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Invisible No More

Nell Bernstein is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

Nell BernsteinNell Bernstein is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

When I learned that the White House would be holding an event focused on the needs of children of incarcerated parents, I had to catch my breath. Ten years ago, when I wrote my book on the subject, All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, I could not even have imagined such a convening. Numerous as they were, these children were almost entirely overlooked by the multiple systems that take charge of their lives once a parent is incarcerated. As I researched the book, talking to children and their families across the country, I met a group of visionaries – dedicated advocates who were doing all they could to make sure that these children were not overlooked. When I learned that I would be joining many of these, my personal heroes – Liz Gaynes and Emani Davis at the Osborne Association in New York; Carol Burton at Centerforce in California; Dee Ann Newell at Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind and others whose passion and dedication has led the way for these children to be seen and heard – I thought I might be dreaming.

Today, roughly 1.7 million children have a parent or parents in prison, and 2.4 million have a parent in either jail or prison. One in ten American children has a parent under criminal justice supervision – in jail, prison, on probation or parole – on any given day. Despite these astonishing numbers, these children are only now beginning to be recognize and their needs addressed.

For the past ten years, I have worked as the coordinator of the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (SFCIPP), a coalition of service providers, representatives of government bodies, advocates and others convened by the Zellerbach Family Foundation. Together we developed and advocate for a Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents. We are joined in this work by others all across the country who have found in the Bill of Rights a banner under which they and the children could gather and make their voices heard. Together, SFCIPP has worked towards and achieved goals such as a police protocol that keeps children safe and acknowledged when a parent is arrested; the One Family Initiative, which has made the San Francisco County Jail one of the first in the country to have a written policy giving children the opportunity for meaningful contact visits with their parents, rather than struggling to reach them through glass on a scratchy telephone; and Project WHAT, which supports teenagers and young adults who have experienced parental incarceration in speaking to audiences across the country on their own behalf in order to inform the policies and practices that affect them, and in developing training curricula for teachers, social workers, and the various other agencies whose workers will interact with children whose parents are behind bars. Across the country, our allies are doing the same and more.

Children of prisoners have a daunting array of needs. They need a safe place to live and people to care for them in their parents’ absence, as well as everything else a parent might be expected to provide: food, clothing, medical care. But beyond these material requirements, young people themselves identify less tangible, but equally compelling, needs. They need to be told the truth about their parents’ situation. They need someone to listen without judging, so that their parents’ status need not remain a secret. They need the companionship of others who share their experience, so they can know they are not alone. They need contact with their parents—to have that relationship recognized and valued even under adverse circumstances. And—rather than being stigmatized for their parents’ actions or status—they need to be treated with respect, offered opportunity, and recognized as having potential.

For these needs to be met – these rights to be recognized – they need first and foremost to be acknowledged and heard. That the White House is creating a forum that will make this possible is a powerful sign that the nation is ready to step up and listen to a group of children whose dazzling potential demands our support.

Nell Bernstein is an author and Coordinator of the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership.