Features

The Silent Struggle


The Hidden Population of Students with an Incarcerated Parent

For too many Canadian teenagers, high school life is fraught with an assortment of anxieties and pressures. In fact, few teens get through all four years of their secondary education without feeling some pressure from peers, parents or teachers to make good grades, fit in with friends, navigate relationships, and juggle homework and part-time work.

For a few thousand teenagers across the country, these routine pressures are further exacerbated by a situation over which they have no control and are reluctant to discuss even with their closest friends and school counsellors. These are teens who have parents who are incarcerated. 

What does it mean to a teenager to have a parent in prison? On a most basic level, it means that the parent is never in the bleachers at buzzer-beating basketball games or participating in parent-teacher interviews. It means the parent is never helping with homework, signing permission slips, or taking family photos at convocation.

On a deeper level, it means that the teenager is likely struggling daily with intense emotions that fluctuate between anger and guilt, and shame and sadness. It means that the teenager is likely struggling to stay focused, feeling socially isolated and powerless, and experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. It means too that the teenager is likely skipping class, being bullied or being a bully, or lashing out and displaying other anti-social behaviours.

“When parents are accused or convicted of serious crimes, the child is deeply affected,” says Yvon Dandurand, a criminologist at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia and a senior associate of the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy.

In fact, according to the 2014 study, In the Best Interests of the Child: Strategies for Recognizing and Support Canada’s At-Risk Population of Children with Incarcerated Parents, “children whose parents are incarcerated have been acknowledged internationally as a vulnerable population facing serious challenges.” This is true of young children as well as teens. Yet, adds Val Reimer, “despite the high numbers of children affected by parental incarceration, awareness of what these children face has not seemed to come to our collective consciousness.”

Reimer’s expertise on this topic derives from her experience teaching in a women’s correctional centre in British Columbia and research for her Masters of Education, completed in Manitoba, focusing on children with parents in prison. “There is an increasing awareness in schools on critical issues such as race, sexual orientation, poverty and disabilities, and many schools work hard to alleviate associated hardships,” she says. “Yet children of incarceration continue to suffer alone and in silence.”

For teenagers, this silent suffering is partly due to a lack of awareness in their schools about their situation and partly due to their own independence and resiliency.  But, experts agree, it is mostly due to the stigma associated with incarceration. “Youth themselves are not too keen to let anyone know about the parent’s situation,” says Dandurand. “The youth that we have talked to are afraid of being stigmatized.”

According to research, Dandurand says, it is rare for youth, especially those in the 16-17 age range, to come forward to ask for help when they are dealing with a parent’s incarceration. Generally, they try to deal with the situation on their own. In many cases, these students already have been dealing with other disruptive personal challenges, such as poverty, institutionalized racism and family dysfunction.

“Children of incarceration in Canada are a hidden population,” emphasizes Reimer. “No space for dialogue currently exists between schools and courts where schools might be informed of parental incarceration.” As it currently stands in Canada, she explains, the only way for a school to know if any of its students are children of offenders is if the children themselves or the caregivers of the children disclose such information. “School teachers and counsellors that we have talked to complain about the fact that they do not even know that a youth’s parents are in trouble with the law,” says Dandurand.  ”And when they find out, usually informally, they do not feel that they have the right to share that confidential information with others.”

Even when a teenager is suddenly transferred to a new school, as often happens when parents are incarcerated and children are taken into care or taken in by extended family members, the school is not necessarily informed of the particularities of the situation. This situation occurs most commonly when it is the mother who is incarcerated, as, according to The Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System, only five percent of children are able to stay in their original household once their mother is imprisoned.

Moving to a new high school is challenging for teenagers under the best of circumstances. But making this move harboring a shameful secret makes it virtually impossible for teens to focus on their studies, build trust and make friends and good choices. Unfortunately, even when schools are made aware of the student’s particular situation, they do not always have dedicated programs or sufficient resources in place to help those students deal with their intense emotions and the instability and uncertainty in their lives.

“We have no special program for students with incarcerated parents,” says Pamela Potter, a guidance counsellor at R.B. Russell Vocational School, which is located in the Winnipeg north end neighbourhood with the city’s highest rate of reported crime and in the province with the highest incarceration rate in Canada. “However,” Potter adds, “we recognize that losing a parent to incarceration can be very difficult and we do our best to ensure students have a network of supports in and outside of school. This may involve systems referrals and making sure supports are in place.”

Like R.B. Russell, many high schools across the country also rely on system referrals and outside non-profit agencies to help them support students. The Elizabeth Fry Society, the John Howard Society and FEAT, a Toronto organization dedicated to empowering and advocating for children of incarcerated parents, offer specialized programs to help kids cope with their parents’ incarceration and keep families together both during and after incarceration. At FEAT, these initiatives include an after-school drop-in and mentorship programs for youth up to age 24.

While these vital programs are effective in alleviating many of the youth’s worries and helping them maintain, if they wish, a connection to their incarcerated parents, there are some concerns and situations that they cannot fully address or alter.

The biggest of these concerns, both for the youth themselves and for those entrusted with their education and welfare, is that they will end up just like mom or dad. This worry, unfortunately, is grounded in harsh statistics. According to Correctional Service Canada, children with parents in incarceration are up to four times more likely to end up incarcerated themselves as adults. “Parents’ criminal behaviour,” Dandurand confirms, “is widely recognized as a risk factor for children becoming …offenders themselves.”

That reality, of course, makes it imperative that high schools and the justice system across the country make a more concerted effort to better communicate and work together to identify youth with parents who are incarcerated. Once those youth are identified to their respective  schools, they are much more likely to receive the support, guidance and referrals that they need in order to deal with their anger and shame, and to break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.

By: Sharon Chisvin

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