Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday April 26th, 2016, 3:44pm

Children At Risk: Protections Needed To Improve Welfare Of Youth With Incarcerated Parents

Having a parent in jail or prison can have the same impact on a child's well-being as abuse or domestic violence, according to a new report that is pushing for the expansion of support services to families affected by incarceration.

Children of incarcerated parents face increased risks of financial and emotional instability, the new study, released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, reports.

"Incarceration breaks up families, the building blocks of our communities and nation," reads the study. "It creates an unstable environment for kids that can have lasting effects on their development and well-being."

Some 186,000 kids in Illinois, representing 6 percent of the state's child population, have a parent who has served time behind bars. Nationally, 5 million kids, or 7 percent of the child population, have had a parent in jail or prison during their childhood, according to the research, based on data from 2011 and 2012.

Parental incarceration increases the risks of children living in poverty, becoming homeless, dropping out of school and developing mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression, among other adverse experiences.

"Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce," according to the report.

Most children with an incarcerated parent are under the age of 10. African-American and Latino children are respectively about seven and two times more likely than their white peers to have an incarcerated parent.

Among the U.S. states, the share of children with an incarcerated parent is highest in Kentucky, at 13 percent, and lowest in New Jersey, at 3 percent.

"Our nation's overreliance on incarceration has left millions of children poorer, less stable and emotionally cut off from the most important relationship of their young lives," Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said in a statement. "We are calling on states and communities to act now, so that these kids -- like all kids -- have equal opportunity and a fair chance for the bright future they deserve."

The report includes several recommendations to help improve the well-being of children and families with an incarcerated parent. Sentencing and prison-assignment decisions, for example, should take into account the impact on children and families. The report also calls for expanding access to counseling, parenting courses, educational programs, job training, employment opportunities, affordable housing and other services for affected families. Other recommendations include requiring courts to inform local social service providers when a parent is incarcerated so they can connect with impacted families. In addition, the report recommends that correctional institutions adopt more family-friendly visitation policies. 

Voices for Illinois Children is among the groups reacting to the report's findings. 

"It's critical for Illinois' leaders to take action to expand programs that address the trauma a child experiences when their parent is incarcerated," Voices for Illinois Children's policy analyst Leslie Helmcamp said in a statement. "Illinois lacks a broad-based support system targeted to children of incarcerated parents, and most programs lack a trauma-centered approach that specifically meet the needs of children who are separated from their parents. The current budget impasse also has impacted the few services available to support parents and their children during and after a time of incarceration."

The report was released the same day the U.S. Justice Department issued a plan aimed at "reducing recidivism through reentry reforms at the federal Bureau of Prisons."

A component of the federal "Roadmap To Reentry" plan centers on ways to improve incarcerated people's opportunities to "build and maintain family relationships" while in federal prison. Through the initiative, an existing pilot program for videoconferencing visitation will be implemented in female Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities by June 2016. The federal blueprint says an implementation plan will be developed for the eventual expansion of videoconferencing to all federal prisons. 

Four BOP facilities are also set to begin a pilot program in June for children with incarcerated parents. As part of the program, young people can engage in "positive youth development activities" with their parents.

Other initiatives outlined in the Roadmap To Reentry seek to provide all federal inmates with individualized reentry preparation plans and make it easier for formerly incarcerated people to obtain state-issued identification upon their release from prison. The BOP is also reviewing its education, job training and life skills programs to ensure they are "evidence-based and targeted to the criminogenic needs of inmates." Additionally, the bureau is looking into ways to provide greater supports to former inmates who move into residential reentry centers, or halfway houses.

The Roadmap to Reentry's release came during the U.S. Justice Department's inaugural National Reentry Week. From April 24 through April 30, the department is highlighting strategies to reduce recidivism and help inmates prepare for life after prison. Various reentry-related events are being held this week across the country, including resource fairs, employment programs and presentations for soon-to-be released inmates.

Over 600,000 individuals are released each year from federal and state prisons, according to the Justice Department. 

"Our hope is that by expanding our approach to reentry and demonstrating what is possible at the federal level, we will ensure that our facilities support the needs of returning citizens and advance the continuing evolution of modern correctional practices, leading to safer neighborhoods and brighter futures at every level," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Monday at a National Reentry Week event in Philadelphia. 

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