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When a mother is jailed, experts say that can trigger a cycle of incarceration. But programs are being developed to break the cycle. Photo by Adobe

How do 5.1 million children cope with a parent behind bars?

After their mother’s addiction to heroin and painkillers sent her to jail and rehab, the 7-year-old twin boys were relieved to move in with their grandmother, Kathy Harrison Turner.

While spending the last six weeks with her, the brothers no longer worry about eviction, having enough food to eat, or being late for school, said Turner, who also works for the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness in Louisville, Kentucky. And they don’t need to look after each other anymore.

“You can be the kid,” Turner said she told one of her grandsons who had assumed the role of parenting his twin brother. “You don’t have to protect him. That’s my job.”

The story Turner shares with her grandsons is increasingly common in Kentucky, where 13 percent of children have at least one parent who has been incarcerated. That’s more than any other state and nearly twice the national average, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The nationwide figure of 5.1 million children is likely a conservative estimate because data from the National Survey of Children’s Health only includes parents who have lived with a child at some point. And of these children, one out of five are age 4 or younger.

Graphic by Megan Crigger

Graphic by Megan Crigger

When a parent is jailed, children often feel isolated and ashamed, said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The household loses more than one-fifth of its income when a parent is imprisoned. If it’s a single-parent household, “it’s a whole different ballgame,” Speer explained, adding that these families often are “teetering on the edge of poverty to begin with.”

“Kids shouldn’t have to pay for their parent’s crime,” Speer said.

Since 1980, the number of people behind bars in the United States has quadrupled to 2.2 million, according to the Obama administration. And while the administration has encouraged sentencing reform to reduce those numbers, Speer said children of incarcerated parents are often forgotten.

Back in the Bluegrass State, the issue of substance abuse and incarceration rates are tightly intertwined, said Terry Brooks, the executive director for Kentucky Youth Advocates. The state’s tendency to “incarcerate rather than rehabilitate” feeds that trend, Brooks said.

To help shield children from further trauma, the state should offer more support for family members like Turner, who provide kinship care for those children when their parents can’t, Brooks said.

“Realistically we’re not going to change the trajectory in Kentucky overnight,” he said. “At the state level, we have to think about issues of placement of kids while mom and dad are locked up.”

At Turner’s home, she and her husband wrestle with hard questions as they help their grandsons adjust to so much change — new home, new school, new friends. The boys don’t really ask about their mother, something that Harrison Turner later learned is normal, she said.

“How do you talk about how Mom is in jail, and how the hell do you talk about addiction?”

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