Over 10 percent of children taken into custody by the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) in both 2006 and 2007 had at least one parent incarcerated, according to figures assembled by OCS (Table 1). In all likelihood, the total number of children in OCS care who have a parent or parents in prison is higher, since the data maintained by the agency only cover those children for whom the caregiver parent’s incarceration was one reason for OCS assuming custody. Further, the overall population of Alaska children who have a parent incarcerated—including those children who are not in OCS custody—is undoubtedly much higher. (According to the latest census estimates available from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the general population under 18 in 2005 was 187,000).
Although limited, the OCS figures are important because, in general, very little data on the children of prisoners are available. The figures give some idea of the ethnic and regional breakdowns of this population.
As the prison population continues to grow in both Alaska and the U.S. as a whole (see “Prisoners in Alaska and the U.S.” in this issue of the Forum), the number of children who have a parent or parents incarcerated also continues to grow. This tends to be a hidden population: Precise figures for individual states are not available, but the number of minor children in this situation nationwide is now estimated to be over 2 million.
As discussed previously in the Forum (see “Children of Incarcerated Parents,” Summer 2002 and “Incarcerated Parents in Alaska Prisons,” Summer 2004), social workers, teachers, Alaska Department of Corrections personnel, church workers and many others are aware of the problems these children face: lack of stability in living conditions, poverty, and lack of contact with the imprisoned parent—something that in Alaska is particularly a problem because of the size of the state.
The topic now receives somewhat more attention; there has been a proliferation of websites devoted to the needs of these children. Funding for specific programs aimed at the needs of these children, however, seems to have declined in recent years. In Alaska one of the few agencies that does have a program for this population is Big Brothers Big Sisters, which receives funding from the federal “Mentoring Children of Prisoners” program. The Big Brothers Big Sisters program matches adult volunteers with children of prisoners; it uses a faith-based model—the Amachi program—which was initiated in Philadelphia. The funding for the Big Brothers Big Sisters effort seems to be the only federal grant money now directed at this social issue in Alaska.
The Department of Corrections directs its efforts and resources primarily toward assisting female prisoners with minor children. (The population of women prisoners in Alaska has grown 82 percent since 2000.) The department does not collect information on the children of prisoners in any systematic way, but parenting classes are offered at most institutions. The Hiland Mountain facility, where most sentenced women prisoners are incarcerated, currently has an internship position which focuses on assisting women in maintaining contact with their children through visits or by phone. The position also oversees a literacy program which encourages women to read with their children during visits, over the phone or via tapes. The intern also works with OCS and tribal authorities on issues involving the children of prisoners.