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Howard Zehr: When a Parent Is in Prison

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April 13, 2011 08:31 pm


In a commentary published today in Education Week, Howard Zehr, a professor of restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, writes about children with parents in prison. According to his piece, this is a problem affecting approximately 3 million children in the United States. Zehr explains how these students face unique challenges that affect their classroom behavior, writing:

Many of them, often being raised by grandparents or foster parents, share the ache of separation that any child who doesn’t have regular contact with one or both parents experiences. Added to this are the particular pains of having parents in prison: shame and isolation; a sense of guilt for their parents’ condition; anger at their parents and others; and anxiety about themselves, their parents, and their caregivers. “We have to grow up fast,” the older children I’ve spoken to often say. In a misplaced attempt to shield such children, caregivers often withhold the truth from them. As the children mature, they often suspect that something is wrong. And when the truth does come out, they experience a sense of betrayal and mistrust that affects their relationships and their view of the world. Not surprisingly, many children who have one or both parents in prison have emotional, behavioral, and educational problems at a rate higher than other children. Many suffer from attachment disorders. All too often, this trauma is passed on to those around them and to future generations. Marie Scott is serving a life sentence. Her parents were in prison, as was her son. She calls this “intergenerational incarceration.”

Included with the commentary is a particularly moving slideshow about how children with parents in prison feel. Zehr writes, “We hope the messages of these photos and words will be helpful to those who are involved in these children’s lives.” Check out Zehr’s blog at


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