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Parents behind bars

A state task force makes recommendations to improve the lives of children of the incarcerated.

Clifton Adcock January 11th, 2012

About 26,000 children in Oklahoma have at least one parent in prison. Factor in kids with a parent in a county or city jail or federal prison, and that number is even higher.

These were among the findings of the Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force. Formed last year by the state Legislature, the 21-member panel was tasked with determining the needs and issues surrounding children of incarcerated parents. It released its report last week.

Oklahoma has the nation’s highest percentage of incarcerated women — and isn’t far behind in the number of incarcerated men, said Laura Pitman, deputy director of the state Department of Corrections Division of Female Offender Operations.

She noted that a survey of female inmates found that 30 percent had at least one parent who had been incarcerated when the respondents were children.

“Having a parent incarcerated really places a child at tremendous risk of becoming incarcerated themselves,” Pitman (pictured) said. “So spending some resources now … can over time help us decrease the chances that these children will be incarcerated in the future.”

Among the task force recommendations for legislators and state agencies to take up next session are:

—Support activities to maintain contact between incarcerated parent and child, when in the interest of the child.

—Eliminate barriers preventing children from accessing quality health care.

—Develop statewide training curriculum about how children of incarcerated parents are affected.

—Provide parent education programs to support healthy parent-child relationships.

—Provide information to incarcerated noncustodial parents on how to address financial obligations to their children while incarcerated.

—Expand the use of community-based sentencing options to reduce criminal risk factors.

—Designate the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth as the official state agency responsible for a spectrum of research and work aimed at meeting the needs of children of incarcerated parents.

“Each person brought to the table a piece of information that made it possible for us to have a more complete picture of the face of the child who is affected so drastically, often when a parent goes to prison,” said task force chairwoman April Sellers White.

Although the task force did not examine what crimes sent most people to jail, White (pictured), a retired associate district judge, said her experience is that drug sentences are responsible for the most incarcerated parents.

“If you eliminated all the cases that had to do with drugs or were used to fund people’s drug usage, we would have very few cases,” she said.

Oklahoma children of imprisoned inmates:
-4,624 Children with incarcerated mother
-2,430 Children living with mother prior to incarceration
-21,482 Children with incarcerated father
-10,204 Children living with father prior to incarceration
-26,106 Total children with incarcerated parent

Source: Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force

Photo by Mark Hancock

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