Indiana has one of the nation’s highest rates of incarcerated parents, and the negative effects on their children are significant.

According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, Indiana has the country’s second-highest percentage of youth who endure having a parent behind bars. At 11 percent, Indiana ranks just behind Kentucky (13 percent).

The national survey revealed that 62 percent of female inmates and 51 percent of male inmates are parents of children younger than 18. In Indiana, 20 percent of black children have an incarcerated parent, twice the rate of white and Hispanic children.

David Powell, who heads the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, speculates that Indiana’s high national ranking results from drug crimes. “If folks become addicted to these substances, their kids will become victims, whether it’s because the parents go to jail or because they neglect their kids in some other fashion,” said Powell.

The results are not good. Research summarized at the University of Minnesota revealed these children are more prone to physical health problems, depression, poor school performance and delinquency. They are more likely to live in poverty and are at higher risk of being uninsured and homeless.

Children of incarcerated parents experience “real senses of powerlessness later in life” explaining why “they have more problems transitioning to the basic roles we expect adults to adopt.”

While community members need to be aware of the special needs of children with incarcerated parents, the Federal Interagency Working Group for Children of Incarcerated Parents also recommends strategies that — when appropriate — involve the parent who is locked up.

These strategies include improving the parenting skills of the incarcerated adult, providing opportunities for children to visit imprisoned parents and other activities strengthening parent-child communication.

Rachel Halleck of Volunteers of America provides services such as these to moms who are in prison. Halleck said children of incarcerated parents are “often viewed as the problem child instead of someone who is desperately in need of resources.”

Volunteers of America delivers those resources through a family coach who helps incarcerated moms and their children with transitional housing and temporary funding for food and utilities. The family coach also facilitates mental health and addictions treatment along with family counseling.

“Our staff members offer support to keep the family intact with the long-term goal of breaking the cycle of incarceration,” Halleck said.

Keith Blackburn is a former criminal offender who now works for the Indiana Department of Corrections Family Education Department. He utilizes the National Fatherhood Initiative’s “Inside Out Dad Program” to teach parenting skills to incarcerated fathers. Children then visit their dads in jail twice a month, for three hours at a time, for a range of activities such as sports, arts and reading.

Bill Stanczykiewicz is President and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at iyi@iyi.org or on Twitter @_billstan

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