The number of kids with incarcerated parents has ballooned in recent decades, yet these children remain largely invisible to lawmakers.
It was around bedtime when Ginny Lord, age 4, stood at the top of the stairs in her Tacoma home and watched her dad taken away by a team of undercover police officers for a series of drug-related robberies.
Frightened and bewildered, Ginny stayed quiet. “I just stood there and watched,” she said.
Lord remained quiet for much of her childhood, never talking about the upheaval in her family, the visits to see her father in jail, the constant moving from home to home with her mother, who was unemployed.
“It was not comfortable, how we were living, but it was familiar,” said Lord, now 43 and a counselor with Catholic Community Services.
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School was an island of stability – a teacher at Tacoma’s Franklin Elementary asked if anything was wrong at home – but Ginny wouldn’t talk to him, either. Her actions, however, spoke volumes. By eighth grade she was getting locked up herself. By ninth grade, she had dropped out of school.
“There was this huge hole in my life, but I didn’t know what was safe to communicate about it,” Lord said.
Similar stories frame the lives of 109,000 children in Washington with parents who are incarcerated, or have been. They comprise about 7 percent of the under-18 population. Yet policymakers know little about them.
“Extremely concerning – 109,000 children is a big number,” said Lori Pfingst, research and policy director at Washington Budget and Policy Center, which last week released a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, noting that one of every 14 kids in the state is included in this group.
That’s a figure six and a half times greater than the number inmates in Washington’s 12 correctional centers.
“We can’t solve anything if we don’t know what’s going on, and there has been no systematic effort to collect data on these children,” Pfingst said. “We’ve had 30 years of mass incarceration and we’ve overlooked the effect on these kids for so long.”
A few facts are clear: Children with parents in prison move more frequently than their peers and are at greater risk of ending up homeless. When those moms and dads are released, they earn less than other adults, driving up child-poverty rates.
The most recent state data, from 2007, shows that 61,276 Washington children had parents in prison, and 75 percent of these kids received foster care, Medicaid, food stamps or welfare services. Since then, notes Pfingst, the numbers have only increased.
An estimated 5.1 million children nationally fall into this category, and new research highlighted in “A Shared Sentence” suggests that they suffer effects as damaging as child abuse or domestic violence.