Home from prison

Programs seek to soften impact on youth with parents behind bars



Danielle Evans, director of Women's Services at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, likes to tell the story of a woman who managed to turn over a new leaf after spending a year in a residential support program.

The client was found on the streets of San Francisco, pregnant, after an overdose. She was over 40, had never graduated from high school, and had a string of drug offenses on her rap sheet. She had multiple children who had been given up for adoption, and she was homeless.

But after getting emergency treatment at San Francisco General Hospital and entering substance abuse counseling and transitional housing from there, she was able to overcome her drug addiction, regain custody of her daughter from Child Protective Services, and enroll in a vocational program for janitorial work.

The woman was aided through a yearlong stay at Cameo House, a transitional home for homeless pregnant women and new moms run by CJCJ. After living there with her daughter while getting pointers on parenting from the staff, she's now working toward her GED and has a goal of landing a job — something she's never had.

"I'm like, look where you came from and where you are today," Evans reflected. The client's daughter is now a healthy two-year-old, Evans said, and "she is so motivated to be a good mom."

It's not a typical narrative. A recent event hosted by New America Media focused on the personal stories of Bay Area youth who've grown up with parents entangled in the criminal justice system. More often, those parent-child relationships are strained or nonexistent, especially in cases where parents are far away from home, serving out prison sentences.



For many, having a parent behind bars has the potential of becoming a vicious cycle, but new realizations about how harmful that childhood experience can be are giving rise to a new way of thinking about how to deal with parents in the criminal justice system.

New approaches include alternatives to incarceration, something that's gaining momentum in this era of prison overcrowding and realignment, which has shifted some responsibility of housing inmates from the state to California counties.

Children of incarcerated parents are three times as likely as their peers to wind up in the criminal justice system, Jessica Flintoff, director of the Reentry Division at San Francisco's Adult Probation Department, said at the New America Media forum in downtown San Francisco. Some policies that the county has embraced are designed to factor in long-term youth impacts, at the time when key decisions are being made about their parents' fates.

The event featured a series of short films and multimedia projects spotlighting the experiences of youth and their formerly incarcerated parents, with a focus on what happened when the parents returned home.

Young producers, working with the nonprofit Silicon Valley DeBug and community newspaper Richmond Pulse, created the projects through hours of interviews in which parents and kids divulged intensely personal details about their experiences. The idea behind the Children of Reentry media project was to open up a conversation that kids with incarcerated parents often shy away from, because of an associated stigma.

The project conveyed intimate narratives about an experience that an estimated 2.7 million children of incarcerated parents are familiar with nationwide: A son who got to know his father in a prison visitation room; a mother who gave birth to her daughter in prison only to be separated until completing her sentence; a father who barely knew his daughter before her 21st birthday because he'd been in prison for the duration of her childhood.