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News and Notes   |    
Federal Action Plan for Improving Responses to Children of Incarcerated Parents
Psychiatric Services 2009; doi:
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More than 1.7 million children have a parent in a federal or state prison, according to the most recent available data. Despite this large number and the growing interest in prisoner reentry, the need to improve outcomes for children of incarcerated parents has received little attention at the national level. To address this gap, the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center has published a federal action plan that outlines promising practices and offers more than 70 recommendations for ensuring the well-being of these children.

Children of incarcerated parents are at risk of poor school performance and substance use and mental health problems, and many are exposed to parental substance abuse, extreme poverty, and domestic violence. Children of Incarcerated Parents: An Action Plan for Federal Policymakers, which was developed with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Open Society Institute, is designed to raise awareness of these children's needs and inform policies and practices to address them. The Justice Center created an advisory board composed of a broad array of criminal justice and child welfare experts. The board and focus group participants identified eight key topics that are addressed in separate chapters. The bulk of each chapter highlights policies, legislation, and promising practices that have already been developed by states and local communities.

The first chapter and recommendations address the need for data gathering on this population. Because many families with an incarcerated parent are served by multiple human services agencies that rarely coordinate services with one another or with criminal justice agencies, a set of recommendations in the second chapter addresses cross-system coordination.

The 46-page action plan cites a national study that found that nearly 70% of arrested parents were handcuffed in front of their children and that weapons were drawn in more than a quarter of these arrests. Most law enforcement agencies have no policies to guide officers when children are present at the scene of an arrest that does not involve child abuse or neglect. Recommendations in the third chapter call for officer training and for protocols to minimize trauma for children present. Policies to promote healthy parent-child relationships when a parent is incarcerated are presented in the fourth chapter; they include programs to make visits affordable when parents are in state and federal prisons, most of which are more than 100 miles from an inmate's previous residence.

Separate chapters on supporting kinship caregivers and on issues in foster care offer recommendations for ensuring children's well-being and promoting family reunification when appropriate. Two final chapters provide recommendations for helping incarcerated parents meet child-support obligations and for ensuring that children continue to receive benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps.

The action plan is available on the Justice Center Web site at justicecenter.csg.org.

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