Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor’s office today announced and began an audit of county programs serving children with incarcerated parents.
“The audit will examine how these programs are funded and operated, how they identify children in need of services, and measures of effectiveness,” according to a release from O’Connor’s office.
O’Connor tells Pittsburgh City Paper the idea of an audit of programs for kids with incarcerated parents came up in discussions with local food organizations focused on how food service at the jail might be improved.
He says some of those organizations expressed that addressing food service issues at the jail was too big an undertaking for their organizations and instead asked, “What's something that we believe people can invest in outside of the jail that supports families and kids and things like that?”
With this audit, O’Connor says he’s hoping to offer a clear picture of what resources exist for this population so that gaps can be identified and accurate information about existing services can be distributed to people who need them.
O’Connor’s office says 95 incarcerated individuals at the Allegheny County Jail received family support services this month.
In Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Corrections, more than 81,000 children, roughly 3% of all minors, have a parent incarcerated in a Pa. state prison. This does not include children with parents incarcerated in a county jail, another state, or the federal system.
Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh, an organization contracted by the Department of Human Services to provide trauma-informed support to local children of incarcerated people, says it’s important to holistically consider the needs of children with incarcerated parents.
“When thinking about what these children need, you have to think more broadly about what their families need, as children don’t live in isolation and can’t be served without consideration for family dynamics and needs," Hollis says. "Also, the entire family unit is impacted when a parent is serving time — particularly the custodial parent (usually mom or grandmother) who bears the brunt of the financial impact.”
Asked about the needs of kids with parents in jail or prison, Hollis says focus should be placed on having them being accepted as innocent like other children, and being recognized as individuals who should be supported and not judged, as well as a variety of support ranging from financial to mental health and academic needs, and providing safe places and relationships in which the children can feel and process their feelings.
She also says that children of incarcerated parents need trauma-informed care capable of recognizing social-emotional issues underlying what might appear to be misbehavior.
“Suspending kids — disproportionately, Black children — is completely ineffective and re-victimization," Hollis writes in an email to City Paper. "Extensive research has documented that traumatized people may become numb or appear to be numb to distressing experiences as a survival mechanism."
Hollis also referred to a document called the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights. Those rights include the right to “be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest,” the right to “be heard when decisions are made about me,” “to speak with, see, and touch my parent,” “not to be judged, blamed, or labeled because of my parent’s incarceration,” and “the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.”
Hollis says the resources currently offered by the county to support kids with incarcerated parents are “grossly inadequate.”
“This wouldn’t be the case if a fraction of what the justice system generates from families (legal fees, fines, telephone surcharges, commissary markup, etc.) was dedicated to supporting children and breaking generational cycles of poverty, racial inequities, and the school-to-prison pipeline,” she adds.
While the county's Department of Human Services did not respond to a request for comment by press time, O’Connor says DHS does a lot to support this population and is looking forward to cooperating with the audit and reviewing its findings.
“While action at all levels of government to reduce incarceration of those who present little risk to public safety must continue," O'Connor says in the release, "these efforts to mitigate the effects on supports systems for children are crucial.”