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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU seminar gives legislators facts on impact to families of incarcerated parents

SANTA FE - Lost, forgotten, hidden, invisible - these are words used to describe the families left behind when someone is incarcerated. Included are the children who slip between the cracks of the social system and who begin a life that has increased the odds of following in their parent's footsteps.


Legislators learned of the financial impact on society and those left behind during the New Mexico Family Impact Seminar's program "The Impact of Incarceration on Families, Children and the Community: Consequences and Costs."

The annual seminar is a service project of the Departments of Family and Consumer Sciences and Extension Home Economics at New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Science. It provides New Mexico legislators with up-to-date, research based, objective and nonpartisan, solution-oriented information on the current issues that affect families.

"It has only been in recent years that attention has been turned to these families - children, spouses, parents, grandparents - and their issues, their circumstances, their needs," said Charolette Collins, NMSU Extension faculty member who coordinates the program. "It has been suggested that the children of incarcerated parents are five to six times more likely to enter the criminal justice system than children who have not had an incarcerated parent. Many of the children of incarcerated parents end up in the child welfare system."

The seminar presented information from Gail Oliver, New Mexico Department of Corrections' deputy secretary for reentry and prison reform, and two national experts - Thomas Lengyel, anthropologist and social worker who serves as associate director of research at the American Humane Association in Colorado, and Karol Kumpfer, psychologist and professor in the University of Utah's department of health promotion and education.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Bernalillo County, said he thought the information shared "was very valuable. The conventional wisdom was being challenged, and I think it is helpful to have a little bit of information to back this up. So many people have a deep prejudice about men and women in prison and what ought to be done with them." He said the type of information they received would help them resist the pressures "to just lock them up and throw away the keys and do things that are expensive and ineffectual."

Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Dona Ana County, added that she thought the information presented was "good for us to take into consideration. There are a lot of programs out there that need to be disseminated to families, especially those where the parents are incarcerated. The cycle of violence and maltreatment of children needs to be broken. Evidence-based parenting programs are proving to help break that cycle."

Oliver told the group that of the 6,338 adults in New Mexico correctional facilities 491 of those are parents who were charged with drug offenses. "There are 1,035 children in our state who have a parent in the correctional system because of drug offenses," she said.

Experts suggest that parental separation, due to imprisonment, can have profound consequences for children. The immediate effects can include feelings of shame, social stigma, loss of financial support, weakened ties to the parent, changes in family composition, poor school performance, increased delinquency and increased risk of abuse and neglect.

Long-term effects can range from the questioning of parental authority, negative perceptions of police and the legal system, an increased dependency or maturational regression, an impaired ability to cope with future stress or trauma, disruption of development, and intergenerational patterns of criminal behavior.

Kumpfer told the legislators that reduced parent-child bonding, because the parent is incarcerated, can lead to reactive attachment disorder that causes the child and future adult to not respect authority figures and to have little empathy for others, which may lead to violent crimes. However, Kumpfer suggested that this does not have to be the norm if incarcerated parents are provided parenting and relationship training.

Evidence-based programs can provide parenting and relationship skills that not only help the parents, but also the children, Kumpfer said.

"Working from a family-centered approach makes more sense, because strong families avert many adverse outcomes, such as substance abuse, teen pregnancy, school failure, aggression and delinquency," Kumpfer said. "Also, with family-centered intervention the outcomes improve over time. Improving parenting skills to reduce relapse and recidivism in drugs, crime and child maltreatment."

NSMU is delivering this program through the Strengthening Families Initiative in the Department of Extension Home Economics. NMSU is also providing parental training through the Nurturing Parenting program and another program called Family Wellness, which involves the entire family. These programs have been taught in numerous counties in the state by faculty from the Las Cruces campus and the NMSU Center in Albuquerque. On April 14-16, the university's J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium will address "Justice for Youth." The yearly symposium will have panels of experts discuss national and state practices, problems and possible solutions toward juvenile crime, health and education.

While lawmakers know there is a cost to operate the judicial and correctional system, there is also a cost to society outside the prison walls. Lengyel's research into the total cost of incarceration shows that housing and in-prison services to the inmate are just the tip of the iceberg.

"There are three entities - community, family and the inmate which deal with the cost of incarceration," Lengyel said. "Incarceration spreads costs across a wide range of actors and institutions."

The inventory of social costs ranges from direct costs to the state, which includes the criminal justice system's costs from arrest and trial to incarceration and parole. Costs also include the impact on the family for support of the inmate while incarcerated, lost wages and household productivity, lost fringe benefits on wages, as well as pain and suffering. There are also social, health and educational service costs for the dependents of incarcerated parents.

If family is available to take dependent children when a parent is incarcerated, it is often grandparents. They may be physically, emotionally and financially unable to provide sufficiently for the displaced children. Although their fiscal responsibilities increase greatly, these family members may not qualify for public assistance.

"The family of the offender bears very heavy costs that persist over time," Lengyal said. In a recent study in Hawaii, Lengyel estimated that the family experiences approximately $350,000 worth of costs during the typical drug offender's 39 months of incarceration. Included in that figure is $260,000 worth of pain and suffering by the children.