A BILL OF RIGHTS

We Care For Children’s Rights and Work on That

SFCIPP launched the Rights to Realities Initiative, with the long-term goal that every child in San Francisco whose parent was arrested and/or incarcerated would be guaranteed the rights articulated in the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights.

A BILL OF RIGHTS

TO BE KEPT SAFE AND INFORMED AT THE TIME OF MY PARENT'S ARREST.

TO BE HEARD WHEN DECISIONS ARE MADE ABOUT ME.

TO BE CONSIDERED WHEN DECISIONS ARE MADE ABOUT MY PARENT.

TO BE WELL CARED FOR IN MY PARENT'S ABSENCE.

TO SPEAK WITH, SEE AND TOUCH MY PARENT.

TO SUPPORT AS I FACE MY PARENT'S INCARCERATION.

NOT TO BE JUDGED, BLAMED OR LABELED.

TO A LIFELONG RELATIONSHIP WITH MY PARENT.

AN AGENDA FOR ACTION

Right TO BE SAFE AND INFORMED AT THE TIME OF MY PARENT'S ARREST

Many children are introduced to the criminal justice system when their parent is arrested and they see her taken away in handcuffs. Most police departments do not have protocols for addressing the needs of children when a parent is arrested. The resulting experience can be terrifying and confusing for the children left behind. Some wind up in the back of a police car themselves, on the way to the first in a series of temporary placements. Others are left behind in, or return home to, empty apartments. Arrested parents often prefer not to involve public agencies in the lives of their children, out of fear of losing custody. Many children share this fear, but at the same time long for someone to notice and attend to the family vulnerabilities that can both lead to and result from a parent’s arrest.

Parental arrest is by definition a traumatic event for children. But if children’s well-being is made a priority, it can also become an opportunity— to assess a child’s needs, offer aid in what will likely be a difficult period, and connect with and support vulnerable families.

Right TO BE WELL CARED FOR IN MY PARENT'S ABSENCE

When a child loses a single parent to incarceration, he also loses a home. In the most extreme cases, children may wind up fending for themselves in a parent’s absence. Some will spend time in the foster care system, where 97 percent of administrators say they have no specific policy in place to address those children’s needs. The majority stay with relatives, often elderly and impoverished grandmothers who may be strained personally and financially by the challenge of caring for a second generation.

Right TO BE HEARD WHEN DECISIONS ARE MADE ABOUT ME

When a parent is arrested, children whose lives may already have left them with little sense of control often feel even more alienated from the events that swirl around them. Adults they have never met remove their parents with little explanation, then decide where children will go without consulting them. When children continue to feel unheard within the institutions that govern their lives in their parents’ absence, their sense of powerlessness grows.


There are aspects of children’s lives that must inevitably remain beyond their control. Children cannot choose whether or when their parents will be taken from them, nor how long their parents will be gone. But when young people are offered a voice within the systems and institutions that come to dominate their lives, they are more likely to respect those institutions, and find some sense of control and optimism in their own lives.

Right TO SPEAK WITH, SEE AND TOUCH MY PARENT

Visiting an incarcerated parent can be difficult and confusing for children, but research suggests that contact between prisoners and their children benefits both, reducing the chance of parents returning to prison and improving the emotional life of children. Because increasing numbers of incarcerated parents are held at prohibitive distances from their children, too many children are denied the opportunity for contact with their parents. In 1978, only eight percent of women prisoners had never received a visit from their children. By 1999, 54 percent had not received a single visit.

Right TO BE CONSIDERED WHEN DECISIONS ARE MADE ABOUT MY PARENT

Increasingly tough sentencing laws, which have caused the U.S. prison population to increase fivefold over the past three decades, have also had a tremendous impact on children. But as it stands, sentencing law not only does not require judges to consider children when they make decisions that will affect their lives profoundly; in some cases, it actively forbids them from doing so.

A more sensible and humane policy would take into account the fact that sentencing decisions will inevitably affect family members—especially children—and strive to protect their interests as much as possible without compromising public safety.

Right TO SUPPORT AS I FACE MY PARENT'S INCARCERATION

Children whose parents are imprisoned carry tremendous burdens. Not only do they lose the company and care of a parent, they also must deal with the stigma of parental incarceration, and fear for their parent’s safety and well-being. Researchers who have interviewed children who have experienced parental incarceration have found them vulnerable to depression, anger and shame. One study found many showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress reaction—difficulty sleeping and concentrating, depression, and flashbacks to their parents’ crimes or arrests.

In the face of these difficulties, many young people will tell you that they rarely receive the support they need as they “do time” along with their parents.

Right NOT TO BE JUDGED, BLAMED OR LABELED BECAUSE MY PARENT IS INCARCERATED

Incarceration carries with it a tremendous stigma. Because young children identify with their parents, they are likely to internalize this stigma, associating themselves with the labels placed on their parents or blaming themselves for their parents’ absence. As they grow older, many report feeling blamed or stigmatized by others—neighbors, peers, teachers and other authority figures, even family members—because of their parents’ situation.

Some try to keep a parent’s incarceration secret. Many describe the shame and stigma they have experienced as the heaviest burden they carry, lasting long after a parent is released or a child grows up.

Right TO A LIFELONG RELATIONSHIP WITH MY PARENT

Abiding family bonds are the strongest predictor there is of successful prisoner reentry. For children, sustained attachments form the building blocks for successful development. But changes in child welfare law— specifically, accelerated timetables for termination of parental rights— have increased the odds that even a relatively short sentence will lead to the permanent severance of family bonds. When this happens, children are forced to forfeit the most fundamental right of all—the right to remain part of their families.