Only two states, Indiana and Kentucky, have higher percentage of children with a parent who has been incarcerated according to the study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Scot Spencer is the Associate Director of Advocacy and Influence for the Foundation in Baltimore. He said the focus of the study is on the impact of incarceration on families.
“Families with incarcerated adults 65% of those households can’t meet basic needs. By basic needs we’re talking about making decisions about putting food on the table, buy medicine for your kids, paying rent, pay utilities.”
Nationwide, Spencer said the Foundation has estimated five million kids have an incarcerated parent. He said in Michigan that number is closer to 228,000.
“The impacts can be traumatic and they can be long term. It can result in the overall stability of a child throughout it’s life, it can affect child performance in school, just imagining if a parent has to make a decision about providing food and then a child can’t learn because they can’t focus.”
Spencer said perhaps most harmful to a child is losing contact with the incarcerated parent.
“One of the things that we tend to forget is that even though someone is incarcerated the likelihood is that they are a parent to a child. Just missing that basic contact with a parent can have a long term consequence.”
“I wasn’t surprised by the numbers at all.”
Linda VanderWaal is the Associate Director for Family Re-Entry at the Oakland-Livingston Human Service Agency. She works with a program called Connections. It allows children and their incarcerated parents to spend time together.
“We actually have preschool teachers come in and teach lessons to the dad and then we step back and let him be the primary teacher.”
VanderWaal said the goal is ultimately to help parents transition back into life outside of prison.
“We want to get them in a better situation than when they came in. That affects the children greatly. When dad is incarcerated it’s something like the income of the family drops 22%. If they were living in poverty before now they’re in crisis.”
VanderWaal said programs like Connections are important.
“People think oh they’re incarcerated, who cares? Well the thing is they’re getting out. One visit, one visit can reduce recidivism by 13%. Having these family connection is huge in helping the families thrive.”
“In fact my son’s father said to me ‘it’s like that small little visit takes me away from even being in there sometimes.’ So it’s just been the best experience.”
This is Janelle Pawlowski. She is the mother of a son with an incarcerated father. She said her son has been able to develop a relationship with his father through the Connections program.
“He always wants to see his dad. He is so excited about it.”
Pawlowski said when they visit during usual visiting hours it is much harder to spend time together.
“On a regular visit if he even tries to get up from his chair they tell him ‘sit down!’ You have to pretty much sit confined in this small area. When it’s just me, him, and my son it’s just confined to a small area and they don’t get that one on one time.”
For Pawlowski, Connections has been a lifesaver.
“This is a great way for them to get that bonding and one on one, to bring them close and give them that opportunity. They wouldn’t have it without it.”
Scot Spencer, with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said at the end of the day it’s about supporting the kids.
“We can have a conversation about changing mass incarceration but while we’re doing it we have to make sure the children are not left behind and not forgotten so that they have an opportunity to succeed in life.”
For someone like Janelle Pawlowski, that couldn’t be closer to the truth.