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Tens of thousands of children have a parent behind bars. What are the social costs of their loss?
By Nell Bernstein
July 10, 2001

Photography by Joseph Rodriguez

On a balmy California afternoon in May of 2000, when most kids his age were celebrating the end of the school year, Louis Vasquez sat in the air-conditioned depths of the San Jose juvenile hall. He'd been behind bars since the summer before, ostensibly because he was involved in a fight. But the truth is a little more complicated. Louis, then 17, was locked up not just because of his own transgressions but also because his mother, Diane, is an ex-offender. Her incarceration cost her custody of Louis and his younger brother, Joey; left without his mother, Louis soon wound up in a cell himself.

Across the country, an estimated 1.5 million children have a parent behind bars -- an increase of more than half a million since 1991, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. No one knows the exact number, because in virtually every jurisdiction nationwide, no official body -- not police, courts, or prisons -- is responsible for even asking if prisoners have children.

Researchers believe that over 10 million kids have experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point in their lives. Many, like Louis Vasquez, continue to feel the repercussions of that loss. Made virtual orphans by the drug war and other "tough on crime" measures that have sent the prison population skyrocketing to a record 2 million, many children of prisoners grow up in foster care, with grandparents or other relatives, or bouncing among an array of temporary caretakers. According to studies by the Los Angeles-based Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, a research and service organization, as many as 90 percent of children in long-term foster care have a parent who has been arrested or incarcerated.

The result is what Ida McCray -- a former inmate who runs the San Francisco-based prisoner support organization Families With a Future -- calls "the largest separation of families since slavery." Minority children are hit particularly hard: Nearly half the parents behind bars are black; another 20 percent are Hispanic.

Imprisoning a low-level offender like Diane Vasquez, whose rap sheet consists mainly of drug offenses, costs the state about $2,100 a month. But that's only page one of the bill. Warehousing her kids is where it really gets expensive. Keeping a teenage boy like Louis in juvenile hall costs about $5,000 a month, and keeping a youngster like Joey in a children's shelter runs another $5,000 per month.

The social cost of jailing small-time criminals like Vasquez, and of relegating their children to the juvenile justice and social welfare bureaucracies, goes well beyond dollars. The children of prisoners are "at risk" for just about everything a child can be at risk for: truancy, teen pregnancy, drug use, gang involvement, crime. According to Denise Johnston, head of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, up to half of all male children of prisoners will go on to commit crimes themselves, perpetuating a cycle that will feed the prison boom for generations to come.

Certainly, some kids face grave risks in the hands of drug-addicted or crime-prone parents. But even for them, the loss of a parent is often deeply damaging. Researchers who have interviewed offenders' children have found them likely to experience depression, anger, shame, and self-loathing in the wake of a parent's incarceration. Ellen Barry, founding director of San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, notes that many young children experience a parent's arrest as simple abandonment.

Cristina Jose-Kampfner studied the children of incarcerated parents while a graduate student at the University of Michigan in 1985 and found that many showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress reaction. Seventy-five percent of the 5- to 16-year-olds she surveyed reported symptoms such as depression, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, or flashbacks to their parent's crimes or arrests. Johnston says she has seen children stop eating, or even become mute, upon losing a parent to prison.

In a review of the research on the impact of parental incarceration, Johnston discovered a devastating range of repercussions. Young children whose relationship with a parent was disrupted by that parent's imprisonment, she found, often experience "survivor guilt" and feel as if they are to blame for the parent's disappearance. Older children may express their grief through aggressive behavior, leading to disciplinary problems at school. When they hit adolescence, their anger may lead them into delinquency.

According to a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67 percent of the parents in federal prison are drug offenders whose sentences average more than 10 years. For children of nonviolent drug offenders in particular, the experience can be morally as well as emotionally corrosive: They may lose respect for a legal system that, in their eyes, has shown their parents so little in the way of justice.

"I learned that people really don't care who you are and what you did," says Phillip Gaines, 16, whose mother was sentenced to 19 years in a Florida federal penitentiary on drug conspiracy charges. The primary evidence against her was the testimony of admitted drug dealers who cut a deal with authorities. "At the time it made me feel like right was just wrong," says Gaines.


Diane Vasquez was in and out of jail when her children were small. Then, in 1995, she was arrested again and convicted of drug possession. A 10-year-old burglary conviction qualified this as a second strike under California's "Three Strikes and You're Out" law, and Vasquez wound up spending the next 32 months in prison. Like most women prisoners -- many of whom are incarcerated in remote facilities hours from their children's homes and have no one willing or able to bring the children to visit -- Vasquez did not see her children once during that time.

After her release from prison, Vasquez got an electronics manufacturing job but soon lost it after she took too many afternoons off to see her "doctor" -- actually her parole officer, something she didn't want her boss to know about. She moved on to a warehouse job at Cisco Systems but was recently laid off. A federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families grant -- a standard assist to unemployed women with children -- would allow Vasquez to care for her kids at a cost to taxpayers of just $520 a month. But under California's rules for administering TANF grants, as a convicted drug offender Vasquez is ineligible for cash assistance. With no income and no permanent address, her prospects of getting her boys back are dim.

So on that early May afternoon, Joey remained in the children's shelter and Louis sat in juvenile hall. Louis was visibly depressed -- he had tried to slit his wrists with a jagged piece of plastic -- and his aspirations were profoundly limited. He was going to school inside juvenile hall but didn't expect to earn a high school diploma. "I'm not working towards that," he explained flatly. He aimed to get "whatever" kind of job once released. A year later, Louis, now 18, is still in the custody of juvenile authorities.

The net result, then, of imprisoning Diane Vasquez hardly seems like an outcome anyone involved would have hoped for: one scattered family, at least one boy likely headed for his own troubles with the law, and a huge bill to taxpayers.

There are, however, other ways the state could have dealt with Vasquez's crimes -- alternative responses that might well have worked out better for her family and the taxpayers. For evidence, look no further than Daisy Fitzgibbon. If any drug-addicted parent ever looked irredeemable, it was Fitzgibbon. She started smoking pot at age nine and moved on from there to crack and crystal meth. She didn't stop using when she became pregnant with her first child, a girl she named Michelle. Soon after she delivered, social workers visited her at the hospital and told her Michelle had tested positive for drugs. Michelle was taken away from her for good.

Losing her daughter sent Fitzgibbon into a tailspin. "I gave up on myself," she says. "I felt like I didn't have a chance in the world fighting against the system, because they were right no matter what." When her probation officer told her one more dirty urine test would land her back in jail, Fitzgibbon left her home in Hawaii and took off to San Francisco. There, she quickly acquired a job as a prostitute, a heroin habit, and a lengthy rap sheet.

Fitzgibbon was last arrested in February of 1999 for drug possession; but instead of prison, she landed in the San Francisco County Jail, where she was accepted for the SISTER (Sisters in Sober Treatment, Empowered in Recovery) Project, a drug-treatment and counseling program serving 60 women. From SISTER, Fitzgibbon went to an inpatient rehab program. She became pregnant again while there. Fitzgibbon trembled when a social worker showed up at her hospital bed after she delivered, but the tests came back clean -- she hadn't so much as smoked a cigarette during her pregnancy this time around.

Next, Fitzgibbon went to Cameo House, a transitional program for female ex-offenders trying to reunite, or stay united, with their children. At Cameo House, Fitzgibbon had a roof over head and support in her efforts to find work and permanent housing for herself and her new baby, Kayla. After successfully completing the program there, she's now living on her own with Kayla and has a job in a grocery store.

Treatment behind bars, more inpatient treatment post-release, then a transitional program -- that's a lot of resources poured into one addict. The total bill comes to somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 over the last two years. But it will be a bargain if it helps Fitzgibbon stay clean. That would mean no more pricey jail time for her, and no expensive foster care for her daughter. It also means Kayla will have her mother, an asset the value of which is hard to overestimate.

If this still seems expensive, consider the overall cost of not treating drug addiction. According to a three-year study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, states spent $81.3 billion dealing with drug abuse in 1998 alone. But of each dollar spent, only four cents went to prevention and treatment. This imbalance had a particularly powerful impact on the young -- the states spent $5.3 billion addressing cases of child abuse and neglect, 69 percent of which could be traced to parental drug or alcohol abuse.

Johnston, of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, recognizes that the public has little compassion for offenders, or even for their children. "One of the basic motivations of this society is retribution," she says. "We need to make ourselves feel better by hurting people who have done something wrong." But in the long run, she points out, the urge for retribution "ends up costing us."

The heaviest cost is being carried by the generation of children growing up in the shadow of the prison. "I am just ten year old," Phillip Gaines wrote in a 1995 letter begging President Clinton to free his mother. "I need my mom very much. Please get her out I need her."

Clinton apparently had second thoughts about how the war on drugs is hurting children like Phillip. On his last day in office, in an extraordinary gesture to ordinary prisoners, Clinton pardoned Phillip's mother and several other low-level drug offenders. The Gaines family is now reunited. Many thousands of others, however, are not so lucky -- and the public continues to foot the bill.

Nell Bernstein is a Media Fellow with the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture of the Open Society Institute.

Additional reporting by Zohar Greene.

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