All Alone In The World
"A national study found that almost 70 percent of children who
were present at a parent's arrest watched their parent being
handcuffed, and nearly 30 percent were confronted with drawn weapons.
When researcher Christina Jose Kampfner interviewed children who had
witnessed their mothers' arrests, she found that many suffered classic
symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome--they couldn't sleep or
concentrate, and they had flashbacks to the moment of arrest. If an
arrested parent later returns home on parole or probation, officers
often have license to enter the house at will--meaning that children
may relive that trauma in their living rooms as well as their
In Nell Bernstein's All Alone in the World: Children of the
Incarcerated (source of the above quote) in 2005, when the book came
out, one in thirty-children (one in eight African American children)
had a parent in prison. When she counted in parents on parole or
probation the Humber rose to one in ten. She was talking millions of
kids then. Numbers are higher now. In her all too timely book,
Bernstein explores the impact of parental imprisonment on children.
Her balance of often very poignant narrative and background
information makes for a very readable (and disturbing) volume.
Bernstein divides the parental experience into discrete steps,
beginning with initial arrest and ending with reentry into society and
beyond (legacy). In each chapter we learn some pretty disturbing
*Most of the incarcerated parents are in for nonviolent crimes such as
drug abuse. Many mothers involved in drug sales did not even know
what they were doing or were bullied into abetting by abusive and
violent significant others.
*America incarcerates a higher percentage of our citizens than any
other country. This is at a time when crime rates are actually
falling. The rise in numbers stems not from some systemic moral
failure, but from policies like three strikes that take the element of
discretion out of sentencing and slap on draconian fixed sentences and
for profit prisons that, just like hotels, require high occupancy to
turn a profit.
*Policies that make contact between parents and children difficult
make life more precarious for both generations. Parents lose hope and
motivation, becoming much more likely to be recidivists. Children
often fall into a cycle of foster care and imprisonment. Often they
are watched for any rule infractions by police who see them as doomed
The narrative would be too God awful fatalistic to read if not
for the examples of hope Bernstein scatters throughout. You get to
read about programs like:
*the Child Development-Community Policing Program that offers children
who have had traumatic experiences support and connection with
services such as counseling,
*Drug Treatment Alternative-to-prison that offers repeat drug
offenders a child friendly residential treatment program,
and *La Bodega, a community program that conects discharged prisoners
and their families with services they need to survive and thrive.
Although Bernstein believes that prisons should be an option of
last resort rather than business as usual, she realizes there will be
some people who have to be locked up. She ends her book with what
should become a bill of rights for their children. It's based on
conversations she's had with children of prisoners and those who work
All Alone in the World is, in my mind, a must read for all who
care about some of our nation's most vulnerable children.
On a personal note, my husband Eugene celebrated his birthday.
Between his birthday supper and cake and the presents he received I
think he had a pretty good one.
A great big shout out goes out to Eugene with hopes for many more
birthdays yet to celebrate.
Sent from my iPod