As Xiomara walked through the stage to receive her high school diploma, she looked at the crowd and saw that her biggest, most important supporter was missing- her mother, to which Jimenez said, “Hardest part was the day of graduation I didn’t get to see the big smile on her face that she always bragged about while seeing us walk across the stage.” There are now 2.7 million other Xiomara’s in the United States.
In 2004, there were approximately 744,200 fathers and 65,600 mothers in prison. I think it is reasonable to believe that this number has significantly increased. This means that not only are there more children left to experience special moments without their parents but they are also left to grow up lacking something that is essential and crucial to their proper growth and development - a present parent.
Donyah Thomas, a senior at Constitution High, was asked how she received the news about her parent being incarcerated or if she was even told the truth about her parent's real whereabouts. Thomas’ response was, “No, they continuously lied about it until I eventually got to the age where I really knew what was going on and it was harder then. It was like a new reality.” This exact scenario was proven in a study done by Sack, Seidler, and Thomas back in 1976 where only in 7 out of 31 cases was the child given a proper explanation of the situation when it came to talking to them about their incarcerated parent.
Does this benefit the child? It doesn’t. As the study concluded, they found that children indeed need reliable and dependable information that will allow them to begin to make sense of their very own situations. This gives them the opportunity to begin the action of being able to properly process the grief of losing their parent and gives them the opportunity to begin to cope and adapt to their new life circumstance.
It is one thing to talk and hear about children being affected by their parents' incarceration, but it is another to actually have factual evidence that proves that this is indeed true and how exactly this experience can take a toll on a child mentally, emotionally, and perhaps even physically. A study conducted by Kristen Turney called “Stress Proliferation Across Generations? Examining the Relationship Between Parental Incarceration and Childhood Health” compared children under the age of 18 that had similar economic and family backgrounds. Turney’s study found that “In particular, children with an incarcerated parent were more than three times more likely to have behavioral problems or depression than similar children without an imprisoned parent, and at least twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, and anxiety.”
Leonela Jimenez, a freshman at Kutztown University, would agree as she was only beginning high school when her mother had just started her 10 year sentence. When talking about what her experience was like she said, “I suffered through depression for the first year or two because I had a lot of anger. I was so confused about what was going on. I just wanted her to be here.” The research that was done by Turney clearly aligns with the real world problems these children face and which in many cases they overcome on their own.
When it comes to attending school, these children are also already expected to perform lower than other students because of this specific adversity. Many times these students have their emotional issues dismissed. They aren’t addressed with the proper help needed to support them in overcoming the barriers that come with their specific circumstance.
Unfortunately this is our new reality, and with every new challenge we must come up with ways to either overcome them or provide support for those experiencing them. Due to the increasing amount of people being incarcerated in the U.S because of these new “tougher on crime” policies and the war on drugs, we must face the fact that children growing up with parents in prison is our new normal. We must put systems in place to help support these children and lessen the burden of not only having to grow up on their own but also feeling alone and embarrassed at the same time. Teachers, counselors, and principals should all be made aware of a child’s living conditions, and they must act accordingly.
Eric Rossen is a school psychologist and the director of professional development and standards for the National Association of School Psychologists. His research found the necessary steps teachers should take when it comes to dealing with a child in this circumstance. According to Rossen, as an educator you should still maintain high expectations, increase the student's connectivity with other adults in the building, pay close attention to the student's academic progress, and most of all expect bad days.