by Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz
“These children have committed no crime, but the price they are forced to pay is steep. They forfeit, too, much of what matters to them: their homes, their safety, their public status and private self-image, their primary source of comfort and affection. Their lives are profoundly affected…”
–Nell Bernstein, All Alone in the World
In the past incarceration was mostly considered an adult matter affecting only individuals within the criminal justice system. Research confirms that the growth in the number of men and women incarcerated in the U.S. affects an extraordinary number of children and families.
Currently almost 3 million children go to bed with a parent in prison or jail. With 2.3 million incarcerated, that’s 700,000 more children than the prison population itself. For some children this means involvement with the child welfare system when family members are not available to care for them.
The quote above begins Part I of the book What Will Happen to Me?, written by Howard Zehr and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz to be released in January, 2011. The book is based on interviews (and photographs by Howard) with children who have one or both parents in prison.
Our initial reason for undertaking the project was to create an exhibit (available through MCC) that gives voice to the challenges and pains these children experience, as well as their resilience and hope. The book expands on their stories and suggests themes and tools that will hopefully be helpful to their caregivers.
It is our hope that through this exhibit and book we consider the effects not only of the adults who are incarcerated but also the multiple levels of systemic injustice. This includes disproportionate minority representation within our current legal system and policies that deeply affect our children and families.
Many children do not see their incarcerated parent on a regular basis and some not at all, given difficult and restrictive visiting policies and the fact that parents in prison can be transferred across the state or country, far from their communities.
Without needed contact with their parent(s), children often become confused about parents’ absence. The reunification adjustment becomes that much more difficult, thus perpetuating the challenges faced by children and families within their communities.
We can, and should, make our voices heard on their behalf.
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz is Co-Director of the Office on Justice and Peacebuilding for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
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