Children of prisoners often forgotten, lost in the shuffle
By PAT DUNBAR
As Americans, we value the belief that we are the number one nation on earth by whatever measure is made. Sadly, studies have consistently shown that that belief is far from the truth when we examine how we care for our children.
A 2011 study rated developed nations in terms of a children's index for health and personal welfare and the U.S. ranked 34 of 43 countries -- Sweden was number 1 and Bosnia 43; Canada was 21 and England 24. Despite our differences on many social and political issues, Americans at one time agreed on the essential importance of caring for all of our children. More importantly, as Christians we adopted this ethic from Jesus' teaching, “‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’” (Matthew 19:14 NRSV) The question that begs to be asked is… What has happened to us?
In 2008, reports indicated that on any given day in America, more than 1.5 million children have at least one parent incarcerated in a state or federal prison. And more than 10 million children are living with a parent who has come under some form of criminal justice supervision at some point in the child’s life. As more and more people are incarcerated, these numbers have seen an obvious increase.
Children of incarcerated parents face many dangers, issues that are common worldwide, regardless of the culture. Some of these dangers are obvious. Some are more subtle. However, you can assume that if there is a jail or prison within driving distance of your church, there are also children in your community who may be deprived of basic necessities, experience estrangement from their incarcerated parent, face depersonalization and secondary victimization, experience a decline in their existing situation, and risk falling into antisocial or criminal behavior.
Often, these children are deprived of such basic necessities as food, clothing and shelter because of the loss of household income. Obtaining these necessities may be more critical in what was perhaps a difficult situation to begin with. Another significant problem is transportation for visitation. Infrequent visits can strain, or break, the parental bond.
The children suffer in other, less noticeable ways. Interviews with children and other family members of the incarcerated describe feeling as if they are imprisoned along with their loved one, even though they have never committed a crime. These children share stories of being ostracized by friends, outside family members, neighbors, and even their church. When this discrimination occurs through key relationships, children often blame themselves for what has happened, thinking that they have changed, that the world has become less real, and that they have become worthless. It is important that the church reach out to them to help in identifying resources and skills and to help them define direction for their lives.
Although there are many opportunities for ministry with children and families of inmates, you may want to investigate established programs.Start with a small project through your local church with one or two others. If you decide this is the direction you want to take, try to follow these guidelines as you prepare to reach out:
1. Pray: Immerse what you are about to do in prayer. Seek God and commit all you plan to him.
2. Know what your and your church’s beliefs and values are regarding what is best for children.
3. Recognize the main needs you wish to address.
4. Build relationships: Identify the people you need to build relationships with in order to find more information, plan your project, and implement it.
5. Design a small project: This doesn’t need to be complex. Use some of these basic questions or others that are comparable:
a. What are the needs, why are they a need? How do you know they are a real need?
b. What is your solution and why did you choose it?
c. What are the main things you want to achieve?
d. What do you need to do to achieve them?
e. What resources and relationships do you need to find in order to do these activities?
f. What could hinder you and what could you do to prevent that from happening? Be honest!
g. How will you know if you have been successful? What will you measure?
6. Protect the children you work with: Ensure that the children remain protected - that staff and volunteers are aligned to your beliefs about what is best (be sure to put into practice a Safe Sanctuaries policy).
7. Don’t do it alone! Find others who can join you by providing the resources you need.
8. Begin realistically: This can be a difficult area to work in. Taking the time to do smaller projects will give you the experience needed for better understanding.
9. Manage your finances carefully.
10. Keep records: Detail everything you do (even the mistakes). This will help share the knowledge and experience you have gained and will help improve all of your future programs.
Remember that shame, hurt, anger and the fear of rejection may keep an inmate’s family from reaching out to you, but you can make a difference in the lives of these children. You and I must be the hands and feet of Christ.
For more info, contact: Pat Dunbar: firstname.lastname@example.org