As Americans, we value the belief that we are the number one nation on earth by whatever measure is made. Sadly, studies have consistently shown that that belief is far from the truth when we examine how we care for our children.
A 2011 study rated developed nations in terms of a children’s index for health and personal welfare and the U.S. ranked 34 of 43 countries — Sweden was number 1 and Bosnia 43; Canada was 21 and England 24. Despite our differences on many social and political issues, Americans at one time agreed on the essential importance of caring for all of our children. More importantly, as Christians we adopted this ethic from Jesus’ teaching, “‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’” (Matthew 19:14 NRSV) The question that begs to be asked is… What has happened to us?
In 2008, reports indicated that on any given day in America, more than 1.5 million children have at least one parent incarcerated in a state or federal prison. And more than 10 million children are living with a parent who has come under some form of criminal justice supervision at some point in the child’s life. As more and more people are incarcerated, these numbers have seen an obvious increase.
Children of incarcerated parents face many dangers, issues that are common worldwide, regardless of the culture. Some of these dangers are obvious. Some are more subtle. However, you can assume that if there is a jail or prison within driving distance of your church, there are also children in your community who may be deprived of basic necessities, experience estrangement from their incarcerated parent, face depersonalization and secondary victimization, experience a decline in their existing situation, and risk falling into antisocial or criminal behavior.
Often, these children are deprived of such basic necessities as food, clothing and shelter because of the loss of household income. Obtaining these necessities may be more critical in what was perhaps a difficult situation to begin with. Another significant problem is transportation for visitation. Infrequent visits can strain, or break, the parental bond.
The children suffer in other, less noticeable ways. Interviews with children and other family members of the incarcerated describe feeling as if they are imprisoned along with their loved one, even though they have never committed a crime. These children share stories of being ostracized by friends, outside family members, neighbors, and even their church. When this discrimination occurs through key relationships, children often blame themselves for what has happened, (continued on next page)