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Pulitzer Center Update June 22, 2020

Overcoming Trauma and Challenges for Incarcerated Parents and Their Children

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“Each bead means something,” Adrianna says of the bracelet she made me with her mom. “This one,” she says, pointing to the shiniest pink bead, “is supposed to be how much love she has for us because it is so bright." Image by Jaime Joyce for TIME Edge. California, 2018.

What challenges do kids face when a parent is imprisoned? “Children of the Incarcerated" introduces...

Screenshot of author Susan Burton speaking at a Talks @ Pulitzer webinar on June 16, 2020.
Screenshot of author Susan Burton speaking at a Talks @ Pulitzer webinar on June 16, 2020.

Between 1985 and 2010, the number of U.S. minors with a parent behind bars surged from 1 in every 125 children to 1 in 28, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, with Black children disproportionately represented. More than 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison. A majority of parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

On Tuesday, June 16, 2020, the Pulitzer Center's Talks @ Pulitzer Focus on Justice Series centered on the challenges faced by these children and their parents, particularly when dealing with a criminal justice system designed to separate rather than reunite. TIME for Kids Executive Editor Jaime Joyce interviewed Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and Burton's daughter, Antoinette (Toni) Carter, about these issues. 

Burton, who served six prison terms before launching her nonprofit, called out legislation that prevents family members with criminal records from taking custody of relatives' children. "It feels like it's akin to separation during the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, when children were sold off in slavery. It feels like the same separation under the guise of the criminal justice system, under the guise of keeping children safe," Burton explained. She is the author of Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women.

As the child of an incarcerated parent, Carter reflected on how she was made to feel like a "co-conspirator to the crime" and how "the lack of resources [...] and the lack of humanity in the process is very painful for a child." 

The following is an edited transcript of the webinar, featuring excerpts from the portion hosted by Joyce as well as a Question & Answer segment moderated by Pulitzer Center Contributing Editor Kem Knapp Sawyer. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length.

Jaime Joyce: Susan, I wonder if you could start by telling us about your background and how you came to start A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and a little bit about what that project aims to do?

Susan Burton: Jaime, I was born into hardship. I was born into trauma and didn't really have a choice. But I managed to manage the trauma as a little girl. I was holding it down pretty good up until the time my son was killed. He was killed by an LAPD detective and I could no longer just hold on. I was shattered and I just completely lost my way and tumbled into this depth of addiction and alcoholism and began to become incarcerated. I had had scrapes with the law prior, but this just tumbled me off the ledge. What I know today is that that incident, that tragic event, for Toni, she not only lost her little brother, she completely lost her mother that day. 

I ended up going to prison and when I cried out for help from the criminal justice system, when I laid out my life for the courts and for the DA and my attorney, they still just put handcuffs on me. At some point you just shut the door on feelings, on emotions, and you just robotically go through life. That's how I went through doing my time. After six prison commitments for substance use, I found a place in Santa Monica out by the beach, a wealthy community in Los Angeles. Out there, I found a whole different world where people's addiction was treated with resources, kindness, compassion, empathy, and support. I thought "what an idea," and then I began to think 'why hadn't this happened for me before?' It would've been so easy to support me in my grief and not to use drugs and alcohol to actually medicate my rage and my pain.

So that's what prompted me to start A New Way of Life, which provides reentry services for women, leadership development, reunification services, and a way to support women to find out their meaning in their lives. I'm so happy and grateful that Toni helps us too at A New Way of Life. All the women know her and sometimes she comes over and lectures and tells us about how it feels to be a child of an incarcerated parent.

JJ: Thank you, Susan, that's a perfect segue. Toni, can you say more about your experience and the work you do today?

Antionette Carter: It's a tough road for a child as well. There's so much emotion and, like my mother says, so much rage and things that you have to hold in, and no real place to put them because you, as a child, almost become a co-conspirator to the crime or alleged crimes. You feel like you have no out. It's really traumatic. It's traumatic to have a parent incarcerated. It's traumatic to be with your parent at the time they're incarcerated. The lack of resources, the lack of processes, and the lack of humanity in the process is very painful for a child.

JJ: Susan, you talk about trauma as something that led to your substance abuse. It's something that the women who are coming into A New Way of Life Reentry Project are dealing with. How do you help people cope with this trauma and how do we help children navigate this world?

SB: I don't believe that there is any silver bullet for this. There has to be a mixture of ways in which children are supported. What I found with Toni to help both of our healing processes is to make space for her to be able to express her feelings and her thoughts around this traumatic event or trauma that she was just innocent to. I found that to be a way in which she can express herself, but earlier on, it might have been helpful for her to have a place where she could talk about it then, instead of burying it. We know what happens when people bury pain. We know that's not healthy. So that might've been great for her to have had a safe place where she could talk about what she was feeling, what she was experiencing, how it was affecting her, and what it felt like. But I don't believe that there's any real silver bullet for addressing the children whose parents are incarcerated.

JJ: In talking to the women and children you work with, is there any change around police protocol during a time of arrest, that you're aware of, when minor children are in the household?

AC: I did a speech in 2002, exactly 30 years after that [first interaction] with the police. What I told them was that nothing had changed. We're still talking, we're not doing. We're still having the same conversations and the same dialogue. The children are almost the piece that's been left out of the equation. In 2020, I think there are a lot more organizations that have put a focus on it, but if the people are forgotten about, it's still, 'what about the children?' So I think there have been some strides made by grassroots organizations, but not nearly enough to the level of children that have parents that are incarcerated.

SB: Jamie, what I see is that they have sort of a specialized team of social workers that are hired under the guise of keeping children safe that are immediately called in now to take the child to some place that is a caregiver. Many, many times for us, our children aren't returned to us or returned to the family. They're taken to some strange place. For me, I can't get my relative's child from social services because of my criminal history. Many of our community members have criminal records and that bars us from actually becoming the caregiver of our families, of our relatives, if something happens. It feels like it's akin to separation during the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, when children were sold off in slavery. It feels like the same separation under the guise of the criminal justice system, under the guise of keeping children safe, and separating them out of family and out of community. That's what it feels like to me.

Kem Knapp Sawyer: We'll start audience Q&A with a question from Aileen Hongo: Often mothers seem to have a vision of what getting out and being reunited with family will be like and are bitterly disappointed. Can you suggest how we can keep that connection going, this connection that's so vital in holding family together?

SB: I believe that both counseling for the mother and counseling for the child is really important, and then joint counseling. There are these visions, what people imagine their reentry and their reunification is going to be like. Many times the child is angry, and hurt, and harmed. I think I can let Antoinette speak to that, because I had those visions too and it wasn't quite like that.

AC: I was a very conscious child and so I saw everything that was going on around me. I think that the counseling will be pivotal in adjusting or helping with that reunification process because there was really no bonding. When you have a parent that is incarcerated and you're a child, I think you have to have some type of contact. When there's no one there to show you how to write a letter, or no one there to help you express yourself, it becomes, 'I just have to get over the fact that that person is not here' and move on or bottle it up. But I think that instead of it being so much of a reunification, we continue to have that bond [through] communicating with that parent. If someone were there to assist the child in writing to that parent and pulling some of that stigma off of the child, I think it would be great. 

If I had the opportunity in school for a counselor or a teacher to say, 'let me help you write a letter to your mother,' or 'let me help you write a letter to your father, let's talk and discuss these things,' it would help to bring some of the stigma away for the child and the child won't have so much rage and won't be so devastated in trying to have that reunification. It won't be considered so much as a reunification, but rather a continuation of the relationship regardless to where the parent is.

KS: I think we also have to turn to the teachers in schools where there are no counselors. Jennifer Stroyan asks: As a middle school teacher with students with incarcerated parents, how can I best support my students other than showing empathy and understanding?

AC: I would say that they need to devise a program or maybe a specified class to discuss those things. Not necessarily with the individual student, but with the students as a whole, just helping the children to understand about current events. It was very important to me to know about current events when I was in middle school. I think when I was there, they talked about different things and I knew how it personally impacted me. I think having the discussion about what's going on with the prison industrial complex, with people being arrested, would foster dialogue between all children and you would find the children would learn to have compassion for one another. 

The worst thing for me was when a child who had never had a parent arrested tried to tell me how I was supposed to feel. They never experienced it, and they didn't have any type of information or education on the process of it. The teachers could talk about it and maybe put together a class to discuss those types of things without actually putting those individual children on the spot.

SB: I think the bottom line is that we need to stop locking up so many darn people. That would make less children who are missing a parent. There's a whole lot of things that we can do in lieu of incarceration like diverting people to different types of resources and support. So I think we need to go back to saying, "let's not put so many people into the correctional system."

To learn more about the children of incarcerated parents and how you can support them, see the below resources, recommended by Jaime Joyce:





Criminal Justice


Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice
teal halftone illustration of two children, one holding up a teddy bear


Children and Youth

Children and Youth