On any given day, 1,700 Vermont children have an incarcerated parent.
Research shows a close connection between parental incarceration and a troubled childhood. In addition to the stigma of having a parent in jail, these children face an above-average risk of serious physical and mental health problems. They are three times more likely than other youngsters to behave like delinquents, and three times more likely to drop out of high school.
The Lamoille Valley Community Justice Program is working to lower these risks. The program, the only one of its kind in Vermont, provides myriad services to children up to age 12 who have a parent in jail, or who has been released. It also helps those parents re-enter their communities.
The state-funded program, based in Hyde Park, is under the umbrella of the Lamoille County Court Diversion Restorative Justice Programs.
Fifty-one children from 25 families participated in the voluntary program during the 2013-14 fiscal year. Participants may be referred by a health worker or school, or they can contact the program themselves.
Services range from medical and mental health care to academic support to housing, food and transportation help.
The program focuses on four main areas: health and wellness; school success; community connections; and home environment, said Tricia Long, its licensed clinical mental health counselor and case manager.
Connecting to the community is especially important when a parent is released from prison. Having personal ties and a support network helps reduce chances that the parent will go back to jail.
But parents who’ve been in prison might have trouble trusting people, or they may not have the money and transportation needed for their children’s extracurricular activities, Long said.
The program has helped children get involved in Boy Scouts, after-school activities, sports, and summer camp programs.
“Many families don’t feel comfortable accessing the outside world,” said Heather Hobart, the program’s executive director.
Getting to know their community through their children’s activities can help, she said.
A growing problem
About 80 percent of women in Vermont prisons have children.
The number of children with an incarcerated parent is soaring, largely because of opiate addiction.
In the past 20 years, there’s been a 600 percent increase in the number of women in U.S. prisons, and most of the convictions stem from drug charges, according to Long.
While the Shumlin administration made strides last year in expanding Vermont’s drug treatment programs and in offering treatment rather than jail for first-time, nonviolent offenders, there’s still a wait to enter most programs.
The majority of the women at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility are there because of technical violations of earlier convictions, not because they’ve committed new crimes, according to Long.
When a parent goes to prison, the entire family is strained — relatives must step up as primary caregivers to children who might see their parents on weekends, if at all.
“It doesn’t matter if a child believes a parent is a good parent,” Long said. “Every child needs a parent in place.”
A law the Legislature passed last year outlines the rights of children with arrested and incarcerated parents, and requires the state to provide certain support systems for them. Act 168 includes a Children’s Bill of Rights that, among other things, guarantees children the right to speak with, see and touch their parents and to receive support while their parents are incarcerated.
The Community Justice Program provides counseling to address the anger and depression often experienced by children with incarcerated parents.
It also prepares children for prison visits.
“Going to prison can be a terrifying experience for a child,” Long said. “Strip searches aren’t uncommon.”
Many families have already been strained by poverty, domestic violence and other social problems, making prison that much more shattering, Long said.
Long and Cathy Hughes, a registered nurse, complete a detailed intake form for every participant to see what he or she needs.
The program provides health services to grandparents and other caregivers, trying to keep them from being overwhelmed, and it ensures they can get into any community-based programs that may be helpful.
When incarcerated parents are ready to re-enter the community, the program will help them find jobs and housing and improve their parenting skills.
“It’s a steep mountain they have to climb,” Long said.
Program is working
The program is helping children and their parents beat the odds.
For instance, 41 percent of the families who participated in 2014 were considered “high or very high risk” for abuse or neglect by the Department of Children and Families. But 91 percent of those families avoided having children placed in state custody.
Meanwhile, 95 percent of children in the program avoided getting into legal trouble themselves, compared to just 24 to 61 percent in studies of other juveniles with incarcerated parents.
Hobart would like to see similar programs throughout Vermont.
“Every county could use a program like ours,” Hobart said. “I think it would be very valuable.”