January 6, 2012

Invisible, Forgotten, Unintended Victims

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Community-based sentencing programs should be increased and relations between state inmates and their children should be encouraged, according to findings released Wednesday by a legislative task force that looked at the issue of children of incarcerated parents.

On any given day, more than 26,000 Oklahoma children have a parent in a state prison, according to the report. That does not include children with parents jailed in county and city jails and federal correctional facilities.

“It is important for us to understand how many children are hurt by having a parent in prison so we can take action to slow the parade of children who would follow their parents’ footsteps into prison,” said former Creek County Associate District Judge April Sellers White, who served as chairman of the task force.

A new survey, conducted as part of the 21-member task force’s work, surveyed male and female offenders and found that nearly 3 percent of Oklahoma children have a parent in the state prison system. Child advocates and experts report that children of incarcerated parents run a higher risk of going to prison.

About 80 percent of the 26,106 children, or 21,482, have a father in state prison, according to the task force’s survey. It found 4,624 had a mother in state prison.

“These are the forgotten victims of crime,” said the Rev. Stan Basler, a task force member who is director of criminal justice and mercy ministries of the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church. “It’s not their fault.”

Oklahoma leads the nation in the rate of incarcerating females and is fifth in the rate of men sent to prison, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics.

“It has been our hope to work together in a way to help focus the attention of the good people of this state of Oklahoma on the children who are paying a price when parents are incarcerated and the children did nothing that they should pay for,” White said. “It has not been the position of our group that people should not be punished for their crimes. But the question for us was: What’s happening with the children?”

Sheila Harbert, chief community outreach officer for Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma in Tulsa and a task force member, said her agency has taken children to several prisons to be with their mothers.

“I cannot express how powerful this need is in Oklahoma,” Harbert said. “There are thousands upon thousands of children and they need to see their moms. They’ve committed no crimes and it is so important that we provide programs on site at these facilities.”

Oklahoma’s overall incarceration rate ranks third among the 50 states. Of the state’s $6.5 billion in state appropriations this year, nearly $460 million was spent on the state Corrections Department.

The task force’s recommendations include supporting interaction between an incarcerated parent and their minor child when it’s in the child’s best interest, expanding the use of community-based sentencing and providing information to incarcerated noncustodial parents on how they can responsibly address financial obligations to their children while in state custody.

The report states parental incarceration is associated with many problems for children, including school challenges, attachment disorders, behavioral problems, criminal activity, physical health problems and substance abuse. Contact between an incarcerated parent and their child “helps reduce the anguish that results from separation” and regular contact offers the child “reassurance that the parent is doing okay and still loves the child,” according to the report.

To encourage parent-child relationships, the task force endorsed policies that allow in-person visits, telephone visits and contact using other technology when in-person visits are not possible.

The group also called for providing parent education programs to inmates to “help support a healthy and strong parent-child relationship.”

“We hope that our recommendations will help people take a new look at Oklahoma’s prison statistics and see the face that’s been invisible — that of Oklahoma’s children,” White said.

The task force also recommends the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth continue to research the issue.

Rep. Jeanne McDaniel, D-Tulsa, who wrote legislation authorizing the task force, said she would file a bill that would authorize funding a position at the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth that would compile and keep track of data involving children of inmates.

“We don’t really know the whole problem,” said McDaniel, D-Tulsa. “All we’ve done is really scratch the surface.”

McDaniel said the recommendations would continue efforts pushed last year by House Speaker Kris Steele that would change significantly how the state deals with nonviolent offenders and relieve prison overcrowding; legislation passed and signed into law last year expands both the use of community sentencing programs and the electronic monitoring of low-risk, nonviolent inmates.

Steele, R-Shawnee, said Wednesday he hasn’t had a chance to read the task force’s findings, but supports the general concept.

“This is a key issue that we need to consider in Oklahoma in relation to criminal justice reforms,” he said. “Looking at various options or reforms that we might consider to improve the situation for children of incarcerated parents is very, very important.”

District Attorney Richard Smothermon, who serves Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties and served on the task force, said prosecutors have to recognize that incarcerating parents results in unintended victims.

“There are children left behind at the crime scene that see their parent arrested and there are children in the courtrooms as their parents are taken off to jail,” Smothermon said. “We have got to recognize that they are as much a victim of their parents’ crime as any other victim. And we cannot let them go forgotten.”