"LEADER" On-line: Vol. 5, No. 2
After years as an early-childhood educator, Florida leader
Marion McClain realized she could help more children by working
directly with their parents. She has been leading parenting programs
in prisons for 25 years; she began using Active Parenting in 1995.
Reaching out to incarcerated mothers
by Marion B. McClain
When I was 50 years old, God chose to show me a side of life that
I didn't know existed. He used Matthew 25:35". . .
I was in prison and you came to visit me"to call me
into prison ministry. At first I procrastinated because I felt
God made a mistake in calling me!
After a year of delay, I thought I would be a pen pal. Since
my daughter, who died years before at the age of 18, had received
a "death sentence" with her leukemia, I felt I could
share my faith in God with a person who had served time on Death
Row. After writing to this person for a short time I discovered
he really needed a visit. And after that first visit, I was hooked.
The things I saw and heard were unbelievable. I became a dedicated
volunteer, and have continued my prison ministry for 25 years.
Most recently I have taught parenting classes to incarcerated
women who have shared their hearts and sad stories with me while
realizing that God loves them and as one woman wrote, "sees
the beautiful person inside."
When Dad goes to prison, children usually have a Mom to take
care of them. But what happens to children when Mom goes to prison?
Sometimes, if they are blessed, they have another family member
who will take them in. Even so, this always puts emotional and
economic stress on the family, which doesn't make a pleasant situation
for the children.
Many times the family member who takes the children in is angry
with the mother for having done whatever she did to cause her
incarceration. Therefore they will try to cut the children off
from the mother. These caregivers are taking on extra work, expense
and worry. This causes them to have little time for care and emotional
support of the children that have been thrust upon them.
Children often have to give up their home as they knew it.
They are moved from one school to another, which means they lose
their friends and everything that is familiar to them. Is it any
wonder that they become problem children for the caregiver as
well as the teacher?
In many cases the children do not see their mother for years.
For various reasons they may not even hear from her. Some mothers
are illiterate and cannot write to their children. They may have
no money for phone calls. Prisons are often so far from home that
visiting is impossible because of distance and expenses.
One mother, who was writing to her precious preschool child,
was told by the grandmother who was caring for the child to "stop
writing to this child, she is driving me crazy asking me to read
your letter over and over again."
Other times the children become wards of the state and are
placed in foster care. This puts them into another hurtful situation.
As children in foster care themselves, these mothers have told
me they were often mistreated or abused sexually, physically or
emotionally. Thus, they don't want the same thing to happen to
Children are also in danger of being placed for adoption if
they remain in the foster care system for an extended period of
time. Today's rules are that at the end of one year the state
begins proceedings to end parental rights, freeing the children
for adoption. If the child is very young, his chances of adoption
are much greater because there are many couples looking to adopt
infants or small children. What does this do to the incarcerated
mother, who is already in a very difficult situation? Mothers
who deeply love their children are taken away from them for an
extended period of time. Serving time is a punishment in itself,
but to lose your child is an added punishment not felt by those
without children, nor is it part of the original sentence.
It is estimated that at least 80% of all women who are incarcerated
are mothers. Children who have a parent who is doing time are
five times more likely to become incarcerated as either a juvenile
or an adult. It is a fact that 80% or more of the people who are
incarcerated, both men and women, have been abused as children.
From my experience most of the incarcerated are emotionally stuck
in their early teens, and many whom I have taught have agreed
with me! They are stuck in this mode, even though chronologically
they may be 40 or older. Their behavior remains impulsive, and
self-esteem is low.
It is no secret that abused children become abusive adults.
This situation does not stop by itself: it takes intervention
of some kind. Someone, somewhere, has to see the problem and step
in to do something. Putting a mother in prison is one of the worst
things that can happen to a child. Unless some kind of treatment
or training can help overcome the many problems that beset a parent
who is incarcerated, we are perpetuating the prison system.
Many children become very angry when their mother is taken
away from them. Very small children sometimes refuse to talk.
They regress in the area of toilet training. They become bullies,
do poorly in school, and become very depressed. They have problems
of all kinds which make it hard for the caregiver to know what
to do with them.
Generally, the caregiver does not want to make it known to
others that the child's mother is in prison. So teachers and others
do not understand why the child is misbehaving this way. Many
times the child is not told where his or her mother is. This gives
the child great cause for concern. Why doesn't my mother come
to see me? Where is she? DoesnÕt she love me any more?
Why? Why? Why?
These are a few examples I have personally encountered:
- A very talkative two-year-old who hasn't said one word since
his mother went to prison
- a straight "A" freshman in high school who flunked
so that his graduation would not come until his mother came home
- a 13-year-old girl who took up smoking pot and taking other
drugs when her mother went to prison
- another angry early-teen knocked her grandmother down, breaking
- a 12-year-old boy who hasn't seen his mother since he was
two years old is being threatened with adoption (thankfully,
his mother is being released before the court date which would
end her parental rights)
- a 20-year-old who has gone to prison because of behavior
caused by anger over his mother's incarceration
- a baby born while his mother was incarcerated and has always
had to spend time with his mother behind the walls of a prison
- another baby born during incarceration who has not had the
opportunity to spend any time with her mother because of the
- a 14-year-old who did not have a clue that his mother was
in prison until she made a tape and sent it to the grandmother
to play for him.
On and on this list could go!
My parenting class teaches the "I" message: "When
you do ____, I feel_____," and "I would like you to
do_____." I believe God's "I" message to the church
is "When women are in prison and their children ignored I
feel very disappointed. And I would like you to become involved."
Mothers incarcerated are in anguish, and their children in
unbearable circumstances. Shouldn't we as followers of Christ
be more responsive? Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to
go and sin no more. To the woman at the well he was the living
water. We must be providers of that Living Water, helping to restore
relationships, building self-esteem, and mentoring those who will
one day return home. Ninety-five percent of those incarcerated
will one day return to society and live in your neighborhood.
Incarcerated mothers must return to their families as complete
persons in Christ.
If one doesn't feel able to go in to the prison to minister
for any reason, there is still much that can be done, starting
with prayer for those who are incarcerated and for those who are
able to go. There is much that can be done for the children. We
can: support the caregiver provide mentoring for the child take
the child to church work with Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship,
which makes it possible to give small gifts to children of prisoners
For the parent you could be a pen pal, send magazine subscriptions,
teach a Bible class, or go with a choir to perform. Most important
of all, spread the word that those who are in prison are real
human beings who have made a mistake. Could not each one of us
say, "There but for the grace of God go I"?
Click for Active Parenting books and
videos for families with a parent in jail.
Reprinted from Leader magazine.
Copyright 2000 by Active Parenting Publishers, Inc.