Incarcerated Moms

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Janiah Lassic, 13, lives in Long Island, N.Y., and attends Ralph G. Reed Middle School. Two years ago, her mother was sent to Bedford Hills Correction Facility for Women, 75 miles away.

"My mom told me that we had to go to court, and I didn’t really understand the law system then, but when they took her away that night, I started to cry," she said.

The 14-year-old daughter of Teresa Giudice, a star of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" who began her 15-month prison sentence in January, may say she finds their visits "fun." But that’s not how Janiah describes it. She visits her mother at least once a week with her father.

"The visits are long–I leave the house around 7:30 in the morning and come back around 3:30 in the afternoon," she said.

In New York State, 105,000 children have an incarcerated parent, finds a 2010 fact sheet from the Osborne Association’s New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents. The Initiative, which has locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie, advocate for policies that help young people whose parents are involved in the criminal justice system and helps children to maintain relationships with incarcerated parents.

Across the U.S. imprisoned population, more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers have children 17 years old or younger, according to a 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts report. Over 11 percent of African American children have an incarcerated parent, compared to less than 2 percent of white children.

Tanya Krupat, Osborne’s program director of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, said prison visits, which can be expensive, take a toll on families. "Most prisons are extremely far, and many of these families are financially struggling." Albion Prison, for example, one of three women’s prisons in the state, is 400 miles from New York City.

"Girls in particular," said Krupat, "miss their mothers during their teen years. They’re going through so many changes without them. Children typically model their behaviors based on the parent that is the same sex, so missing that female figure is critical."

Krupat added that teens often feel loneliness, abandonment, anger and "feeling like everyone else has a mom" when they have a mom in prison.

Various studies show that youth with an incarcerated parent–either a father or a mother–are five- to six-times more likely to be incarcerated than other youth.

Less Data on Teens

The impact of having your mom, in particular, go to prison–and how that differs between boys and girls–has been studied quite a bit among young children. But far less data is available concerning teens.

One person who has studied this situation extensively is Peggy Giordano, author of the book "Legacies of crime: A follow-up of the children of highly delinquent girls and boys," published in 2012.

Giordano’s study began with more than 200 delinquent teens and followed them for 25 years. Participants now have children who are teens themselves and she includes studies with that second generation.

Female teens, she said, often try to fill the mother’s family role. "They’re trying to take care of their family–which is a positive thing, but it’s very hard and can lead to emotional problems. It forces them to grow up."

Families with an incarcerated parent often contend with poverty, violence, substance abuse, trauma and mental illness. That sets up a wide range of dynamics and makes it difficult to isolate the effects of maternal incarceration on teens.

"Some parent-child relationships are disrupted during incarceration," Giordano said, "but sometimes the incarceration period is the only time these kids speak to their mothers consistently because their moms have been in and out of their lives and are now in one place."

To help strengthen the incarcerated mothers’ bond with their daughters, The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program was established in 1992 by the National Institute of Justice, and is offered in over 20 states. The program helps teens visit their moms, and aims to teach leadership skills as a source of support.

That support is necessary because adolescents with incarcerated mothers often struggle with school and mental health. Teens in Chicago who attended public high schools and had mothers who were incarcerated had a 43 percent dropout rate, finds a 13-year study conducted from 1991 to 2004, far higher than the 15 percent drop out rate of other teens.

Girls, Boys Stereotype

A 2010 University of Chicago study finds that boys are more sensitive than girls to the frequency of maternal incarceration, but girls are more sensitive to length. Adolescent males with an incarcerated parent are more likely to externalize behaviors–by committing acts of aggression or delinquency–while female teens internalize the stress of having a parent in prison, through anxiety or depression, 2012 data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health show.

But Giordano doesn’t agree with that.

"One stereotype is that girls internalize their emotions when they have an incarcerated mother, while boys externalize," Giordano said in a recent phone interview. "But these girls don’t just internalize, because their mothers didn’t. Their mothers took drugs or committed crimes."

Although the children of incarcerated parents are more likely to end up in legal trouble or drop out of school, Giordano argues that these problems are not just because their parents have gone to prison.

"These teens have been through so many difficulties before and after their parent’s imprisonment," Giordano said. "And that’s why–while having a Girl Scouts visiting program is great–it’s also missing the point."

To help give a voice for teens with incarcerated parents, the Osborne Association began two programs. Its Youth Experience Success, or YES Program, aimed at 13-to-15 year olds, helps "shine a light" on teens’ strengths by helping them develop goals and learn how to build relationships and resolve conflicts.

Youth Action Council, which is aimed at older teens, focuses on advocacy and turns their stories into testimony by speaking to lawmakers in Albany, the state capital. Such advocacy is essential in order to reduce the stigma of having a parent in prison.

"Teens are often embarrassed to tell their friends their parents are in prison," Giordano said.

For Janiah, opening up about her mother isn’t something she does with everyone. "I only tell close friends about my mother," she said. "But it’s not at all hard. It’s easy because we just talk about it like a normal thing."

Ominous Trend

While far more children have a father in prison than a mother, research indicates that arrest rates have increased more for mothers–more than doubling between 1991and 2007– than for fathers during the same period, which increased 77 percent.

That’s an ominous trend, given the worse effects of a mother’s incarceration on children.

A 2007 survey using data from the U.S. Department of Justice finds that the adult children of incarcerated mothers are 2.5 times more likely to also go to prison than the adult children of incarcerated fathers.

While most children of incarcerated fathers live with their mother while their father is in prison, less than 40 percent of children whose moms are in prison live with their fathers.

Researchers find that 11 percent of children of incarcerated mothers end up in foster care, compared to 4 percent of children of imprisoned fathers.

"There is a greater level of instability when a child’s mother is in prison rather than his or her father," said Osborne’s Krupat. She added that siblings are more likely to be separated than when the incarcerated parent is a father.

Luckily for Janiah, she and her baby sister–who was born while her mom was incarcerated–live with her father, and looks forward to catching up with the time she’s missed with her mother.

"We’re going to do all the things she told us she would do," she said. "Like go on a Disney Cruise, Spa Castle and other stuff."

Additional reporting for this story provided by Annie Geng.

This Teen Voices story is part of a three-part series about girls and the justice system supported by the New York Women’s Bar Association Foundation. In 2013 Women’s eNews retained the 25-year-old magazine Teen Voices to continue and further its mission to improve the world for female teens through media. Teen Voices at Women’s eNews provides online stories and commentary about issues directly affecting female teens around the world, serving as an outlet for young women to share their experiences and views.

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