Over 7,000 Vermont children have parents who are incarcerated, and only about a third of them visit their mothers and fathers in jail.
That and other findings come from a new policy brief to the legislature by the non-profit advisory group, “Building Bright Futures.” Author Traci Sawyers compiled it using data from several sources, including the Department of Corrections. She says 80 percent of women in jail are mothers, and 57 percent of those children are younger than nine. Many lead troubled lives at home even before a parent’s arrest and departure deepen what psychologists call “toxic stress.”
“If weapons are drawn, particularly, any kind of physical struggle — they may see the use of pepper spray — and that whole piece can be extremely stressful and traumatic for a child,” Sawyers says.
According to the report, a child with one parent in prison is 50 percent more likely to end up in foster care. If both parents are incarcerated, that risk rises sharply. These children are also more likely than their peers to suffer from attention deficit disorders and learning disabilities.
In most cases, it's the mother, not the father, who is the primary caregiver before entering prison, often for non-violent misdemeanors, and the number of incarcerated women is rising in Vermont.
“That really speaks to the need to think about community alternatives to incarceration,” says Sawyers.
Most children in these situations are informally cared for by other relatives who may feel stigmatized by a family member’s jail time, so their needs may not come to the attention of the state’s Department for Children and Families, or local schools.
Sawyers says more data is needed about these families and the challenges they face. But she says research shows that early intervention can help children cope with “toxic stress.” She cites one program at the Lund Center, based in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, and others developed by the Lamoille Restorative Center in Hyde Park and Camp Agape, in Cabot. A new one may be formed in St. Johnsbury.
The Children’s Literacy Foundation also provides free books to children of incarcerated parents.
But such programs are still few and far between in Vermont. Child advocates are lobbying lawmakers for more social services to help vulnerable children during their parents’ incarceration.