Even though we might have not experienced it ourselves, most of us are acquainted, if only by means of the media, with the scene of an offender, who after a trial, is finally taken away from court through that small side door by law-enforcers. We feel a sense of satisfaction at seeing the offender being punished for the action he has done, the law doing its job and the victim being defended. But how many of us notice that somewhere in that courtroom is a woman crying for her husband, another weeping for her son, and a child who once had a father now gone.
With the incarceration of their relative these people are thrown into a raging wind that upsets their routine and brings turmoil and havoc in their lives. All this, not as a ‘deserved punishment’ for an action they have committed but simply because they are associated with a person who has been incarcerated.
Doors slammed shut
When the incarcerated person is a first time offender, these people find themselves knocking on doors behind which they have no idea what to find. After all, what right do these people have to be helped? They need people to guide them. They would like to know what is to happen of their family member. They need simple explanations, and the reassurances. At times all they find are impatient looks and abrupt answers. It is like they themselves brought all this trouble upon them, so they deserve to be undermined. They are inopportune fleas hindering the work of those concerned.
It is at this time of pain that the family needs to be sustained and supported. Families experience the incarceration of their relative in a very similar way to the death of a loved one. It is at this time that friends and other relatives are most needed to understand and show acceptance. Instead, the family often undergoes further judgment by those around them. They are subjected to pity, derision and accusations. “After all, it was their fault, they must have known what was going on, they let it happen, they brought him up that way.” The family is avoided and further blamed at still caring and loving their incarcerated member. As one mother said, “they expect you to stop loving your child, to simply disown him. How can I stop loving him? Whatever he does he is my son!”
Once the main provider is in prison, the family is forced to make adjustments. Financial problems arise heightened by the fact that not once or twice have people been fired or refused employment because they have a family member in prison. Those who before did not need to work, now have to find employment, leaving children with new carers, aunts, uncles, grand-parents, neighbours. Leisure time dwindles drastically as family members employ time to cope rather than to spend time together. They have court callings, contact visits to go to, food, clothing and things to prepare for visiting their loved one.
The children are guilty too
The effects of having an incarcerated parent on children varies according to their age, the parent’s duration of incarceration, the disruption the loss brought in the child’s environment, the support system around the child as well as the child’s personality. However, there are certain threads that seem to be common in a number of children.
Often to protect our children we do not give them the full information and do not explain fully what is going on. This leaves the child with feelings of uncertainty and bewilderment. Suddenly someone he/she loves has been taken away. Why? What will happen next? When will he return? What if something happened to him?
Feeling betrayed and sensing that other people are trying to hide the truth, the child loses trust and often exhibits anger towards the remaining caregiver. At the same time there is the fear that the remaining parent, will disappear too and leave him/her on their own. The child starts showing increased amounts of anxiety at being with strangers, or being left alone. The child starts being clingy both to objects and to people.
Soon after the loss of their parent, physical symptoms such as complaints of headaches and stomachaches are not unusual. Children might manifest behaviours common at younger ages such as bed-wetting and thumb sucking. Sleep problems, fear of the dark and nightmares are a manifestation of the child’s anxieties. Eating disorders might also develop.
A completed cycle
Whilst being angry at the incarcerated parent and feeling abandoned, children might also feel guilty. Very small things, like a comment said in anger might make the children think that what happened is their fault, that they are to blame or that they could have prevented it.
Children suffer from effects of bullying, labeling and stigma, they are excluded by their peers because of someone else’s action. They find themselves angry at the parent who brought this shame on them, but at the same time they still want to protect him.
This leads to a number of children being hyperactive and uncontrollable both, with adults and authority figures as well as with peers and at school. Others are moody, and stay on their own. Both the aggression and the withdrawal further lead to social isolation, loss of friends, confidence and self-esteem. They feel inadequate, unwanted, and unloved. It is as if they do not belong anywhere.
The disruption, sadness, loneliness, and feelings of helplessness do not have positive effects on the child’s academic performance, which in turn continues to make the idea of learning more disagreeable to the child. The child who cannot fit in any other way often seeks acceptance by taking the role of the unruly child the clown who disturbs the class, directing further anger towards him/her.
All this has adverse effects on the child’s self-esteem, which in turn heightens the risk for substance abuse, delinquency, and gang involvement as the child tries to fill the emptiness and seek a sense of safety from aloneness and separation, in objects other than their primary relationships.
Finally, the chaos the family is subjected to, does not end the moment the sentence is over. All the changes in roles, the changes in personality, the changes that were brought about in the years the person was absent, are often the cause of riots and rebellion when the person returns home. Young children used to a father who gave them gifts when they visited him, now have to accept that this person demands obedience and takes decisions for them as well. The woman who for these last years has been both the mother and the father now finds herself challenged by a different opinion. Grand parents who took the role of care-givers now need to move out of the picture to take up the role of grand parents once again.
It is important for us to realise that there are other people, in that court-room, people that are often forgotten. People that are often judged as much as the offender is. People that are rejected and excluded simply for being parents, wives, husbands, sons and daughters. People who are rejected for loving.