Roughly half of all kids living in the U.S. — 33 to 36.5 million — have a parent with a criminal record, and 2.7 million of them have a parent behind bars. Those kids are more likely to live in poverty and develop mental illnesses.
In San Francisco, two officials are getting ready to introduce a plan that would put in place a comprehensive support system in the city for students in that situation.
Under the new resolution, proposed by Commissioner Shamann Walton and the vice president of the city’s board of education, Matt Haney, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) would facilitate communication between students and their parents. A school administrator would also contribute to the San Francisco County Jail’s parental education program, which helps adults maintain close ties to their kids and prepares them for parenting upon their release.
Walton and Haney told the San Francisco Examiner that the resolution is intended to better understand and accommodate SFUSD children who are dealing with the economic and psychological impacts that come with having an incarcerated parent.
“Parental incarceration is one the most severe forms of trauma a child can go through, with major social, emotional and academic consequences,” Haney told the publication. “Our schools can better understand the experiences of students with incarcerated parents, and work harder, smarter and more compassionately to meet their needs.”
Having an incarcerated parent exacerbates childhood poverty, because those parents are no longer making a steady income to support their kids. A report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action design found that, prior to incarceration, former inmates contributed half of their family’s income. When they were locked up, prisoners’ families were responsible for paying the costs of confinement. Altogether, these children are forced to deal with financial instability and are less likely to have their basic survival needs met.
Living with a parent behind bars takes an emotional toll as well. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, aggression, and disobedience are common side effects exhibited by children in that position. They feel ashamed and stigmatized in social settings, and performance in school declines. Small, anecdotal studies suggest that having an incarcerated parent can lead to disruptive behavior in school and lower academic achievement. Those kids are not more likely to commit deviant behavior, but without their parents, they need additional resources to help them cope.
Walton noted that thousands of San Francisco students are in this predicament.