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When Parents Are In Jail, Their Kids' Health Suffers. A Pilot Program Aims To Change That

Hand in jail
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Hand in jail

Louisville pediatrician Michelle Elisburg recently saw a 10-year-old patient who had started acting out in school, couldn’t stop fidgeting and was exhibiting other behavioral problems. Elisburg thought perhaps the 10-year-old had ADHD, and started the process of diagnosis. But first, she asked the child’s grandmother about what was going on at home.

“You ask if there have been any recent changes in Joe's life, like moving to a new house, and eventually the grandmother reveals Joe's dad's in jail. They don't communicate that often. Dad recently sent Joe a birthday card and his behavior has changed since then,” Elisburg said. “You tell the grandmother, ‘well, this is a behavior problem, it's not ADHD.’”

Elisburg’s experience isn’t unique to her practice. Kentucky has the second highest rate of children with incarcerated parents in the nation — 15 percent of kids here have a parent who is incarcerated. Nationwide, 45 percent of incarcerated people were living with their children before going to jail or prison.

And when she started researching it, Elisburg learned that kids with parents in prison or jail often present with symptoms that seem like they could be part of an illness:  diarrhea, dizziness, joint pains and frequent headaches. Those negative health outcomes eventually accumulate, and can have a negative effect on children once they grow up. And that’s why a Louisville art justice group is launching a new program to address these health effects.

The Special Project announced Thursday that it is partnering with the Jefferson County Courts to create a pilot program to help lawyers and judges consider the impact of incarceration of parents pre-trial on the children at home.

T. Benicio Gonzales, interim director at the Center for Health Equity, helped spearhead a report that recommended that this sort of consideration come in the form of a ‘family responsibility statement,’ which are already currently used in New York and California in court.

“Judges and other decision makers in the criminal justice system could use this when they're making a determination about whether or not an individual should be placed in jail [pre-trial],” Gonzales said. “This allows for families, the individual and other adults who who have a stake in what's happening to be able to say, ‘this is the way that the incarceration of our family member is going to have an impact on us. Please consider the health and well-being of our children as you're making a determination about what's going to happen with our loved ones.’”

The details of this pilot program is still being worked out, but there will be some person — perhaps a social worker or public defender, who sits down with the person who’s about to be incarcerated and their family. They’ll ask standardized questions about whether there are any children at home, the income that person contributes to the family, if they take children to school and other ways the arrested parent fits into the family.

The answers to these questions would then go into a “family responsibility statement,” a document that could lead to modified sentencing policies for defendants with children, by allowing judges to consider alternate methods/sentencing for defendants to pay their debt to society.

Shelton McElroy from The Bail Project and a partner with The Special Project said this program could be especially helpful in minimizing the effect on children while they’re waiting for a parent to be convicted of a crime. He said 70 to 75 percent of people in the Louisville Jail hadn’t yet been convicted, but were waiting pre-trial.

“We believe that pretrial incarceration is not necessary. We want to try to prevent poor people from losing their job losing their housing, losing their children from even a short stay in jail.”

The Bail Project pays the bail of people who could not otherwise afford it. McElroy said that of the 2500 people that have been bailed out by the organization in the past 11 years nationwide,  two percent of those did jail time post-sentencing. The Special Project’s pilot project will have a similar goal: to keep parents who are eligible out of jail before they are sentenced to prevent stress-related health effects in their children.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.

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