Mass incarceration is not a new problem. It has been a consistent issue since the 1980s, when the war on drugs rose and resulted in the mass incarceration of Black and Brown communities. Since then, several generations of parents have had to parent from behind cell doors. Even as both Democrats and Republicans have tried to reduce mass incarceration, too often there has been inadequate focus on the children who are left behind when a parent is incarcerated, and the myriad ways the prison system impacts them.
Over 2.7 million children are currently impacted by parental incarceration—enough to fill 5,100 average-sized public schools. Furthermore, over ten million children have been impacted by parental incarceration at some point in their life. Black children are seven times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than are white children, and Latinx children are twice as likely. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the data for Native children of incarcerated parents is not known nationally, but in Oklahoma, data shows that Native children are twice as likely as white children to have an incarcerated parent; while in both the Dakotas, they are about five times more likely. Children of incarcerated parents (COIP) are too often on the fringe of the criminal justice reform efforts, with their needs underappreciated or deprioritized.
COIP also face critical systemic barriers in the areas of education, housing, mental/physical health, financial hardship, and changing caregivers (including through the foster care system). These children are failed by government across many different sectors and areas of their lives; moreover, government created their negative circumstances, and only coordinated and comprehensive government action can address this. (Read more about the challenges faced by COIP here.)
As a child of a formerly incarcerated parent, I propose that Congress protect and support children impacted by incarceration by authorizing and funding the Flourishing Children of Incarcerated Parents (FCIP) program. FCIP would be a new, $500 million competitive grant program at the U.S. Department of Justice that would provide funding to states that plan to work across their relevant agencies to put in place policies and programs that will support the children of incarcerated parents, to help them overcome the barriers they face. Specifically, Congress should support the Flourishing Children of Incarcerated Parents grant program by taking the following steps.
@isabelcoronado96Flourishing Children of Incarcerated Parents Initiative (FCIP) – Explained♬ Lofi – Domknowz
The FCIP program will comprehensively advance, elevate, and support children who are currently impacted and/or formerly impacted by parental incarceration in overcoming the experience of mass incarceration.
1. Authorize the program, which will encourage states to take a comprehensive and thoughtful approach to supporting COIP across agencies.
Congress should appropriate $500 million annually to the U.S. Department of Justice to fund this program. In state applications for the grant, the respective state’s department of corrections (or, if appropriate, department of health and human services) will take the lead in applying for and managing the funds over a period of three years. The target population for the services funded are expectant mothers and children age 24 and younger with current or formerly incarcerated parents in either state or federal prisons. While some of the policy and program changes will only be required in state prisons, as states are grantees, supportive services and policies made through the department of health and human services, department of education, and so on should be made available to children with parents in federal prisons as well.
While the typical grantee for this program will be state departments of corrections (DOC), who will be critical to implementing key policies to support the connections between COIP and their parents, where DOC do not apply, state departments of health and human services may apply as the lead grantee, and take the lead in working with other agencies and implementing policy changes.
2. Require that lead applicants—state departments of corrections, or in limited cases, state departments of health and human services—collaborate with other departments in state government and with relevant nonprofits in developing and implementing their plan.
To be considered competitive, a state department of corrections needs to show how they will collaborate with other departments, such as their state’s departments of education, health and human services, and transportation, as well as with external nonprofit organizations that already support CIP. Tackling the many policies oppressing COIP and creating better solutions will take a multi-department approach to ensure all systems are proactively addressing the many harmful policies.
An adequate plan to address the needs of COIP under this grant would entail a broad range of activities and services that no one department can handle on its own, and would require addressing issues such as prisons that do not have child-friendly visiting protocols, police departments without child-sensitive arrest policies, education systems that do not require or support incarcerated parents or teachers to understand the needs of and support COIP, lack of transportation for children to visit their parents while in prison, and the lack of access to mental health and counseling services for these children. Where working across agencies is proving challenging, a required advisory committee composed of stakeholders (see below) should help to step in and bridge the gap, ensuring all agencies are committed to moving forward together.
3. Require the creation of an advisory committee composed of impacted children, caregivers, and incarcerated parents.
To truly address the policies and services to effectively help COIP and address the wide spectrum of needs that aren’t being fulfilled, an advisory committee composed of impacted children, their caregivers, and incarcerated parents must be created, and guidelines made for how their input will be included in decision-making both during development and implementation of each grant. Each state differs in the unique needs of their CIP, and including their ongoing input on a holistic family approach will aid in closing any policy gaps and services. The grant should cover any expenses the children, their caregivers, and incarcerated parents incur as a result of their time participating on the advisory committee.
4. Ensure alternatives to incarceration for parents.
While addressing the variety of challenges that COIP face is critical, ideally, the ultimate goal of this work should be to avoid removing parents from their children in the first place, whenever possible. To receive this grant, states must either currently have a parent alternative to incarceration program that allows parents to serve their time without going to prison, or a plan to implement such a program within the three-year duration of the grant. For example, the Washington State Department of Corrections has successfully implemented a program called the Family and Offender Sentencing Alternative (FOSA), which facilitates parents serving their time at home with their children and with the help of community resources instead of in a state prison facility. Thus far, the program has served 274 parents with sentences that include prison time in this way; of those parents thus served, 92 percent have not been convicted again. This program should be seen as a model for other states who do not currently have a parent alternative to incarceration program and want to implement one.
While addressing the variety of challenges that COIP face is critical, ideally, the ultimate goal of this work should be to avoid removing parents from their children in the first place, whenever possible.
5. Require that funds be used to cover expenses and services for COIP to address health, mental health, access to their parents, education, and housing.
COIP face tremendous barriers to living healthy lives, and almost always lack the resources to overcome them with their parent or parents gone. Grant funds must be made available to make all CIP’s daily lives safer and healthier in direct and immediate ways. Some of the most critical services they need include: transportation to see their parents in prison; youth-led policy initiatives in their state; stipends to surrogate caregivers for groceries and clothing; and regular therapy and counseling.
These supplementary services need to address the multitude of needs across education, health, financial need, and housing instability. In many cases, nonprofit organizations or community networks are best prepared to provide these services, such as Osborne Association in New York State; Pain of the Prison System (POPS), which is run out of California; and Girl Scouts beyond Bars, which has chapters throughout the United States. Tribal, state, and local governments could also provide these services, such as transportation and training for teachers. States receiving grants must have a plan to continue these services after the grant period ends.
6. Require that clear goals are provided in applications, and that activity and progress towards those goals be reported publicly and to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Grantees should outline supportive goals for COIP in their applications and report publicly every quarter on their progress. COIP have been ignored and left behind by the system for too long in too many ways, and states must be held accountable for making real progress. Their goals should be a mix of short- and long-term in nature, and must cover both implementation and outcomes. For example, in the first three months, the state must: create an advisory committee of impacted children, their caregivers, and incarcerated parents; solidify their partnerships with all other relevant state departments; and establish a plan to enact a parent alternative sentencing program (if they do not have one already). Long-term goals could include: an increase in the number of COIP who have advanced their education; improvements in CIP’s mental health; and a decrease in housing instability for CIP. A mix of metrics should be used, both qualitative and quantitative in nature, in order to best understand the outcomes of individual grantees and of the grant program overall.
COIP have been ignored and left behind by the system for too long in too many ways, and states must be held accountable for making real progress.
Children Deserve to Flourish
The Flourishing Children Initiative seeks to close the gaps COIP have endured for too long. By centering the needs of children, we can start to effectively engage in breaking down the carceral system that has torn apart families and have left generations in a downward spiral without support. This grant is not the only lever of change needed, but it will effectively enhance the lives of 2.7 million children who currently have an incarcerated parent. Let’s ensure these children have the essential tools and resources to flourish in their respective lives.