Parental incarceration is a prominent issue not just nationwide but in the small state of Vermont, as well. Muller (2015) stated, “In 2005, it was estimated that more than 2.5 million children in the U.S. had a parent in prison.” According to the Lamoille Restorative Center (2016), “On any given day, an estimated 2,000 Vermont children experience parental incarceration; that’s 6,000 children a year.” To put that into perspective, that is approximately the same number of children born in our small state every year.
Understanding the parental bond
Given how important the bond between parent and child is, when that bond is suddenly broken the effects are detrimental and often devastating. Having a mother or father incarcerated can cause a child to feel distress, but according to Murray and Murray in their the article “Parental Incarceration, Attachment and Child Psychopathology,” “Maternal incarceration tends to cause more disruption for children than paternal incarceration and may lead to greater risk for insecure attachment and psychopathology” (2010, p. 289). If the maternal bond or “working model” is not there or is suddenly removed by unexpected incarceration, the effects on the child could quite possibly be irreparable.
Without the proper supports in place, these children can experience a host of long-lasting psychological, social and behavioral disruptions including but not limited to anti-social behaviors, depression, poor self-esteem, guilt and fears of abandonment. Children also face the possibility of being “forced into one of three situations: entering the foster-care system, becoming homeless or becoming the breadwinner for their siblings”(Repeta, 2019).
Shown below is the trailer for the production DOWNSTREAM:The Effects of Parental Incarceration. This very sad documentary, produced by Brad Salon in collaboration with the Lamoille Restorative Center program “Resilience Beyond Incarceration,” highlights the struggles children and families face during and after a parent has been incarcerated.
(Salon et al., 2019)
A Case Study
My heart breaks for these children. This video brought back a sad realization for me and my 17-year-old son. He struggled for many years with his self-esteem and feelings of humiliation and embarrassment due to his father’s many incarcerations. The last and most widely publicized incarceration was when my son was 13 years old. His father was arrested, charged and ultimately convicted of three counts of armed robbery, federal drug-trafficking, and possession of heroin. The case was broadcast on major news outlets, and published both online and in most of the newspapers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
I have never seen a child try so hard to internalize disappointment and humiliation. What made it worse was that he had just begun his freshman year of high school. Everyone knew who he was and who his father was. For about 18 months after, he would struggle with debilitating social anxiety and persistent panic attacks. Fortunately, with the help of amazing friends and family supports, he now knows and understands that he is not his father, nor is he responsible for his father’s mistakes. It is unfortunate, but to protect himself he has had to cut off all contact with his father and refuses to perpetuate the cycle or be defined by his father’s mistakes.
Interview with former DOC reunification counselor
To gain a better understanding of the uphill battle these children face, I interviewed Timothy Lyman, MA, and LADC, the acting Substance Use Disorders program supervisor for the Counseling Service of Addison County. Tim has a personal and professional expertise that directly relates his knowledge to the effects of parental incarceration on children. He previously was employed by the New York Department of Corrections for 27 years as a “counselor, supervising counselor and administrator. I provided direct and indirect counseling and case-management services to families through a number of different programs designed to aid families in reunification and maintenance of family relationships and connections” (T. Lyman, personal communication, April 20, 2021).
Q. Do you feel there is a greater need for programs such as Resiliency Beyond Incarceration spearheaded by the Lamoille Restorative Center in Hyde Park, VT?
A. Absolutely! The trauma of Incarceration has a significant impact across the family spectrum. Any means by which we can work to reduce the adverse effects this trauma has on the individuals effected is a wonderful opportunity to improve the likelihood that families moving through this crisis, will remain as healthy and well as possible. I found that families as a whole, when offered and provided with supportive counseling, case-management and reunification assistance and maintenance, were much more able to withstand the adverse effects incarceration has on the family.
Q. What do you feel we could do differently as a community and a society as a whole, to change the stigma surrounding children of incarcerated parents?
A. Alternatives to incarceration when possible, building community awareness of how we can provide better support for children of incarcerated parents and promoting awareness and understanding that children are not their parents behavior (T. Lyman, personal communication, April 20, 2021).
How can we help?
To combat these struggles, the natural resiliency of children needs to be both nurtured and taught as a life skill. There has been a recent push within community agencies to do just that.
Through a program called “Ok. You’ve Got This,” the Counseling Service of Addison County has teamed up with other local Addison County organizations, such as the Addison County Parent Child Center, Vermont Department of Health, Building Bright Futures, the Vermont Department for Children and Families, and all three Addison County school districts. Through literature, family activities, and online supports, this program helps families learn how to best support our youth while giving them resilience building skills.
(Ok. you’ve got this, 2018)
The resiliency data table below, “Measures of resiliency in Addison County, 2017,” supports why it is important to have proactive programs like these in place.
Notice that of those Addison County youth who said Yes to having “felt sad or hopeless for two weeks in a row, past 12 months,” 61% of them have “Used any substances, past 30 days.” Moreover, a third or more felt bullied during that period and made a suicide plan. (Ok. you’ve got this, 2018)
(Ok. you’ve got this, 2018)
Again, having in place proactive programs that can guide youth and their families during periods of crisis is paramount to their success.
Without such programs, Vermont children with incarcerated parents are at greater risk of perpetuating the cycle of crime, substance abuse, poverty, and/or mental health struggles. With such programs, our affected youth can be empowered to break these cycles, both for themselves and future Vermont generations.
Lamoille Restorative Center. (2016, December 8). Resilience beyond incarceration. https://lrcvt.org/resilience-beyond-incarceration/
Muller, R. T. (2015, May 7). When a parent is incarcerated. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201505/when-parent-is-incarcerated
Murray, J., & Murray, L. (2010). Parental incarceration, attachment and child psychopathology. Attachment & Human Development, 12(4), 289-309. https://doi.org/10.1080/14751790903416889
Ok. You’ve Got this. (2018, November 5). Resiliency data. https://okyouvegotthis.org/resiliency-data/
Repeta, F. (2019, April 4). “Downstream”: A bleak picture about Vermont parental incarceration. Basement Medicine. https://www.basementmedicine.org/campus-community/2019/04/04/downstream-a-bleak-picture-about-vermont-parental-incarceration/
Salon, B., Lamoille Restorative Center & Bear Notch Productions. (2019, February 28). Downstream Trailer–The effects of Parental Incarceration [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hAAPR3URfQ
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APA cite in text as: (Dupoise, 2021)
APA cite in full References as: Dupoise, D. (2021). Children of incarcerated Vermonters: How can we help? Vermont Psychology. https://wp.me/p4elXk-IX
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Dannielle Dupoise. I am Dannielle: a 36 year-old mental health survivor and advocate. I currently reside in northern Rutland County with my son and fiancé in an adorable little historic home that we share with our sweet Cat Skylar and our quirky Pit Bull Tootsie. I am plugging away at a degree in Behavioral Sciences. I say plugging away because I’ve been working on the educational piece on and off for about 10 years. Life has its way of kicking us in the pants sometimes. I still have a little ways left to go, but there is no time limit on success as long as you continue to keep moving forward.