If you think its tough being a kid these days, try being a kid with a parent in prison.
It can be a real stigma, said Denton Darrington, who retired this month after 30 years in the Idaho Senate, where he chaired the Health & Welfare and Judiciary committees.
Darrington also spent 33 years as a junior high teacher in Declo and recounts the hurtful playground banter.
Wheres your mom?
Oh, shes in Pocatello.
How come shes in Pocatello if shes your mom?
Well, shes in the prison.
MOMS BEHIND BARS
Idahos incarceration rate ranked 11th in the country in 2011, with 471 of every 100,000 residents under state or federal jurisdiction for more than a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The rank is a bit lower for men, at No. 14.
But among women, Idahos rate is thesecond-highest in the country, at 111 per 100,000. Drug possession accounts for more than a third of female offenders.
Women are whats really scary, said Landis Rossi, the first chair of the subcommittee on Children of Incarcerated Parents at the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission and executive director of Catholic Charities of Idaho. When you take mom away, it has a huge influence on the kids.
Rossi was Region 4 director at the Department of Health & Welfare from 2007 to 2009. Her successor, Ross Mason, picked up where she left off, hoping to tackle the cradle to prison pipeline, a term coined by the Childrens Defense Fund in an influential 2007 report.
Idaho Correction Director Brent Reinke also sits on the Criminal Justice Commission and earlier spent a decade running the Department of Juvenile Corrections.
I saw many kids pass through that system that had parents that were incarcerated, Reinke said. Unfortunately, many of those young people are now in prison. Its kind of a revolving door.
About 1.5 million children nationwide have locked-up parents, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. They are five times more likely than their peers to be imprisoned; 1 in 10 will be incarcerated before turning 18.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong used $30,000 in federal bonus money to fund two small pilot programs at schools in the Vallivue and Boise districts. School officials asked that their schools not be named for privacy reasons.
The project began this fall with five fourth-graders in Caldwell; a dozen Boise third-graders are expected to begin counseling in January. Students voluntarily meet as a group at lunch with a counselor, 12 times a semester. The sessions are treated like club meetings.
We hope that by getting with these kids early, they can escape that cradle to prison pipeline, Mason said. These kids can see that life goes on without both parents around.
Autumn Tracy, a public policy graduate student at Boise State, has been hired part time to track the students by measuring attendance, behavior and academics. Tracy also is collecting data for a control group.
If we can get the kids to school, we think the academics will improve, Mason said. If the academics improve, we think the behavior improves. Thats the hypothesis.
Absenteeism tends to be higher among these students, Mason said.
The two-year program could be part of a request to the Legislature for funds, perhaps as early as 2014, Reinke said. Mason estimates that the cost per school for a dozen students would be $3,000 annually.
The payoff is that the child who might have followed mom or dads footsteps to prison might not, Mason said. Its huge.
NO 10 P.M. SNACK
Rossi said about 10 percent of children of incarcerated parents are in the foster care system nationally. Idaho surveys have put the foster care figure between 10 percent and 17 percent. The rest are in KinCare, raised by grandparents or other relatives and friends.
Teachers and students benefit from relationships with those caregivers.
It really helps to know if Sallys going to go out for a visit to the prison with her mom, Rossi said. The next day, if shes agitated in class, if shes angry, you understand why.
The level of contact between inmate parents and their children ranges from those who dont know where their offspring are to those who speak every night on the phone. Rossi has made presentations to inmates, helping them understand the need to support substitute caregivers.
You can see the light bulbs go off: I really shouldnt be telling my child, if I was there Id let you stay up till 10 oclock and have ice cream, but since youre with grandma, you need to go to bed at 8. Im sabotaging this relationship that my child has with the person whos caring for them right now.
Winning the confidence of inmate parents and caregivers isnt easy, said Reinke. Its going to be real slow because nobody trusts anybody.
Mason said some prospective parents for the pilots have been spooked by the involvement of Health & Welfare, fearing they might lose custody upon release.
This is not a child-protection issue, Mason said. I dont even know their names. We just want to give these kids every opportunity in the world to succeed. They deserve it, just like everybody else.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics