OKLAHOMA CITY – Making visits and communicating with inmates easier on children, expanding community-based sentencing programs and designating an agency to track the needs of children with incarcerated parents are among the recommendations released Wednesday by a legislative task force.

Tre’ Clark, a parent representative on the Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force, said the relationship with his daughter would be stronger today if some of the suggestions had been in place during his incarceration.

Clark had been living with his 3-year-old daughter when he was sent to prison in 1998. Despite being released nearly a decade ago, he still has trouble communicating with her.

“There is still some strain between us, and I think that is connected to the five years I was incarcerated,” Clark said. “If some of these recommendations were in place while I was incarcerated, it would definitely have helped me.”

Clark was sent to prison on convictions for two counts of robbery with a firearm, first-degree robbery and conspiracy to commit a felony. He spent five years in about 10 different Oklahoma prisons and was released in 2002.

Clark saw his daughter twice while waiting for transport from the county jail and never received a visit from her while he was in prison.

“Communication is a big issue,” he said. “I would write correspondence, but that was it. I love my daughter – always loved my daughter. But incarceration put a wall up between us.”

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has ranked Oklahoma consistently in the top five states for per capita incarceration.

Currently, the state is No. 1 for incarcerating women and No. 4 in locking up men.

Lost in the myriad of information about incarceration were data on the number of children in the state with a parent in prison and the effects on those children.

No agency tracks that information, and children may not offer the information to researchers or government officials. Previous information came anecdotally from groups working with incarcerated parents and from estimates by advocacy groups.

Clark said his daughter started having behavioral problems after he left and that the family struggled to get help. He said the state’s prisons for men put no emphasis on parenting skills.

“We have to educate our fathers as well as our mothers,” he said. “Dads play an important role in the development of children.

“If parents know that there are resources available and understand how incarceration affects kids, they will be inclined to take this seriously and take advantage of the resources.”

The bill leading to the task force’s creation was sponsored by Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa, and Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid. Gov. Mary Fallin approved House Bill 1197 in April.

The 27-member task force met for six months to determine the number of children affected and what challenges they face.

“It has not been the position of our group that people not be punished for their crimes,” said April Sellers White, retired Creek County judge who is on the task force. “Our question is what is happening to the children.”

The panel found that on any given day, more than 26,000 Oklahoma children – 3.3 percent of the children in the state – have a parent in a state prison. Of those, 12,634 were living with the parent before the parent was incarcerated.

This number does not include children with a parent in a county jail or federal prison.

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

In September, 21,482 children in Oklahoma had a father in prison. Of those, 10,204 were living with their father at the time he was sent to prison.

About 4,624 children had a mother in prison, and 2,430 of those were living with her when she was sentenced, according to the project.

“The numbers are staggering,” McDaniel said. “We have a responsibility to take care of our children. To do nothing is where we would go wrong.”

The task force expressed concern, citing prior research, about the potential increase in problems for children of incarcerated parents, including school challenges, attachment disorders, behavioral problems, criminal activity, physical health problems and substance abuse.

It found that 30 percent of Oklahoma female inmates had had one or both parents incarcerated, said Laura Pitman, deputy director of female operations for the state Department of Corrections.

“We view this as a critical issue, and this is the first and most comprehensive look at the children of incarcerated parents,” Pitman said.

The panel recommends that efforts be made to strengthen the parent-child bond, including ensuring that children have the ability to visit their parents in person, by telephone and through other communication technology.

It suggests that prisons and other correctional facilities have child-friendly environments and procedures to encourage regular visitation and develop workshops for caregivers to have ways for giving age-appropriate information to children about the incarceration.

It calls for emphasizing parenting-skills classes for inmates and ways to help them understand and complete their financial obligations to their children.

The panel had specific recommendations under the suggestion to expand community-based sentencing:

Complete an assessment of risk factors such as substance abuse and mental health treatment prior to sentencing;

Inquire about the status of a defendant’s child and determine how that child will be cared for if custodial parent is incarcerated;

Support treatment programs allowing children to remain with custodial parents;

Divert to community-based programs defendants who committed nonviolent crimes other than drugs offenses that stem from substance abuse;

Remove predetermined sanctions as a condition of entry into specific court diversion programs;

Provide a low-cost procedure for dismissal or expungement of a case, if in the interest of justice, when the defendant has successfully completed a treatment or intervention program and has otherwise met the requirements of the court;

Apply cost savings realized by the expansion of the programs to early intervention programs such as substance abuse and mental health treatment, parenting skills, and job training and placement.

District Attorney Richard Smothermon, who represents Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties and is also on the task force, said options such as drug courts have proved effective for defendants and children of defendants.

Smothermon said children of incarcerated parents are “victims of crime” who have done nothing wrong but experience negative consequences.

“We prosecutors are united in being smart on crime,” Smothermon said. “Let district attorneys and judges be tough on crime and the Legislature be smart on crime. Allow us to put people in prison who need to be there and take away things like mandatory minimum sentences.”

The panel recommends that the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth be designated the official agency to serve as a clearinghouse for information on data and services related to children of incarcerated parents.

McDaniel said this would take legislative approval and that the report estimates an annual cost of $50,000.

“We still have a communication problem and need a linking of resources and data,” McDaniel said. “All we’ve done here is scratch the surface.

“We need one place to send people for resources and to gather information so we can find out how we are doing and what we need to do more research on.”

Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force recommendations

Support activities to maintain contact between parent and child when in the best interest of the child.

Eliminate barriers that prevent children with an incarcerated parent from accessing quality health care.

Develop a statewide training curriculum to educate participants on adverse effects parental involvement in the criminal justice system have on children.

Provide information to incarcerated noncustodial parents on how to address financial obligations to their children while incarcerated.

Expand the use of community-based sentencing options utilizing evidence-based intervention programs and services targeted to reduce criminal risk factors.

Designate the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth the official state agency responsible for increasing public awareness, coordinating research, creating a resource clearinghouse that identifies services available to children of incarcerated parents and coordinates an advisory committee. This work should continue collaboratively with agencies, community and faith providers to better meet the needs and improve the quality of life of children of incarcerated parents.

Comments from the task force report

“The growing number of mothers in prison is especially significant since incarcerated mothers are often the sole support for their children, making incarceration a more disruptive change and more difficult adjustment for children and families. In addition, our research has discovered that a significant number of these children were living with their fathers prior to the father’s incarceration. Most prisoners have never experienced positive parenting role models.”

“Oklahoma data strongly imply that children of incarcerated parents are at-risk for negative outcomes such as drug use and criminal behaviors in adulthood. It is evident that most children with incarcerated parents are experiencing adverse events.”

“Many parents and caregivers do not seek services for the child due to fear the child will be identified by child welfare agencies or because of the shame and stigma.”

“While mindful of public safety, the high rate of incarceration in Oklahoma could be reduced.”

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