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"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 their children.

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 from prison
  • 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 both wrists
  • 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 distance
  • 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 at Christmas

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.