By Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz
In January the book “What will happen to me?” by Howard Zehr and I was released. This book was something we’ve talked about for a number of years. For my Master’s thesis over 10 years ago I conducted interviews with children of incarcerated mothers and their voices have stayed with me.
We started this project with an exhibit of photos and stories of the children, and were excited when the opportunity came to expand those stories into a book.
Our hope was not only to have them tell their story but also to highlight the needs of the almost 3 million children who go to bed each night with a parent in prison. Through no fault of their own they are forced to try and make sense of a situation that often leaves them feeling traumatized. They may or may not be told where their parent is at, when they will be coming home or why they are in prison. One incarcerated father had these words to stay after reading the book. “Your book…has had a profound effect on me and each time I pick it up to read another story I am humbled and saddened, as well as even more motivated to be a better father to my daughter. I cannot read more than 4 or 5 stories before my eyes began to well up and in each of these amazing children I see a piece of my own child. I know she feels many of the same feelings…your book is a constant reminder that I cannot let some discussions go too long without providing her the opportunity to talk about these topics…the stories of these children, my own included, are painful reminders that the destruction I have caused is real and that I must never forget the pain I have caused”.
What caregivers can provide is a way to assist children who are navigating this reality. They need to have a safe space to talk about their grief and loss and to know that their feelings of shame and guilt are normal under the circumstances. Caregivers should also be familiar with the “Bill of Rights” for children of incarcerated parents. It is a critical rallying point to help raise awareness that will assist in addressing the needs of the children. As Nell Berstein says in her book All Alone in the World, “the dissolution of families, the harm to children – and the resultant perpetuation of the cycle of crime and incarceration from one generation to the next – may be the most profound and damaging effect of our current penal structure”.