Monday, November 17, 2008

Jail Robs Kids of Moms and Stability

“The most potent ‘homelessness creation’ system for families is poverty,” points out Diane Nilan, a national homelessness activist and president of HEAR US Inc., “and incarceration is the ‘two’ of the one-two punch.” HEAR US Inc. today released their report, “Mom in Jail, Kids Pay the Price,” a look at how incarceration affects both moms and their kids, focusing on children’s educational and housing instability while the parent is locked up.

One of the largest county correctional institutions in the country, Cook County Jail in Chicago, provided the setting for interviews of over 75 non-violent women inmates, most awaiting further court action to determine their fate. CCJ’s Women’s Justice Services oversees various programs for women inmates, and they funded and coordinated this survey.

Board members from HEAR US, the Naperville, IL-based nonprofit organization, conducted face-to-face interviews in September to determine how parents and children fare in the indefinite and unpredictable world of criminal justice.

“Mom in Jail, Kids Pay the Price,” a snapshot that could also apply to thousands of county and local jails nationwide, underscores poverty, housing instability, and haphazard childcare arrangements that jeopardize the educational stability and well-being of vulnerable children.

The report also documents that grandparents provide a graying, frail safety net for children and grandchildren, often at great risk.

HEAR US hypothesized that children became homeless because of hardship and mobility related to the parent going to jail. Sadly this theory was confirmed in the report. Most mothers had previously been incarcerated, the majority multiple times.

Along with living in poverty, a significant number have been homeless and lack secure housing or sustainable income when they are released.
When mom was locked up, school stability vanished as children’s housing became unstable.

Caretakers, sometimes family, mostly grandparents, and sometimes a succession of friends, family and acquaintances, are ill-informed about the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act which removes educational barriers for homeless children. Homeless children have the right to stay in their old school or immediately get into the school in the area where they are temporarily staying.

Nilan, instrumental in passage and implementation of this law, says “Schools often don’t ask, nor are they told, the circumstances behind a child and caregiver showing up to register at a new school. Nor are they aware that the child has the option of staying in their own school, a choice that could mean stability when it’s needed most.” Research proves that changing schools is severely detrimental to the child’s educational progress.

HEAR US plans a national campaign to distribute invaluable tools empowering incarcerated parents to protect their homeless children’s educational rights. “REACH, Connect Your Child to Education,” an 11-minute film (on DVD), will soon be available with an accompanying brochure to offer parents and caregivers information and assistance with school issues.

HEAR US gives voice and visibility to homeless children and youth. In the past 3 years, Nilan, in her RV that serves as home/office, has traveled over 65,000 backroads miles filming documentaries featuring homeless kids and conducting presentations on this issue. She’s worked over 22 years in this field, including 15 as a shelter director. “It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” she laments. “We need to turn the tide or homelessness will devastate even more of our nation’s children.”
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