The first-ever National Children of Incarcerated Parents Conference drew 285 attendees from around the globe and offered three full days of sessions on innovative programs, family-focused policy and lived experiences. Among the breakout session topics: immigration policy’s impact on families and children, alternatives to incarceration in Oregon and Washington, research on loss and children’s resiliency, the benefits of overnight contact between incarcerated mothers and their children, peer-parent support programs, and much more.
But what attendees seemed to value most was hearing the perspectives of those who experienced the loss of a parent first-hand.
Deportation Parallels Incarceration
“I felt like I was being punished because my parents had been deported,” 22-year-old Mario Marquez told a ballroom full of advocates, social workers and others during day two of the inaugural conference in downtown Phoenix.
Marquez, now a senior at Arizona State University (ASU), saw both his parents deported when he was 15. Even though he and his brothers were U.S. citizens, they moved to Mexico with their parents following their detention and deportation. Marquez found it difficult to do his schoolwork in Spanish, and ultimately convinced his parents to let him move back to the States where he would live with relatives.
But he ended up homeless, living in youth shelters, and never telling anyone the truth about his situation because he was afraid he’d be forced to enter foster care.
The experience of deportation is not unlike that of incarceration.
According to David Becerra, a professor at ASU who presented in a break-out session at the conference, “Immigration law doesn’t recognize the ‘best interest of the child’ – immigration status takes precedent.” He cited a study that found that the impact of deportation on families is parallel to that of incarceration: family roles are forced to change, individuals experience emotional distress, significant income is lost and housing becomes unstable.
“No one even asks kids if this is something that’s happened to them,” Marquez said.
Alise Hegle found out she was pregnant around the same time she was sentenced to seven years in prison in the state of Washington. She was incarcerated when her daughter was born and was only able to hold her for about 30 seconds before the child was removed and placed in foster care with strangers.
Hegle wouldn’t see her daughter again for almost a year.
Just about everything that could go wrong did in Hegle’s case. Her relatives weren’t approached about fostering her baby, who was instead given to a couple looking to adopt. Hegle didn’t meet her attorney until six months into the dependency process, at which point child protective services was pushing to terminate her parental rights, believing that she’d be in prison for years.
A judge finally realized no one on the case had ever met Hegle. The judge then halted the parental rights termination process and summoned her to appear in court. It turned out that Hegle was being routed to drug treatment, rather than prison, and had a real chance of earning custody of her child.
But even then, a social worker told her she could get out of the treatment program early if she agreed to release her daughter for adoption.
Ultimately Hegle completed treatment and her case plan, and was allowed to take her daughter home. Today she provides support for other parents going through similar situations and advocates for policy reform to help families facing incarceration through her work with Children’s Home Society of Washington.
“We are a worthwhile investment,” Hegle said in a video about her experience.
These are just two of the many stories shared during the National Conference on Children of Incarcerated Parents.
Judy Krysik, associate director and associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University (ASU), and director of the Center for Child Well-Being, was the conference’s lead organizer.
The conference continues today, but she said the big takeaways so far are the importance of visits between children and incarcerated parents, and making those opportunities as healthy for children as possible, using strengths-based language in framing the issues that impact these families, and addressing challenges related to reunification of a parent and child when that parent is released.
“I have heard a number of people say that having a conference devoted solely to this topic elevates the importance of the issue and makes them feel like they have found community,” Krysik said. “There is so much to be done and we look forward to gathering again next year and working hard in the interim.”
The second annual conference is scheduled for April 14-17, 2019.
Click here to read Renick’s summary of day one at the conference.