Tom Joseph, Public News Service-PA
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Having a parent in prison is more common than childhood autism in the U.S., according to a new reportfrom Volunteers of America that seeks to raise awareness of what life is like for the children and their caregivers.
Beth Poffenberger Lovell, director of Family Strengthening at Volunteers of America, says there is a deep stigma for children that becomes more significant as the child grows older.
"I mean, it's one thing to have a two-year-old, it's another thing to have a 15-year-old and to be struggling with some of the social pressures that come along with that," she says.
A report from the Pennsylvania Prison Society and three dozen other groups estimates at least 95,000 children in Pennsylvania have parents in prison.
That report recommends that criminal justice agencies treat children of incarcerated parents with some measure of empathy, and courts should recognize that parents involved with the legal system often have children who require attention.
Lovell says it's important that everyone understands that these children are innocent bystanders.
"Making sure that we're raising the visibility,” she stresses. “These are kids in your neighborhood, and in your school system and at your YMCA."
The Volunteers of America report suggests providing safe environments so children can visit parents more often, and in areas that don't look like prisons.
Volunteers of America runs several pilot programs around the country where the group coaches incarcerated parents and offers coaching and assistance to those caring for the children.