More than 2 million children across the country have at least one parent behind bars. Sixteen-year-old Kmani Baxter is one of them.
“It didn’t dawn on me that it had been 13 years since I seen him,” says Baxter. “I ain’t hug my dad since I was three or four. I haven’t touched my dad since I was four years old.”
Nearly one in ten children in California have a parent in the criminal justice system, but it’s hard to find numbers for individual cities. Experts say that’s because most agencies don’t keep data on the children of parents they process into the criminal justice system.
Author and longtime youth advocate Nell Bernstein says we should be keeping better track of these statistics.
“It’s no different than any other loss of a parent in terms of the depth of the trauma and longing,” says Bernstein. “Except that it’s not only unrecognized, but it’s stigmatized.”
With so many people now coming home through realignment, Bernstein says it’s more important than ever to support children and families of the incarcerated.
At a church in downtown Oakland, about a dozen teens take turns talking in a circle during their weekly group meeting. Some snack on chips. Others snap their fingers in agreement with the speaker.
“Racism is fear of another race that you do not know,” says one of the teens in response to a check-in question. “Humans tend to fear things they don’t know about. That’s just a human trait.”
The group is called Project WHAT! It’s short for “We’re Here and Talking.” It’s part peer support, part leadership development, and part advocacy for youth who have a parent in the criminal justice system. All the participants have this in common.
Zoe Willmott coordinates the project. She’s also a past participant of the program. She says it provided her a space where she could talk about how her mom’s incarceration affected her.
“Even growing up in a family where it was talked about with adults,” she says, “I never had the space with other kids until Project WHAT!”
Willmott’s mom was locked up when she was four years old. She says that while she loved having a relationship with her, visiting a prison still left her scarred.
“It was hard to go to,” she says. “It was stressful. I cried a lot. I had nightmares about being in prison all the time.”
Nell Bernstein says these kids are the invisible victims of the criminal justice system.
“These kids are going through a loss similar perhaps to having a parent in the military,” says Bernstein. “But instead of the community rallying around them, they often feel like they have to keep it a secret.”
Bernstein coordinates a San Francisco coalition that advocates for children of incarcerated parents.
“I met kids who spent as much as six weeks alone in an empty apartment after their parent’s arrest,” she says. “There was also kids who were unnecessarily taken in the back of a police car to a children’s shelter when grandma was down the street.”
Bernstein says there’s too little sympathy for incarcerated parents. sSe commonly hears, “bad people don’t deserve to have kids.” But, she says, people rarely see the issue through the child’s perspective.
“Who knows if there’s parents who don’t deserve to have kids in or out of prison,” says Bernstein. “But I haven’t met a kid who doesn’t deserve to have a parent.”
So in 2003, Bernstein’s organization created a Bill of Rights for children of the incarcerated. It includes points such as the right to visit and touch a parent, the right to be involved in decisions made about them, and the right not to be blamed for their parents’ incarceration.
Kmani Baxter was four-years-old when his dad was locked up. Baxter wasn’t home when the police came, but he remembers his house was wrecked when he got home.
He only has a few memories of life with his dad. But he does remember what life was like after he left.
“It was like concentrated chaos for a long time,” he says. “It’s like you’re trying to conceal a grenade, but you know the grenade is there. And it’s fittin’ to explode but it don’t.”
Baxter’s dad is still in prison. He grew up with his mom and big brother, Kerry, until a few years ago, when Kerry was shot and killed. But Baxter doesn’t lament these losses -- he says his situation is not unique.
“It’s like regular,” says Baxter. “It’s only a few people that I know that don’t have a relative in jail. I can count them on my fingers.”
Baxter says no one talks about it openly.
“I think it’s when people are in jail, it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “So I think nobody thinks about it.”
At Project WHAT!’s weekly meeting, the students settle in to watch the film -- it’s about racial inequity in the criminal justice system. Zoe Willmott, coordinator of the youth group, says movies like this are really just meant to get the kids to tell their own stories -- and that’s what can lead to real change. When Willmott shared her experience about visiting her mom at a conference, an official from Solano County realized what it was like to go through the jail’s visiting room as a kid.
“Now there’s toys for kids and murals and safer spaces for kids where they feel like they can interact with their parent without guards being right there,” she says.
That kind of support for families is becoming important outside of jail as well. Under California’s prison realignment plan, almost 20,000 people are back in their communities. Many are reuniting with their families and adjusting to life after incarceration. Advocate Nell Bernstein says this transition can be hard on kids.
“Often when you’re on probation, a probation officer could do an unannounced search, which can be terrifying to a child,” says Bernstein. “There’s also the uncertainty that your parent could disappear at any moment.”
Law enforcement agencies have started to listen, like in San Francisco, which is trying to consider children’s perspectives before and after a parent is sentenced. But Bernstein says there’s still no uniform policy or enforcement among the different agencies. And, she says, that void means children are likely to continue to be invisible victims of the criminal justice system.