This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal November 19, 2020. 

By Chaly Downs and Jennifer Hancock

Chaly Downs, Freedom House Graduate

The latest Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book provides the annual look at how children are faring in each county. For community partners to policymakers, the data book is a roadmap – it tells us where our Commonwealth can do better to give Kentucky children the opportunities they need to thrive. It also highlights a population of children who are too easily unnoticed but live in all of our communities – children impacted by parental incarceration.

Kentucky has the third highest rate in the nation of children who have experienced parental incarceration. Twelve percent – or more than one in every ten children – have experienced the hardships that come along with having a parent in jail or prison. And the challenge is one that reaches every corner of Kentucky. Having a parent incarcerated is aptly referred to as a “shared sentence” as it can negatively impact a child’s behavioral, educational, and health outcomes. Even short stays in jail for a parent can create negative consequences for children and for the parent’s ability to financially support the family.

At Volunteers of America, we see these impacts firsthand. The number of women incarcerated in Kentucky has been growing dramatically during recent decades. And Kentucky’s growth in the incarceration of women significantly outpaces the growth across the nation. Data show that since the 1980s, the percent of women incarcerated in Kentucky jails increased by more than 700 percent and those in prison increased by more than 1,000 percent.

Rising numbers of women incarcerated mean more children are affected. Of Kentucky women in state custody who are incarcerated, 64 percent have children. And a notable percentage of women in state custody – 27 percent – are incarcerated for a drug-related offense.

As a young mom who has successfully graduated from Volunteers of America’s Freedom House program for pregnant and parenting women overcoming substance use disorder, and as the President and CEO of Volunteers of America, we see an urgent need to link more women affected by incarceration into treatment.  Not only does this support women in addressing substance use issues, for those who are pregnant they are able to deliver healthy babies and have an opportunity to reunite with their other children.

Jennifer Hancock, VOA

The work Volunteers of America does with women who are tackling substance use disorder underscores the power of prevention. With investments in treatment and support, we start healing young people affected by maternal incarceration. Kentucky can support children by expanding community options for substance use treatment and bringing women into treatment earlier. Our goal is to prevent the trauma of separation that occurs when a mother is incarcerated. In many instances, community alternatives to incarceration can work and provide two-generation solutions by keeping families united and healthy.

The 2020 County Data Book also highlights the challenges we are facing as a city, a state and a nation on how issues impact people differently based on the color of their skin or where they live.

Historic and ongoing practices of closer police surveillance in communities of color, treating drug crimes differently for White and Black communities, and systemic bias in the justice system have contributed to Black men being overrepresented in state custody and overrepresented among dads in state custody.  However, a smaller proportion of Black women in custody are parents compared to the overall population. Differences do show up in the numbers between urban and rural counties, with rural counties having the highest rates of women incarcerated. These concerns must also be addressed.

We know the numbers and the impact and we see it every day in VOA’s programming. In fact our vantage point is quite unique. We are a White leader of a behavioral health not-for-profit that provides addiction recovery services in both urban and rural parts of Kentucky, and a young Black mother still on probation for a drug related offense. We are convinced that by having a greater focus on supporting moms on their path to recovery, rather than penalizing them for the disease of substance use disorder, we can prevent more children from experiencing the trauma and hardships that often come with having a parent incarcerated.

Every day, we are fortunate to see – and live – the real-world results when we intervene early and give the comprehensive care and support families need. The result is healthier moms and children with bright futures. One of us is living proof.

Chaly Downs is a proud graduate of VOA’s Freedom House program.  She is a student at JCTC, hopes to be a social worker and with the support of VOA and the Jefferson County Family Recovery Court is reuniting with her children. Jennifer Hancock is President and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States.