Our society knows that parental incarceration is traumatic for a child, so it acts accordingly to mitigate this trauma. Since our institution have yet to recognise parental alienation as a similar source of trauma, it seems children of deceased and incarcerated parents might currently be better of than children alienated from living and available parents. It should be noted that incarcerated and alienated parents are not two mutually exclusive groups. In fact, a recent article in Parent Survival Guide Magazine confronts how many parents we might be putting behinds bars for no other reason than alienation.
What follows is a provocative and well-sited analysis of this phenomenon by Benjamin Marquette. If it seems discouraging, picture the moment parental alienation is institutionally recognized as an adverse childhood experience (ACE) alongside parental incarceration -- which we are working hard on! We welcome your reactions to info@SimplyParent.org.
There is good academic research to support the efforts of prison administrators to foster the relationship between a child and an incarcerated parent. Parental absence due to incarceration has an extremely deleterious effect on a child’s emotional, social and psychological development.
"Parental incarceration has long-lasting effects on children… Parental incarceration is deemed an adverse childhood experience because of its disruptive and long-lasting nature… and is often combined with other adverse childhood experiences, including, but not limited to, childhood poverty, living in a household with a caretaker with a substance abuse problem, and living in a household with a caretaker who is mentally ill….
The development of the child is affected on several different fronts, including behavioral, social, health, and educational development. ….The effects are similar to those of a contentious parental separation or divorce or even the death of a parent. Over fifty percent of incarcerated fathers had minor children living with them at the time of sentencing, and over eighty percent of incarcerated mothers had minor children living with them at the time of sentencing. The familial structure is deeply impacted, if not constructively or legally terminated, by parental incarceration."*
In 2009, the Council of State Governments Justice Center published a paper titled Children of Incarcerated Parents: An Action Plan for Federal Policymakers. Among other things, the paper considers parent-child interactions within the correctional system and stated the following:
"Research has shown that children may benefit from maintaining healthy relationships with their incarcerated parents.
There is some evidence that children who maintain close ties with their incarcerated parents experience less emotional distress and exhibit fewer problematic behaviors than children who do not have contact with their parents.
Maintaining contact has been shown to be particularly beneficial in cases where the parent had a significant presence in the child’s life prior to being incarcerated.
Strong parent-child relationships may aid in children’s adjustment to their parents’ incarceration and help to mitigate many of the negative outcomes for children that are associated with parental incarceration."**
The Annie E. Casey Foundation issued a policy report titled A Shared Sentence: the Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities (2016). The report also looks at a number of aspects of the impact of a parent’s incarceration on children:
"Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce, with a potentially lasting negative impact on a child’s well-being.34 These young children lose a parent’s support during their critical early years, a time when their families and communities should be laying the foundation for healthy development and success. Their bonds to that parent are weakened, or sometimes never formed, as distance may keep them from making regular visits. The loss of that bond is especially devastating for children with incarcerated mothers. The trauma of being separated from a parent, along with a lack of sympathy or support from others, can increase children’s mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and hamper educational achievement. Kids of incarcerated mothers, in particular, are at greater risk of dropping out of school. Teachers can further undermine children’s performance and self-esteem by lowering their academic expectations. And when these kids grow up, they are more likely to contend with poor mental and physical health."***
The report then make some specific policy recommendations, including the following:
"RECOMMENDATION ONE Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return.
Children need permanent family connections and stability to do well, and their families need the financial and emotional wherewithal to support their well-being. Providing mental health and counseling programs to family members who step up as caregivers during incarceration can help children withstand the repercussions of this disruption in their lives.
Research shows preserving a child’s relationship with a parent during incarceration benefits both parties. It also benefits society, reducing children’s mental health issues and anxiety, while lowering recidivism and facilitating parents’ successful return to their communities. Few programs exist to support these relationships during incarceration, and, upon reunification, families are left to travel bumpy terrain on their own, from readjusting to life after prison to resuming parental roles. The minimal data available on children with incarcerated parents further complicate attempts to address their needs.
The very agencies and organizations that could help children and their families typically have no official or clear way to reach them. They also tend to operate in isolation, with different funding sources and guidelines that can further impede their ability to respond to child and family needs. The Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights offers a strong set of principles and recommendations for putting kids at the forefront before, during and after incarceration. It calls on police departments, courts, schools, correctional facilities and other institutions that touch children’s lives to operate with them in mind.
State and federal criminal justice systems should preserve family connections during incarceration by encouraging judges and other key players to consider the impact on kids and families when making sentencing and prison-assignment decisions. These systems should require courts to inform local social service agencies and community-based organizations when a parent is incarcerated so that they can make contact with families. Prisons and jails also should develop visitation policies that allow children to maintain their parental relationships, such as providing transportation and family-friendly visiting centers in their facilities or offering other means of communication, including videoconferencing."***
Some government correctional authorities apparently understand the importance of the parent-child relationship and are taking actions to support this relationship. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (Penn DOC) issued a press release in June 2017 that included the following statement:
"The absence of a parent – which some psychologists have compared to the death of a parent – through the formative years can have deleterious effects on a child. Dealing with the emotional, social and economic consequences of that loss can trigger behavioral problems, lead to trouble in school and the possibility of dropping out and continuing the cycle of crime."
The press release goes on to tout all of the efforts of Penn DOC to help children of inmates:
"The Department of Corrections has worked to provide resources for families of inmates and help maintain family bonds.
Family days that feature activities for the kids and helpful information for parents, grandparents and guardians, facing the challenges of raising children with a parent in prison. For example, an event may feature speakers on areas of nutrition and dental health, while parents and guests are given examples of healthy snacks and easy-to-prepare meals.
Virtual visitation sites in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Erie give families and inmates in far-flung prisons the opportunity to see and hear each other.
Each facility visiting room has a “resource center” of brochures offering helpful information on how to access multiple assistance programs in Pennsylvania.
Parenting programs are also offered for inmates across the state, teaching inmates how to interact in a helpful manner with their children.
The “Read to Your Child’’ program allows inmates to be recorded reading a book aloud to their child. The book and recording is then sent home for the child to have.
The Fathers and Children Together initiative at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford is an in-depth program that teaches fathers how to interact with their children and build relationship during weekly one-on-one visits. The program, developed by the inmates, is facilitated by the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia.
DOC works with the Pennsylvania Prison Society to provide transportation services for families to visit inmates."****
How is all of this relevant to parental alienation?
Both due to incarceration and alienation, there is a break in the relationship between parent and child. What is different – and inexplicably – is the difference in the response of policymakers and state governments.
In the case of children of incarcerated parents, there is a plethora of both well-articulated policy and specific prescriptions designed to assist the child in dealing with the break in the relationship. By contrast, the alienated child not only suffers the loss of a parent – and the shame for daring to still love that parent – but also a dearth of programs to assist her/him. Moreover, while with incarcerations the state agencies involved (family courts, child protective services, police) address the problem, with alienation they don’t even seem to see it.
Given what we know about the similarity of trauma on the affected children, the policy prescriptions – both from the think-tanks and as enacted in some states – need to be evaluated for adaption to the situations of alienation. Many targeted parents have no time or contact with their children while inmates’ contact with their children is facilitated.
Isn’t it curious – absurd – inconceivable – that targeted parents who have not violated any laws are treated worse than criminals?
What might that look like? Here are some simple examples.
Working with judges and lawyers:
Children of incarcerated parents: “State and federal criminal justice systems should preserve family connections during incarceration by encouraging judges and other key players to consider the impact on kids and families when making sentencing and prison-assignment decisions.”***
Alienated children of non-incarcerated parents: Encourage judges and family lawyers to become familiar with the hallmarks of parental alienation and what efforts they could undertake to ameliorate it.
Educate Children and Youth Services about the downsides of alienation:
Children of incarcerated parents: “These systems should require courts to inform local social service agencies and community-based organizations when a parent is incarcerated so that they can make contact with families.***
Alienated children of non-incarcerated parents: educate and inform child protective services agencies about the abusive nature of parental alienation so that appropriate interventions can be developed
Communication between parent and child:
Children of incarcerated parents: videoconference capability provided to facilitate communication.
Alienated children of non-incarcerated parents: visitation/parenting-time orders should provide for regular communication with the non-custodial parent, including the possible use of technology such as Skype and Facetime.
Perhaps it is time for policymakers to look at the entire landscape – and at best practice wherever it may lie (here – the mandate to protect the bond between inmates and their children) – because failure to do so is unequivocally and inexcusable damaging the next generation.
* Pat-Downs But No Hugs: Why Prison Visitation Protocol Should Be Changed to Help Keep Familial Structures Intact, Fasah. Family Court Review, Vol. 56 No. 1, January 2018 135–149 (footnotes omitted)(emphasis added).
** Children of Incarcerated Parents: An Action Plan for Federal Policymakers, Council of State Governments Justice Cente. 2009.
*** A Shared Sentence: the Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities, Annie E. Casey Foundation (2016). P. 3 and p. 9 (footnotes omitted).
**** Corrections Secretary Wetzel Applauds Bill to Help At-risk Children Succeed. 6/23/17), accessed at http://www.media.pa.gov/pages/corrections_details.aspx?newsid=283.