Ann Adalist-Estrin is the author of the Children of Prisoners Library as well as co-author of Responding to Children and Families of Prisoners: A Community Guide. She currently works for the Family and Corrections Network in Palmyra, Virginia, as a program consultant. As a child and family therapist with more than 30 years of experience, Adalist-Estrin has conducted more than 30,000 interviews with children of incarcerated parents. She was also the Founder and Director of Incarcerated Parents and Their Children- Consulting Services. For more information on Ann Adalist-Estrin and her work visit www.fcnetwork.org.
COUGHLIN: What effects have you seen on children who have visited their parent in jail in relation to the visitation policies?
ESTRIN: Visiting parents in prison has three aspects to it. One is the normal childhood development aspect where the child is just a child who is going to spend time with a parent they don’t usually get to spend time with. In every other of those circumstances there are wonderful moments and then there are times when the feelings are charged.
Children of incarcerated parents are no different than other kids on that baseline.
The second aspect is specific and unique emotions and reactions to having a parent in prison; lack of trust, issues related to lying, the stigma, shame, and questions about the crime. So this second part is more about supporting the caregiver in being able to prepare the child for a visit and also help process the visit afterwards. The little bit of research we have indicates that visits can be hurtful if it is followed by a lot of high intensity distress. So in this second stage there is a lot of advocacy work in helping provide support for caregivers and helping to prepare the incarcerated parent themselves.
The third aspect of visiting is the fact that it is a prison. Kids having to deal with going through metal detectors, being searched and sitting in metal chairs facing their parent, only being allowed to shake hands or give a brief cursorily hello hug. Not being allowed to act in any way normal makes it very much different than other kids visiting in other situations. In this aspect the criminal justice system could provide better visiting environments, provide parenting classes that help the incarcerated parent, and provide materials that get sent home to the care giver.
COUGHLIN: What sort of misconceptions do you feel the public has of children of incarcerated parents?
ESTRIN: A lot of intervention strategies are predicated on these notions that these kids are more likely than their peers to go to prison or jail. We don’t have any accurate research that says that. We know they are at risk for mental health issues, school difficulties, and trauma related behavioral patterns. So sometimes that can result in kids being involved in the criminal justice system. But to just say they are four of five times more likely than their peers to go to prison or jail is saying something very different. It’s interpreted by most people as they [the children] are following their parent’s footsteps or that there is something inherent that put them at risk and of course none of it is true.
It lends people to think that these are kids that are better off without their parents; we don’t know that to be true at all. In fact, what we do know is that most of these kids have caring adults in their lives, but they need more.
...see Brea’s Story
It’s sort of the mass causality nature…that calls us to action in a way that other things may not.