NORMAL — One out of every 20 children in Illinois has had a parent in jail or prison, according to a new report released Wednesday from a task force that members hope will ease challenges those children face. According to the report from the Task Force on Children of Incarcerated Parents, the trauma children face from a jailed parent can affect not only their education, but also their mental and physical health.
“Children’s trauma is witnessing their parent being loaded into the back of a police car,” said Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton. “Their trauma is only being able to see their parents a few times a year because their mothers and fathers are incarcerated, and they are incarcerated many hours away from home.”
Stratton said those children need support and ways to connect to their parents.
“Too often we see this this vicious cycle in the criminal justice system that tears families apart and often leads to children of incarcerated parents being swept into the system themselves,” said Stratton. “We must do everything that we can to break this cycle.”
One example of that cycle is Willette Benford. Benford said she spent over two decades in prison for a murder conviction. She said the recommendations in the report could have changed her family’s life.
“There will be no healing when children are separated from a loving parent through incarceration, unless the procedures associated with those traumatic and harmful experiences change,” said Benford.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have escalated those problems, according to Task Force Chair and State Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Chicago).
“What we’ve already drafted in this report has only been amplified in priority and urgency for our families,” said Ramirez. “There are children who have not seen their parents now in nine, 10, 11, 12 months.”
The task force, which included child welfare experts and adult children directly affected by parental incarceration, recommends county and city jails in Illinois offer visitation options for children. Some allow video visitation, but 41 of the state’s 92 jails don’t allow any child visits.
Benford is now a decarceration organizer with Live Free Illinois, and she served as part of the task force. She said the recommendations of the task force are “vital.”
“Our children deserve a say in how they are treated after a parent’s arrest,” said Benford. “When they are unable to articulate that in a meaningful, clear way, it is our duty as a state to make certain they are heard.”
The task force is advocating for the establishment of a commission. That board would be responsible for implementing the report’s recommendations, from support programs for children to changes in prison visitation policies.