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Sun June 8, 2014

When A Parent Goes To Prison, A Child Also Pays A Price

When she was a child, 22-year-old Ifetayo Harvey's father was sentenced to prison for cocaine trafficking.

"My dad went to prison when I was 4 years old, and he was released when I was 12," Harvey says.

Harvey is one of millions of young people who grew up with a parent in prison. A recent study from the National Academy of Sciences examined the growth of incarceration in the United States, and among the topics was the effect on kids and families when a parent goes to prison.

Like many children with incarcerated parents, Harvey has suffered for her father's crime.

But at first, she didn't even know her dad had gone to prison.

"I noticed that my dad was gone for a while, but because my parents weren't married and they didn't live together, I assumed that he would be back," Harvey tells NPR's Arun Rath.

She started receiving letters from her father, and was confused by the long strings of letters and codes. She says it was in sometime in first or second grade that her mother told her that her father was in prison.

"I was really sad about it," she says.

In his letters, he told her how much he loved and cared about her, but Harvey says it felt like a contradiction with him not being there while she was dealing with a lot of depression and shame. "It was just a really confusing time," she says.

Lasting Effects

Jeremy Travis, one of the authors of the National Academy of Sciences report, says despite the rate of incarceration quadrupling over the past four decades, no one has really studied its effects on the family — especially kids — before.

"This is an important social question which is not getting enough attention from the research community — not because there is not enough interest, but because we've not been willing to pay for it," Travis says.

Travis says the numbers of kids with an incarcerated parent is "staggering." He says in the 1970s there were about 350,000 minors with a parent in prison; now, it's well over 2 million.

"That simply tracks [with] the fact that we're putting more people in prison," he says. "And the consequences of that are pretty profound, we think, although they're not as well documented as they should be."

What we do know, he says, is that there are higher rates of homelessness among families when the father is in prison, poor developmental outcomes for the children in those families, and that there's greater family instability in those families.

Travis says the children in those families often end up in foster care and have difficulties in school forming attachments with their peers. All of those difficulties, he says, present challenges for the communities, social workers, educators and family members who want to support that child through such a difficult time.

The first step, he says, is that we should have fewer people in prison, but it is more complicated than that.

"We will always have people in prison, and we should pay attention to the collateral consequences of incarcerating ... parents," Travis says.

Finding A Silver Lining

Ifetayo Harvey is one of the lucky ones, in a way. She had the help and support of a larger extended family, and says she had positive role models in her family. This was in sharp contrast to the example her father set.

"Maybe even my dad being incarcerated motivated me to do the best that I could in school, so something like that wouldn't happen to me or anyone that I knew," she says.

But in many other ways, Harvey suffered from the problems laid out in the study. She never visited her father, who was in a prison out of state. She never had any phone calls. The absence of her father was a big burden on her mom.

"My mom is a single parent of seven kids, and once my dad went away, this put a really big financial strain on my family," she says.

Harvey says she often made something up when asked what her dad did for a living, to avoid having to explain he was in prison.

"It's hard to explain that to people because there's such a heavy stigma against people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated," she says.

Harvey says that lately she's been focused on the positive aspects of growing up with a parent in prison. She says it taught her to empathize and understand people from a different angle.

Harvey's dad was deported back to Jamaica after he was released. She saved up enough money to make a trip there to visit when she was 16 years old. Before that trip, it has been 12 years since she's last seen him. She says it was a good experience, though a little awkward at times.

"But I was willing to rebuild our relationship, and I think it's good," she says. "It's good for what it is; my dad calls me once or twice a week."

Harvey just graduated from Smith College and now wants to pursue a master's degree in social work. Her dad's experience gave her a passion for social justice, and she's no longer ashamed to talk about this part of her life.

"I get power from speaking the truth of my story to others," she says. "I think that once you realize that you're not alone in your struggle, it's easier to heal."

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Transcript

IFETAYO HARVEY: My father was convicted of cocaine trafficking, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

That's the voice of Ifetayo Harvey, a twenty-two-year-old who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She's one of millions of young people who grew up with a parent in prison.

HARVEY: My dad went to prison when I was four years old. And he was released when I was twelve.

RATH: Of course, Ifetayo hadn't done anything wrong. But like many children with incarcerated parent, she suffered for her father's crime. That's our cover story today - the effect on kids and families when a parent goes to prison. At first, Ifetayo didn't know her dad was in prison.

HARVEY: I noticed that my dad was gone for a while. But because my parents weren't married and they never lived together, I assumed that he would be back. I started receiving letters from him. And I noticed that the letters had like really, really long numbers and codes. And I thought, maybe he lives in an apartment complex. But I think it was around maybe first or second grade when my mom told me that my dad was in prison.

RATH: And how did you react to that? What was that like for you to hear?

HARVEY: I was really sad about it. In his letters, he told me that he loved me. He really cared about me. So it was kind of a contradiction with him not being there and me having to deal with a lot of depression or shame. It was just a really confusing time period, I guess.

RATH: A recent study from the National Academy of Sciences examined the growth of incarceration in the United States. Jeremy Travis is one of the authors of the report. Among other questions, they were asked to study the effects of incarceration on children and the families of those in prison. Amazingly, no one's really studied this before.

JEREMY TRAVIS: We would say to the committee that there's actually not enough research on this entire phenomenon. For 50 years, from 1920 to the early 1970s, the rate of incarceration in America was stable. In 1972, it started to go up and went up for the next 40 years, quadrupling over four decades. So this is important social question, for our democracy, which is not getting enough attention from the research community, not because there's not enough interest, but because we've not been willing to pay for it.

RATH: Based on what you were able review, do you have a sense of how the numbers of children with incarcerated parents has changed over the decades?

TRAVIS: The numbers are quite staggering. In 1970s or so, there were 350,000 minors who had a parent in prison. And now it's well over 2 million. And that simply tracks the fact that we're putting more people in prison, and the consequences of that are pretty profound, we think, although they're not as well documented as they should be.

RATH: It seems there are some consistent observations about the effects of children and families. Can you tell us what we do know?

TRAVIS: So we know that there's, for example, higher rates of homelessness among families when the father is incarcerated. There are poor developmental outcomes for those minor children. We know there's greater family instability. We know that there are significant racial disparities - the rate among the African-American communities in our country is seven times higher than among the white children in our country.

RATH: So is there a way break that cycle?

TRAVIS: The first way to start to deal with this problem is to have fewer people in prison. But there will always be people in prison. And we should pay attention to the collateral consequences of incarcerating those - particularly those who are parents. And young people often end up in foster care. They have difficulties in school - attachment to their peers.

And all of those difficulties present challenges for the communities, the educators and social workers and the police officers and the family members to surround that young person with support and make sure that they are given that support as they go through a very difficult time as their parents are taken off to prison.

RATH: Ifetayo is one of the lucky ones. She had the help and support of a larger extended family. She says she had positive role models, who stood in sharp contrast to the example her father had set.

HARVEY: Maybe, even, my dad being incarcerated motivated me to do the best that I could in school, so something like that wouldn't happen to me or anyone that I knew.

RATH: But in so many other ways, Ifetayo suffered from the problems laid out in the NAS study. Her father was in a prison in a different state. There were no visits, no phone calls even. The absence of her father was a big burden on her mom.

HARVEY: My mom is a single parent of seven kids. And once my dad went away, this put a really big financial strain on my family. And naturally, she was very angry about the situation that she found herself in.

RATH: You know, you said you felt depressed and shame. Was this something that you shared with your friends, What was going on?

HARVEY: Oh no. When some of my classmates in elementary school would ask me - what does your dad do? - most of the time, I made up things to avoid having to explain. But I do recall one time when I told a friend that he was in prison. And they were like, whoa, your dad's in prison? He's a bad guy. It's hard to explain that to people because there is such a heavy stigma against people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.

RATH: You know, what your parents do for a living, it can affect your perspective on the world. How do you think your dad's situation has changed your perspective?

HARVEY: Oh wow. It's changed my perspective a lot. Lately, I've been really trying to focus on the positive aspects. And I know that sounds weird, but I think having an incarcerated parent really teaches you to empathize more and understand people from different angle.

RATH: Her dad was deported back to Jamaica after he was released. Ifetayo saved up enough money to make a trip there to visit, when she was sixteen - twelve years after she had last seen him.

HARVEY: It was a good experience. You know, it was a little awkward at some points, but...

RATH: Yeah.

HARVEY: ... I was willing to rebuild our relationship. And it's good for what it is. My dad calls me like once or twice a week, or so.

RATH: Ifetayo just graduated from Smith College and now wants to pursue a Masters in social work. Her dad's experience gave her a passion for social justice, and she's no longer ashamed to talk about this part of her life.

HARVEY: I get power from speaking the truth of my story to others. I think, once you realize that you're not alone in your struggle, it's easier to heal.

RATH: Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

HARVEY: Thank you for having me, Arun.

RATH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.