Imprisonment of parents has significant implications for their children’s futures and public policy. The greatest risk is seen among African-American children whose fathers have been disproportionately incarcerated in the nation’s jails and prisons.
Research suggests that daughters may be more likely to be teenage mothers, while sons, due to the absence of so many men from their homes and neighborhoods, have difficulty developing a vision. These fragile children are subjected to teasing and bullying in school and other social settings, and many tend to withdraw.
Others may exhibit acting-out behavior. We know that 24 percent of children with a father who has served time in jail or prison have been expelled or suspended from school. Higher school drop-out rates and lower academic achievement are outcomes. An estimated 70 percent of these young people may become involved in the criminal justice system. Georgia is losing the battle against low graduation rates generally associated with poverty.
Incarceration’s harsh reality for fathers is that child support payments grow, and they leave prison with an average debt of $20,000. According to the Federal Agency for Child Support Enforcement, 70 percent of all back child support is owed by men earning less than $10,000 a year, and that 29 percent of those fathers who are delinquent are re-incarcerated. The debtor’s prison has been de facto re-instituted in the United States.
Once released, these men very often are unable to find living-wage jobs because of felony convictions. Georgia, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, has a disproportionate number of African-American men unable to work and meet their child support payments and who are re-institutionalized for non-payment, which increases incarceration numbers and taxpayer costs.
In May 2013, 93 percent of those incarcerated were men. Of these, 61 percent were African-American, while they are only 31 percent of Georgia’s population. An estimated 100,000 children, disproportionately African-American, are annually affected.
Distance, transportation costs and length of sentence all affect visitation. The Georgia Department of Corrections has commendably fostered development of the first-ever child developmental visiting center for fathers in the Walker State Faith and Character Based Prison in Rock Spring. Women’s prisons have these centers. In addition to promoting family, these centers, and public policy that supports and subsidizes child visitations, can reduce the potential numbers in the criminal justice pipeline. More centers are needed.
Finally, women advocates and other policymakers — who worked for child support policies and penalties that are, indeed, appropriate when there is a realistic assessment of ability to pay — should revisit their impact. Current policy ensures greater disadvantage for poor children and the severing of father-child relationships. These children cannot defend themselves against the damage inflicted by systems not sensitive to the effect of parental incarceration and to the nurturing that even an incarcerated or released parent can provide.
Dr. Henrie Treadwell is a research professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine.