s Ordnance Road Correctional Center can apply to participate in group activities with their children and in so doing, help the youngsters with early literacy. Call the library system’s Program and Outreach office for information: 410-222-7371, or if your husband is elsewhere, the folks at AACPL may be able to assist you in starting up such a program to benefit your son.

Dr. Debbie

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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.