NASHVILLE (WATE) – Tennessee has the third highest rate of parents who are incarcerated, according to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The study found that 144,000 children, one in 10, will have a parent behind bars. Nationwide, over 5 million children have had a parent incarcerated.
According to Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee, kids whose parents are incarcerated are six times more likely to end up in jail themselves. That’s the reason the organization says it’s important to have stability in order to rise above life’s challenges.
David Benton was sentenced to 15 years behind bars in 2002.
“She brought him one time and that was it. He was so heartbroken, he cried. He said, ‘Daddy please don’t leave me. Don’t go. Why can’t you come with us?’ And those were questions I couldn’t answer,” said Benton.
At the time his boys were toddlers. “I wrote my kids every week, every week. I wouldn’t miss a birthday. I wouldn’t miss a Christmas.”
That’s where organizations like SOLS Magazine steps in, helping kids with the heartache then sending their messages to loved ones in prison.
“You just really don’t know the loss in kids lives and we just have to be that advocate to listen. And that’s what I’m here for, is to just listen and put it on paper because once it’s on paper they’re able to share it and go home and talk to that relative that is there,” said Sherri Williams with SOLS Magazine.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a support system as well. The Amachi program specifically counseling little ones in that situation.
“They just need to have your attention. They just want to be loved, they want you to be consistent, follow through with what you say you’re going to do,” said AJ Tipton, an Amachi Mentor.
In Benton’s case it’s about setting a better example. “I got some smart young gentlemen and they know better because they were so sad watching my life in prison.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters says there’s a need right now for volunteers to mentor kids, more specifically the need for male volunteers. Children are more at risk of witnessing substance abuse, domestic and neighborhood violence or have a parent with mental illness. Also, children are more likely to have divorced or separated parents.
The foundation claims incarceration hurts families by impacting their income and child development.
To help children cope, the foundation believes a variety of steps can be taken by the state and community organizations:
- Education and job training for parents
- Access to public benefits (SNAP, TANF, public housing)
- Mentoring program, educational and health support
- Parenting courses and family counseling
- “Ban the box” polices to decrease the impact of a criminal record after release
The foundation believes these steps can help prevent children to continue the cycle of incarceration. Also, less state spending on incarceration can help funds to go to programs to prevent the cycle and support children, according to the foundation.