Eastern Iowa Groups Offer Support for Children of Imprisoned Parents

It’s a traumatic event when a parent goes to prison. Trauma for the parent, spouse, and children. Especially the children. Inside Out Reentry Community of Iowa City has launched a new project to help those kids. It’s a special “youth support kit” for children impacted by incarceration, funded through a grant from the Iowa City Human Rights Commission.

The kits are designed for Johnson County children 9 and younger. Each kit will include one of four picture books about having an incarcerated caregiver, based on the age of the child.

For example, one book called “Visiting Day” follows a young girl and her grandmother on a long bus ride to visit her father in prison. Another called “Our Moms” features the perspectives of four children, each with an incarcerated mother.

The kit also offers pre-stamped note cards so children can easily write to an incarcerated loved one, plus a resource folder with activities, coloring pencils and a journal. To request a kit, go to bit.ly/YouthKit. In addition, Inside Out sponsored a webinar last week dealing with how incarceration affects families.

Much of the focus was on children and the challenges they face. Of prime concern was how the image of mom or dad arrested and in handcuffs can haunt the children. “It’s nothing pretty,” said Daniel Johnson, founder of a Cedar Rapids mentoring program for children who was apart of the webinar panel. He said police “do not roll out a red carpet” when the time comes to take a person into custody.

Inside Out executive director Michelle Heinz said studies have shown that about 67% of parents who are arrested are hand cuffed in front of their children, and that more than half of those children develop post-traumatic stress disorder or related symptoms.

Many police departments try to avoid that scenario, but it is not always an option. A quick check with two local departments, Iowa City and North Liberty, showed that both have policies to address the physical safety and emotional well-being of children during such arrests.

As heartbreaking as witnessing a parental arrest might be, Johnson pointed out that the overall stigma of being a child with a parent in the prison system is usually worse. He said the negative reaction from peers or others in the community can be devastating, causing kids to experience loneliness, lose sleep, act out, withdraw or show other signs of emotional or physical stress down the line. “They believe they are by themselves,” he said. “But sometimes you’d never know it. Their jersey doesn’t say ‘my parents are incarcerated’ on it.”

Piled on top of this is the negative impact on basic living conditions at home. Not only have they lost someone they love, the children can suffer from reduced family income, the pressures of legal entanglements and the burden of visiting a parent in a prison that might be a long drive from home.

“Folks sometimes have to get up at 4 in the morning to travel to prisons,” Heinz said. “It’s disruptive for kids.” “Prisoners are not always placed close to the family,” agreed Sue Hutchins, founder of Living Beyond the Bars, who was also part of the Inside Out webinar panel. Her Marion-based non profit provides emotional support for families of those incarcerated, with support groups in Cedar Rapids and Coralville.

Johnson said problems developed by these children can hinder their success later in life. “They are six or seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves down the road,” he said.

Heinz reviewed anonymous statements from children who have a parent or sibling in prison and read some of them during the webinar. Here are three excerpts:

Dad will be home in two or three years. I see him only on holidays. If he were close, I might see him more.

I keep a picture of him nearby so I can look at it whenever I want to.

I felt like I could not talk about it outside our family because people would judge us.

Johnson was once incarcerated, but ended up getting a master’s degree in social work from Northern Iowa. He has spent the past 17 years working with children of incarcerated parents, now through the Children of Promise Mentoring Program. He said his volunteer mentors are currently “trying to create magic” in the lives of about 40 of these kids by providing them with positive experiences.

“Most of the families I work with see therapy as a waste of time,” he said, adding that he believes mentoring is a more effective way to help children. Johnson tries to recruit others like himself who have had some past involvement with the criminal justice system because “they make good mentors.”

“It takes people to help people,” he said. “It takes more than us. It takes a village.”

Inside Out Reentry Community has been a growing Iowa City program for about six years. The nonprofit’s mission is to help persons released from prison to become productive citizens, but it also assists families impacted by incarceration.

For more information: Here are links to the three area organizations that help families of people who are incarcerated: Inside Out Reentry Community, www.insideoutreentry.com;
Children of Promise Mentoring Program, www.childrenofpromisementoringprogram.org; and Living Beyond the Bars, www.livingbeyondthebars.org.

[Source: https://www.press-citizen.com/restricted/?return=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.press-citizen.com%2Fstory%2Flife%2F2021%2F04%2F30%2Feastern-iowa-groups-offer-support-children-imprisoned-parents-dick-hakes-inside-out-johnson-county%2F4880495001%2F Iowa City Press Citizen, 2 May 2021, by Dick Hakes]