Nnadji, a 10-year-old boy from Wyandanch, New York, has been separated from his incarcerated mother since 2014. Every day for the past seven years, he has been waiting for her to come home. Nnadji often recounts moments of them together when he was younger and relishes the days when they get to talk and play board games during prison visits. He often reminds himself that his mother still thinks about him, even when they are apart, and that she wishes that she could be with him every day. He appreciates the efforts of his grandmother, aunt, and older brother for loving him and being there for him during this tough time. His mother is scheduled for release when Nnadji is 11 years old.

Nnadji’s story is not unusual. One in 14 children have an incarcerated parent. They navigate their world each day carrying the heavy burden of their parent’s absence. This feeling of abandonment leads to a litany of physical and emotional issues. Children of incarcerated parents occasionally isolate themselves from their peers because they are ashamed to tell classmates that they have a parent in prison. Teachers fight to motivate these children who are often distracted, consumed by missing their parent. The range of feelings that come from this separation permeate all aspects of a child’s life.

Currently, there are more than 222,000 women in U.S. prisons, and there has been a steady increase in female incarceration over the past 20 years. Missouri ranks in the top 20 states with the greatest number of women in prison, at 77 inmates per 100,000 women.

With mothers often being the primary caregivers, her absence due to incarceration has lasting emotional and psychological effects on both herself and her child. Maintaining the healthy communication that is vital for an emotional connection also becomes expensive when incarceration is involved.

The Reasons for the Rise in Incarcerated Women

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a focus by police departments to practice a more preventative approach to major crimes led to more arrests and incarcerations for minor crimes. The goal was to prevent larger, more destructive crimes from happening in the future. Unfortunately, women are more likely to commit low-level crimes, including minor drug possession, which has led to a steady increase of women in prisons.

How Children are Impacted

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are damaging events that occur in the first 18 years of life. These traumatic experiences include neglect, physical abuse, coping with a parent with a mental illness or a drug addiction, or dealing with the absence of a parent due to death or incarceration. These difficult circumstances have been proven to have long-lasting effects on a child’s overall growth and development. Children that have an incarcerated parent often experience several ACEs concurrently.

The shame and feelings of isolation surrounding an absent parent are emotionally heavy. This abandonment is the catalyst that can lead to behavioral issues among children, withdrawal from friends and extended family, episodes of violence, and academic and social issues at school. Simultaneously, the incarcerated mother’s experience being away from her child can kindle a litany of toxic emotions, including guilt, that lead to psychological issues and other health problems.

Having an incarcerated parent causes children to speed through their childhood and forces them to deal with difficult circumstances and emotions at a very early age. Nnadji has made a conscious effort not to harbor any resentment for this mother and chooses not to be angry at her, though it took him many years to understand that this parent’s absence was nothing that he caused. Nnadji is fortunate to have a support system that provides him with a loving home, even though neither parent is present in his life. He has a grandmother and an aunt that have stepped in and taken on the mother role for him. Many children with incarcerated mothers are not as lucky.

The COVID-19 virus has also greatly hindered the ability for mothers and children to connect in person. This virus ravaged prison populations, and some restrictions were put in place for everyone’s protection. Some prisons suspended visitation from family members and lawyers completely, while other locations only permitted lawyers to see their clients. These restraints exacerbated children’s feelings of isolation, in addition to virtual learning, being away from peers and teachers, and other restrictions that came with the pandemic. Unfortunately, these difficult moments are punctuated with the tremendous financial burden of staying connected with their mothers.

The Financial Expense of Incarceration

Not only does the sudden absence of a mother due to incarceration have an immediate financial impact on a household, there are also other enormous costs that come with maintaining a connection with the imprisoned parent. The new caretakers of these children are often not prepared to take on the extra expenses that even a recurring phone call can cost. The emotional toll that children and parents are already experiencing — with the abrupt end to their time being physically together — is then strained by not having consistent conversations to check in with each other every day.

The distance of the prisons is also a difficult problem for children and their caregivers to manage. Prisons are scattered throughout the United States, and trips to prisons require transportation and may take hours of travel. Children are often forced to live with family members who do not have the financial means to make consistent trips to the prison. Too often, these extra expenses result in housing instability and food insecurities, further exacerbating the ACEs that children are experiencing. Furthermore, children who are placed in foster care as a result of their mother’s incarceration may never have the opportunity to visit her in prison.

How Missouri is Helping Incarcerated Families

There are organizations and programs available to assist Missouri families with incarcerated parents. These programs include:

Patch, a nonprofit organization whose focus is maintaining the communication between parent and child. They have opportunities for parents and children to visit for several hours of quality time.

Girls Scouts Beyond Bars, which allows mothers and daughters to connect in a meaningful way through Girl Scout meetings in prison.