Printed on: December 27, 2012

Pilot program helps students with incarcerated parents

By Dan Popkey
Idaho Statesman

If you think it's tough being a kid these days, try being a kid with a parent in prison.

"It can be a real stigma," Sen. Denton Darrington said.

Darrington retired this month after 30 years in the Idaho Senate, where he chaired the Health and Welfare and Judiciary committees.

He also spent 33 years as a junior high school teacher in Declo and recounted some hurtful playground banter.

"Where's your mom?"

"Oh, she's in Pocatello."

"How come she's in Pocatello if she's your mom?"

"Well, she's in the prison."

Moms behind bars

Idaho's incarceration rate was ranked 11th in the country in 2011, with 471 of every 100,000 residents under state or federal jurisdiction for more than a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The rank is a bit lower for men -- No. 14.

But among women, Idaho's rate of 111 per 100,000 is the second highest in the country. Drug possession accounts for more than a third of female offenders.

"Women are what's really scary," said Landis Rossi, the first chairwoman of the subcommittee on Children of Incarcerated Parents at the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission and executive director of Catholic Charities of Idaho. "When you take mom away, it has a huge influence on the kids."

Rossi was Region 4 director at the Department of Health and Welfare from 2007 to 2009.

Her successor, Ross Mason, picked up where she left off. He hoped to tackle the "Cradle to Prison Pipeline," a term coined by the Children's Defense Fund in an influential 2007 report.

Idaho Correction Director Brent Reinke also sits on the Criminal Justice Commission and earlier spent a decade running the Department of Juvenile Corrections.

"I saw many kids pass through that system that had parents that were incarcerated," Reinke said. "Unfortunately, many of those young people are now in prison. It's kind of a revolving door."

About 1.5 million children nationwide have locked-up parents, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Those children are five times more likely than their peers to be imprisoned -- 1 in 10 will be incarcerated before turning 18.

Breaking the cycle

Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong used $30,000 in federal bonus money to fund two small pilot programs at schools in the Vallivue and Boise districts. School officials asked that their schools not be identified for privacy reasons.

The project began this fall with five fourth-graders in Caldwell. A dozen Boise third-graders are expected to begin counseling in January.

Students voluntarily meet with a counselor 12 times a semester. The lunchtime sessions are treated like club meetings.

"We hope that by getting with these kids early, they can escape that 'cradle to prison pipeline,' " Mason said. "These kids can see that life goes on without both parents around."

Autumn Tracy, a public policy graduate student at Boise State, has been hired part time to track the students by measuring attendance, behavior and academics. Tracy also is collecting data for a control group.

"If we can get the kids to school, we think the academics will improve," Mason said. "If the academics improve, we think the behavior improves. That's the hypothesis."

Absenteeism tends to be higher among such students, Mason said.

The two-year program could be part of a request to the Legislature for funds, perhaps as early as 2014, Reinke said. Mason estimated that the cost per school for a dozen students would be $3,000 annually.

"The payoff is that the child who might have followed mom or dad's footsteps to prison might not," Mason said. "It's huge."

No 10 p.m. snack

Nationally, about 10 percent of children of incarcerated parents are in the foster care system, Rossi said.

Idaho surveys have put the state foster care figure between 10 percent and 17 percent. The rest are in "KinCare," raised by grandparents or other relatives and friends.

Teachers and students benefit from relationships with those caregivers.

"It really helps to know if Sally's going to go out for a visit to the prison with her mom," Rossi said. "The next day, if she's agitated in class, if she's angry, you understand why."

The level of contact between inmate parents and their children ranges from those who don't know where their offspring are to those who speak every night on the phone.

Rossi has made presentations to inmates, helping them understand the need to support substitute caregivers.

But winning the confidence of inmate parents and caregivers isn't easy.

"It's going to be real slow because nobody trusts anybody," Reinke said.

Some prospective parents for the pilot programs have been spooked by the involvement of Health and Welfare, fearing they may lose custody upon release.

"This is not a child protection issue," Mason said. "I don't even know their names. We just want to give these kids every opportunity in the world to succeed. They deserve it, just like everybody else."