Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents During COVID-19
Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents During COVID-19
The New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, a special project of the Osborne Association’s Center for Justice Across Generations
Check-in regularly with children and encourage them to ask questions and share what they are hearing. Simply listening and validating a child’s feelings and concerns is helpful; you don’t need to say “the right thing” to make everything better. Don’t assume that a child is not worried about a parent (or incarcerated family member) or hearing about the crisis in jails or prisons if they are not talking about it. Keep in mind that even within the same family, each child may have different reactions which may change over time.
Children may be hearing about unsafe conditions in prisons and jails, facilities being closed, and people being moved which can exacerbate the stress they are already under. Ask children if they have concerns about their parents and correct misinformation and acknowledge their concerns.
A disruption in routine is difficult for children and especially so when they may be rightly concerned about their parent’s well-being. In addition to creating a structure for their day, help children develop routines to help them feel connected to their parents.
It may be difficult for children who visited their parents to no longer be able to while visits are suspended. Acknowledge the separation & provide an age-appropriate explanation about why visits have stopped. Explore whether the facility is offering video visits or free phone calls by regularly checking the facility’s website. When visiting resumes, prepare the child in advance about changes in visiting practices and possible changes in their parent’s appearance (longer or different hair, lost weight), and address their concerns before visiting day.
A family may be video visiting for the first time. Check out the Osborne Association’s tips for video visiting to prepare children in advance and learn about activities that will help the family make the most of their time together. Where possible, allow for each child to have one-on-one time with the incarcerated parent.
Unpredictable communication with incarcerated parents can be a source of stress for children whose concerns may be exacerbated by the silence. Provide an age-appropriate explanation to let children know that the phone is shared among many people so a parent may not be able to call until the phone is clean and safe to use. Validate their concerns and encourage children to talk, write, or use creative outlets such as art, play, and dance to express their feelings. Help the child identify ways to feel connected in-between communication, such as keeping a list of what they want to tell a parent, reading the same book as their parent, talking to a photo of their parent, and incorporating their parent into bedtime rituals.
Make the most out of the communication mechanisms that are available. Help children write a letter or email or create a homemade card that meets the facility’s mail policy. Parents may have limited phone access so prepare children for shorter calls and help them identify in advance what they want to say. For example, "Hi Daddy, I love you. I'm doing great and got an A on my spelling test. I can't wait to see you!"
Parental incarceration and COVID-19 disproportionately affect communities of color, a result of systemic racism including biases baked into the criminal justice system and barriers to accessing healthcare. This means that children of color are more likely to experience the incarceration of a parent and more likely to have a family member or know a neighbor who has been diagnosed with, hospitalized, or has passed away due to COVID-19. Children of color are also more likely to have a parent who is considered an “essential worker” who may need to isolate from the family, further adding to a child’s sense of loss and worry. These stressors can compound and be hard for children to bear. Connect families with health and mental health services, acknowledge children’s concerns, and encourage children to be proud of the essential work that their parents are providing, and convey your pride in them.
Connect youth with supportive resources through video conferencing: school social worker, counselor, or virtual youth programming offered by a community based mental health clinic.
Children may feel that they are alone and that others do not understand what it is like to be separated from a parent who is at an increased risk for COVID-19 exposure, exacerbating the shame and stigma children may experience. Connect youth with online resources for and about children of incarcerated parents such as Echoes of Incarceration, POPS, and We Got Us Now, and explore whether a community-based organization has support for children of incarcerated parents.
Older children may benefit from participating in advocacy efforts to help them feel like they have some control over their situation. Connect young people with youth leadership groups or advocates such as We Got Us Now or Black Lives Matter, sign up to attend a virtual rally, or sign a petition demanding free phone calls, clemency, and safe facilities. Teach youth how to call or write their local representative to ask for their concerns to be addressed.
Encourage parents and caregivers to take care of themselves in order to be fully supportive and present, and to avoid transferring their own stress and anxiety to children. This is easier said than done, so brainstorming with caregivers about specific ways that they can take care of their own health (vitamins, sleep, or immune-boosting tips) as well as what they can do to have a moment to themselves (call a friend, take a walk, watch their favorite show, take a virtual Zumba class) is very important. Children pick up on verbal and nonverbal cues so it is critical for adults to manage their own feelings about having an incarcerated loved one and the stress brought on by COVID-19. Connect with local support groups, explore telemental health options, and implement wellbeing strategies to take care of mind, body, and soul.
A child may experience confusion, anxiety, and sadness when a parent’s parole board hearing is delayed or work release is suspended due to COVID-19. Children may cling to hope for an early release, but the lack of information about who might be released early adds to the stress families are already under. While holding onto hope is positive, children will benefit from having honest, age-appropriate conversations about the status of a parent's potential release to help them manage expectations.
Parents who are released from prison or jail during the pandemic may be required to quarantine at home or at another location, and in some instances may go on to enter a treatment facility or reside in transitional housing. Provide an age-appropriate explanation to help a child understand that their parent is safe and that they will be able to reunite soon. Provide a time estimate for when the child will be able to visit with their parent where possible.
Reentry is challenging under normal circumstances and will be even harder for many due to the economic downturn brought on by COVID-19. Housing options may be scarce, job opportunities further limited, and healthcare and education difficult to access, all of which will make it harder for parents to succeed and fulfill their parenting responsibilities. Encourage families to connect with organizations that offer reentry support and ensure children are connected to ongoing support after their parent is released. The effects of having an incarcerated parent can extend well beyond the incarceration itself.
This pandemic may become more challenging for children as time accumulates. Children may feel isolated without physically being with their friends, struggle with the uncertainty of no specific end in sight, experience the loss of someone they know, and have difficulty staying motivated to learn from home. A child’s anxiety and concern about an incarcerated parent may also increase over time. Acknowledging their feelings and concerns can help children understand that it’s “normal” if they feel more frustrated, angry, or sad. Find ways to recognize their positive coping strategies and acknowledge the great job children are doing through this very difficult time. Lesson their isolation by scheduling regular video playdates and phone calls with their friends and family.
Complete the Census to bring more support to children and communities and encourage others to do the same. Families can complete it online with their children as a quick educational activity.
Tips for children whose parents are incarcerated or recently released from prison
Tips for children whose parents are incarcerated or recently released from prison.
-Always try to stay in contact with us
-Parents must be able to write us letters and call us
-Check up on them as often as possible
-Talk about something new to build a stronger relationship
- Video Visit, FaceTime or Zoom if the option is available when visits are suspended or distance makes it difficult to visit in person.
-Do not judge us or our incarcerated parent
-Do not treat us different because we are all going through the same thing
Tips for how to stay connected while visits are suspended
-Write letters to parents
-Video visit if possible
-Communicate more often by calling
-Send pictures with a letter attached
- Talk about future plans together
- Positive conversations from the other caring people in the child life
- More phone calls during the day
- Talking to a fun person who has fun stories about your incarcerated parent
- Send packages
Tips for young people during Covid-19
-Keep a positive mentality
-Reorganize your room or something in your home
-Keep up hygiene and wash your hands
-Find a new hobby
-Try new hairstyles
-Give to those less fortunate in this time
-Keep up with your school work
-Watch some new TV shows, a documentary, or movies
-Cook some new food
-Enjoy family company
-Catch up on some sleep
- Create a buddy system so you always have someone to talk to
- Separate the positive people from the negative people in your life
-Be open to trying medication if your doctor recommends it
-Zoom to catch up with friends you miss so much
-Zoom party to celebrate milestones