The Forgotten Generation
When mothers are in prison, what happens to their children?
The young mother, tears running down her cheeks, watches her baby being taken from her. She had endured the harshness of prison while pregnant, then underwent a painful delivery without family support. Now the finality of separation bears down heavily on her heart as the caregiver leaves with her baby.
Another young child dissolves into tears while watching his mother being handcuffed. The reality of the situation only begins to hit home as the mother is driven away in a police car and the child is taken from his home by a caregiver.
Incarcerated mothers and children face many challenges. Both struggle with separation anxiety, the severity of which correlates with the length of a mother’s sentence. The frustrated child of an imprisoned mom often acts out and rapidly becomes part of the forgotten generation. These children face interminable odds when it comes to developing into individuals who lead successful lives. Often a large majority of them disappear into the system.
“Parental incarceration is now recognized as an adverse childhood experience (ACE); it is distinguished from other adverse childhood experiences by the unique combination of trauma, shame, and stigma.”1
Throughout the years the value of the human family as a complete unit has deteriorated, for reasons including parental incarceration. “More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent. Approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.”2
There are more incarcerated fathers than mothers. When the father is incarcerated, the mother is usually the custodial parent, so there are fewer changes to the child’s schedule. With the incarceration of a mother, though, the child often has lost both parents. In most cases the upheaval in the child’s life accelerates, because there is:
- No father figure, or caregivers do not allow the father to visit.
- No bonding with the mother.
- Trouble fitting into the caregiver’s home.
- A lack of finances.
- The stigma of being a prisoner’s kid.
- Rebellion or a “Why me?” syndrome.
- No supervision for education.
- No taught social mores.
- The trauma of seeing the mother’s arrest.
One Man’s Vision
In his search for a medium to combat the heartache of incarcerated mothers, the breakdown of the family, and the delinquency of the children, Frank Barton, prison ministries director for the Florida Conference, initiated a program called Love a Mother’s Baby (LAMB).
After learning of incarcerated mothers bartering necessities for a tube of toothpaste to send to their child, Barton developed the LAMB program. Through prison ministry programs organized on-site in Florida prisons, mothers can request sponsorship for their children. The LAMB program sponsors provide support for the children through their caregivers, as well as supply gifts that they put the mothers’ names on and then give to caregivers to present to the children for occasions such as Christmas and birthdays. Mother and child also receive a subscription to a magazine commensurate with the age of the child, such as Our Little Friend, Primary Treasure, or Guide. Florida Conference, local churches, and freewill offerings fund the program.
Grandparents face many problems when they become caregivers, writes Kate Santich in When Grandkids Move In. While finances can be a problem, one other major challenge is the debilitating feeling of isolation.3 So sponsors keep abreast of the caregiver’s mental, physical, and spiritual health. Through frequent home visits and phone conversations, sponsors learn the needs of the family. They assist with birthday parties and bring children to Sabbath school and other church programs such as Adventurers and Pathfinders.
Barton designed Love a Mother’s Baby Training Manual as a guide to instruct sponsors. This manual encompasses the entire spectrum of the LAMB program, including concerns of the inmate, caregiver, and sponsor.
Called to Serve
LAMB program coordinator Donna Walsh has been heading the initiative since July 2010, and puts in many hours in her efforts to help these mothers and their children.
“No one [can fully understand] what I feel about the LAMB program,” Walsh says.
Walsh searches for people who are willing to give of their time and resources to support the program. On weekends, she conducts training seminars and seeks church support and financial help to cover cost of literature, gifts, and miscellaneous needs of the families.
The LAMB program sponsors more than 80 children of mothers incarcerated in Florida. These children live with caregivers in Florida, Utah, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio.
In 2014 there were about 250 LAMB program applicants. Walsh spends her lunch hours and evenings finding sponsors for all the requests she receives—and she’s seeing results.
The grandmother of three children invited by their two sponsors to Vacation Bible School said that the children loved VBS even after the first day. “They already have clothes laid out to wear for the next morning,” she told the two sponsors during the program. On the Friday of VBS she asked the sponsors, “What time do the children need to be ready for church tomorrow?” The caregiver grandmother and the three children now regularly attend church.
Walsh, however, wants to do more.
“There is a need for more committed people,” she says. “We need the involvement of more churches in this evangelistic ministry.”
Her daily prayer, she says, is that “through the LAMB program more children can come to know Christ and recognize the plan He has for their lives. My longing is for the cycle to break and to hear a child say, ‘I don’t have to live the life my mom lived!’ ”
To learn more about the LAMB program, call Florida Conference prison ministries director Frank Barton at 352-408-1844.
- C. F. Hairston, Focus on Children With Incarcerated Parents: An Overview of the Research Literature (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2007).
- The Pew Charitable Trusts: Pew Center on the States, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility (Washington, D.C.: 2010).
- Kate Santich, “When Grandkids Move In,” Orlando Sentinel, Oct. 12, 2014.
Gladys M. Neigel is editorial assistant for the Florida Conference Communication Department.