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Parents behind bars: Indiana’s forgotten children

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By Mary Kuhlman

Prison bars separate nearly 1,900 Indiana kids and their parents. Experts say it's a situation that can leave a lifelong imprint on a child. Rachel Halleck, director of behavioral services with Volunteers of America, Indianapolis, says the challenges these children face often stem from the addition and mental-health issues of their parents. She says they also are impacted by the struggles of the relatives or friends who are caring for them.

"We see issues of families who have significant financial burden," says Halleck. "They weren't planning for instability in terms of housing, in terms of having to move a lot, change schools sometimes exacerbating the pre-existing issues and making mental-health symptoms worse."

In Indianapolis, the Look Up and Hope Program works with imprisoned mothers and their children. Halleck says they offer treatment and counseling services, transitional housing, money for food and utilities and other supports. The program also in Evansville, offers life skills and educational development for previously incarcerated men and women.

Mary Leffler, director of community engagement and compliance with Volunteers of America, Indianapolis, says there are no systems in place currently to track the children of incarcerated parents. She says teachers, youth workers and other community members may not be aware of their situation.

"They're somewhat like forgotten children because the schools don't ask," she says. "The Department of Corrections doesn't ask, Department of Community Service doesn't know about them, so how do we find out about these children?"

Halleck says because incarceration often is inter-generational, it's important to provide stability for the child at the onset of sentencing and treat the issues that caused the parent to become locked up in the first place.

"A lot of times the grandparents, the parents, the aunts and uncles have history of maybe mental health, addiction, incarceration themselves," says Halleck. "Our biggest goal is to provide support for the caretakers, re-integrate mom, and break that cycle of incarceration for the children."

Halleck says counselors with the program offer interventions that can strengthen the parent-child relationship, including parenting classes and opportunities for the child to visit the parent.

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