Arizona’s Forgotten Children

Arizona’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in the country and still growing. The state, refusing to address this growth rate has turned away from the most precious and valuable the state can offer society as there is a chasm of a lost population of children involved in this tsunami to incarcerate people for crimes that could in fact be served in a community setting rather than behind bars where the chances of rehabilitation are almost zero. Several years back under another governor, the state was on its way to address the needs of incarcerated children. A statewide steering committee was formed years ago and headed by Chairperson Emily L. Jenkins who mentioned in her message to the people of Arizona that “children of incarcerated parents are among the most vulnerable and over-looked groups of children at risk within the state.”

This committee formed by over 250 activists in the community to help children created a Bill of Rights that selected 3 rights that relate to security and stability of the children who are innocent victims because of their parent’s poor choices in life creating a void of being absence while in prison. The Bill or Rights include: to be kept safe and informed at the time of their parent’s arrest; to be cared for in their parent’s absence; and to support as they struggle with their parent’s incarceration. It is time to resurrect this Bill of Rights for these lost children as the rate of imprisonment climbs to record numbers along with dreadful statistics of inmates having hepatitis C, HIV, chronic health problems and the horrific statistics where suicides and homicides are becoming more common than in the past. Included in this mass of people being locked up are the mentally ill who have been sent to prisons rather than hospitals and as these lock ups divide families everyday, the children suffer the trauma, abuse, neglect and interruptions in their lives that will change them forever if not provided alternatives to not having a father or mother that is in prison.

The government leaders should seriously begin to curb the rate of incarceration for the sake of our children. Taking their parents away creates situation that disrupt the home life, poverty, and a social stigma that can’t be overturned overnight. When this report came out, there were approximately 95,669 children with parents in prison in Arizona. Having to cope under the most difficult conditions that often resemble third world circumstances, these broken families work hard to keep things going. It is true that these children will have to depend on their extended family members or friends and neighbors in the community to get by but their needs, both physical and emotional, are in need of parental support.

The sad fact revealed is that 10 per cent of these children will eventually end up in the care of the state. Their grandparents, uncles or aunts, who are often experiencing their own hardships can’t provide sufficient support for these children thus by default they fall to the state for care. The most horrific fact revealed by this committee is that the children of incarcerated parents are 5 to 7 times more likely to end up behind bars themselves. 1/3 of the prison population had at least 1 parent locked up before arrested and locked up themselves.

Community leaders can’t fight the survival of our children if the state leaders won’t stem the high rate of incarceration and consider the impact of trauma and cost for these lost children. These children of incarcerated parents have a right to become productive citizens and with the help of the community leaders their door to opportunities can be opened with considerations and methods to improve their likelihood to stay out of prison. It is also likely that because many of these children will be incarcerated as well, they need the protection and the safe care that is expected for those who are put away for violating their probation or society’s laws no matter what their crimes are.

There are close to 3 million children of incarcerated parents in the U.S. today, and 12 million who have been directly affected by parental incarceration in their lifetime. This means that 1 out of every 33 children in the U.S. has a parent in prison or jail (Bernstein, 2005). Children of incarcerated parents are among the most vulnerable populations of children, at high risk for neglect, abuse, behavioral health problems, delinquency and substance abuse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal sources estimate that children of incarcerated parents are five to seven times more likely to become incarcerated themselves (Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, 2004

Last December a Pima County Juvenile court judge sent a 16 year old to the boy’s school for stealing candy and soft drinks from a concession stand. The boy was incarcerated and sent to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections where he was stabbed in the neck, sexually assaulted, sodomized by a roommate. Although this may seem to be the extreme spectrum of the incarceration continuum of consequences inside detention or prison settings, the fact remains that innocent boys and girls are being jailed for offenses that should not result in incarceration. Records reflect that the boy violated his probation and had previous drug problems but the act that got him locked up was senseless and unnecessary to say the least. This is Arizona’s form of justice and it is out of control. Incarceration of children must be closely securitized and considered as a last resort to prevent tragedies such as this one.

The Arizona Star newspaper reported that “After being discharged from the hospital, the teenager was sent to Adobe Mountain in Phoenix for his safety, making it difficult for his family to visit him, Pones said. Because of the assault, Pones said the boy’s “treatment needs have now far exceeded” those he had in December and he ought to be released so he can receive treatment in the community.

The partnership came up with 10 recommendations that should be considered to reduce the traumatic impact our Arizona’s children of incarcerated parents. Ten Key Recommendations of the Arizona Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights Project

1. Establish arrest guidelines for law enforcement to follow when arresting parents to ensure children’s identification, proper placement, safety and stability.

2. Train all law enforcement officers in the State of Arizona on the needs of children of incarcerated parents.

3. Designate and identify resources needed to support an advocacy and service coordination mechanism at the state and local levels. This coordination mechanism will work with service providers who will serve as an immediate and ongoing resource to the child at-risk, the caregiver and community.

4. Ensure that adequate and accessible resources are available to foster security and stability for children whose parents are incarcerated.

5. Develop, maintain and circulate a local resource directory specific to the needs of CIP in Spanish and English in every jurisdiction for AZ 211, community agencies, law enforcement, health care providers, schools and caregivers to ensure that this information is available across Arizona at all times.

6. Advocate for statewide funding and access to best-practice mentoring services for children of incarcerated parents to allow for positive modeling when a parent is made unavailable.

7. Support community and faith-based organizations and services that can provide comprehensive resources to children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers.

8. Foster communication among children, caregivers and incarcerated parents, as appropriate and in the best interests of the child.

9. Conduct wide-ranging education and awareness efforts to inform the public about the needs of children of incarcerated parents and what the public can do to address those needs.

10. Conduct training for professional service providers to foster personal understanding, skills and strategies to better serve children of incarcerated parents

Children are students of grown up behaviors. When parents lie, the children lie, when parents use dope, the children are at high risk to use dope, and when parents get locked up and go away, it is likely the child will follow in their footsteps unless someone cares enough to keep them out of jails or prisons.