Families Strong Handbook
When the parent of a child goes to prison, the child’s life—and the lives of those who care for the child—can change in many ways. The separation and the lack of information can be hard to deal with. Questions come up about all kinds of things, with no obvious place to turn for answers. The purpose of the Families Strong handbook is to offer guidance to people who work with or care about children and families impacted by parental incarceration.
Temporary Care Agreement
If the adult who has agreed to care for a child when their parent goes to prison is not a legal custodial parent, the caregiver should have a Temporary Care Agreement signed by the custodial parent and notarized. This document does not grant custody or guardianship; it simply authorizes the caregiver to communicate with the child’s school, health providers, insurance and other benefits providers, and to make decisions regarding the child during the incarcerated parent’s absence. It is helpful to have several originals of this agreement signed and notarized before the custodial parent goes to prison.
Sample Scripts for Personalized Storybooks
One of the best resources for children with an incarcerated parent is to have their own personalized book, one that tells their unique story. You can create the text with input from the child and work together on what pictures they want the story to include. The storybook can answer their—perhaps unspoken—questions, offer reassurance, and include photos of the people who love and care for them, along with pictures of where they live and go to school. These sample scripts will guide you in creating a storybook.
Books About Incarceration
The following books were written to help children understand the experience of having a mother or father in prison or jail. When a parent, counselor or caregiver reads with a child, it can create the opportunity to talk more about the child’s feelings, helping them process and cope.
What Will Happen to Me?
By Howard Zehr and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz (2011). In their own words, children describe the experience of having an incarcerated parent. These portraits and stories offer other children insights into their own situation and the reassurance that they are not alone. Includes information for caregivers on supporting children throughout a parent’s incarceration.
The Night Dad Went To Jail
By Melissa Higgins (2012). Ages 3-8. What to expect when someone you love goes to jail. A very useful book that depicts and explains the events, including the arrest. Dogs, cats, and mice are the characters. In this story, the father has a 6 year sentence.
By Richard Dyches (2011). Ages 3-6. The story of a young boy whose mom is sent to prison. Explores feelings of loss and confusion. He begins to talk to friends at school about his mom and finds out he’s not the only one.
By Richard Dyches (2011). Ages 4-7. The story of a young boy and his sister whose father is sent to prison. Explores their feelings of loss, fear and frustration at not being told what’s going on until their mom finally takes them to see their dad.
By Jacqueline Woodson (2002). Ages 3-9. The experience of a young girl and her grandmother who take the bus to visit her father in prison. With tenderly rendered prose and illustrations, the book offers comfort to children, especially as they deal with the sadness that follows a visit.
Mama Loves Me from Away
By Pat Brisson (2004). Ages 4-9. Heartbreaking yet loving example of a mother and a child separated by a prison, and how they stay connected with stories.
My Daddy’s in Jail
By Anthony Curcio (2015). Ages 6-9. Written by a formerly incarcerated father, a story of two bears whose dad is in prison, narrated by a friendly cockroach who breaks a law and goes to prison himself for a little while, and comes to the conclusion that “These animals are good, for goodness sakes! Sometimes good animals just make bad mistakes!” At the end, there is a photo of the author with his two daughters, and readers learn this is a true story.
When Dad was Away
By Liz Weir and Karin Littlewood (2012). Ages 5-10. A story for young children, shows how one family comes through the difficult time of separation when dad is sent to prison. Depicts visiting in prison, even at Christmas time.
By Maria Testa (1996). Ages 7-10. Every Sunday a child travels with his dad to visit his mom in prison. This Sunday is special because it is his 7th birthday; he celebrates in prison with his mom and looks forward to his 9th birthday when she will be home.
Amber was Brave, Essie was Smart
By Vera B. Williams (2001). Ages 9-12. A heartwarming story told in poems and pictures about two sisters and how they take care of each other when dad goes to prison and mom is working all the time. Together they can do anything.
Knock Knock : My Dad’s Dream for Me
By Daniel Beaty (2013). Ages 8-12. The author’s father was his principal caregiver until the boy was three and his father became incarcerated. A powerful and inspiring book showing the love that an absent parent can leave behind, and the strength that children find in themselves as they grow up and follow their dreams.
The Same Stuff as Stars
By Katherine Patterson (2002). Ages 8-12. Angel’s Daddy is in jail; her mother has abandoned her and her little brother at their great-grandma’s house where Angel struggles to build a new life.
The Year the Swallows Came Early
By Kathryn Fitzmaurice (2009). Ages 9-12. Everything starts to go wrong the year that Eleanor turns eleven. Suddenly her father is in jail, and her best friend’s long absent mother reappears.
By Deborah Ellis (2007). Ages 10-14. Jake and his sister have been under foster care since their single mother was arrested for possession and trafficking three years ago. Both have found their own ways to cope: his sister has become a bossy mother figure; Jake, who is a budding comic book artist, has created an alter ego named Jakeman.
An Inmate’s Daughter
By Jan Walker (2006). Teens. While her father spends his time in prison studying to be a better parent, Jenna deals with responsibilities and situations that daunt many adults.
Wish You Were Here: Teens Write about Parents in Prison
By Youth Communication: True Stories by Teens; edited by Autumn Spanne (2010). A collection of stories from both parents and teens who are coping with their separation, and struggling to figure out how to be part of each other’s lives.
Books that are not specifically about incarceration, but address relevant themes
The Invisible String
By Patrice Karst (2000). A simple story that reminds children and adults that people who love each other are always connected by a very special string. Specifically written to calm a child’s fear of being separated from a parent.
How to Mend a Broken Wing
By Bob Graham (2008). A small boy finds an injured bird and stops to help. An urban fable, told mostly in pictures, about a broken wing, caring and patience, hope and healing.
A Terrible Thing Happened
By Margaret Holmes (2000). This gently told and tenderly illustrated story is for children who have witnessed any kind of violent or traumatic episode. An afterword for parents or caregivers offers extensive suggestions for helping traumatized children.
By Susan Farber Straus (2013). A useful guide for children who have experienced trauma. To be read with a parent or therapist, helps children understand they are not to blame, and that they can get help, and look forward to a happy future.
Books that provide guidance and resources for teachers, care providers, counselors
My Daddy is in Jail
By Janet Bender (2008). Helping children, K through 5, to cope with the incarceration of a loved one. It includes a read‐aloud story, discussion guide and optional small group counseling activities.
Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents
By Stacey Burgess, Tonia Caselman and Jennifer Carsey (2014). For children in grades 2-6, a workbook for counselors, social workers, psychologists and teachers. Can be used with students individually or in small groups.
Two in Every Hundred
By Richard Dyches, Ph.D. (2011). A workbook with exercises designed to be conversation starters to facilitate kids talking about their concerns and feelings.
All Alone in the World
By Nell Bernstein (2005). In-depth discussion of the effects of parental incarceration. An award-winning journalist takes an intimate look at parents and children at all stages of the criminal justice process as they are affected by US incarceration policy.
Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration
A Sesame Street program, with videos for the kids to watch, materials to read, and worksheets that can be printed on your home printer. In addition to materials for children, there are also materials for parents and caregivers. https://www.sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/incarceration
Echoes of Incarceration
An award-winning documentary initiative produced by youth with incarcerated parents. The project explores the issue of mass incarceration and its effects on families, and creates documentary films told from the life experiences of the filmmakers themselves.
The following websites connect you to resources and agencies around the country who are working to support children and families of incarcerated individuals. There are many free publications, and most of the resources are available in downloadable PDF format:
National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated
NRCCFI at Rutgers University has over 100 articles regarding the impact of the justice system on families, and a full Children of Incarcerated Parents library with useful factsheets and suggestions.
Osborne Association/NY Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents
The initiative is a special project launched in 2006, to work with government, and faith-based and community partners to advocate for policies and practices that meet the needs of and respect the rights of children whose parents are involved in the criminal justice system.
San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership
SFCIP, which was founded in 2000, is an advocacy group for children of incarcerated parents. This partnership created the Children’s Bill of Rights in 2005 with the hope that the needs and rights of the children will be taken into consideration as decisions are made about their incarcerated parent.