07/19/2008 10:10 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Parents Go to Prison, Children Are Punished Too

When I was a rookie TV reporter covering crime I got the chance to go on an early morning drug raid with the Newark, N.J., Police Department.

We met at a station house in downtown Newark at 3 a.m., sleepy eyed, coffee in hand, but ready for the pre-raid briefing. Naturally, I had brought along a camera crew.

We filmed the squad room briefing, the crew filmed me being outfitted in a bullet-proof vest (the crew got vests, too) and then we captured the scene as we set off in a slow, quiet convoy of police cars toward the intended target's home.

It was a lower-middle class, mostly minority neighborhood of attached houses. Think Archie Bunker's house as it nestled up immediately next door to the Jeffersons'.

There were no sirens or flashing lights that pre-dawn morning and everyone spoke in whispers, if they spoke at all. Every step of the operation was carefully planned, including the fact (initially unknown to me) that a social worker was coming along.

Once out of the cars and at the foot of the concrete front stoop we were instructed, via hand signals, to get behind the first few officers, those directly behind the battering ram guys.

Then -- WHAM! In an instant we were inside the house and police were shouting instructions to those about to be arrested. A man and woman lying on a mattress on the dining room floor were rousted from sleep. A stash of drugs and at least one weapon were located not far from where they slept. He was being handcuffed, she was shouting, then as the seriousness of the situation sunk in, her cries turned into deep, rattling shrieks.

My attention was suddenly jerked away by the sound of a sobbing child. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light I saw there were two. The girl, in a sweet little nightgown, appeared to be about seven and was crying and holding her violently shaking arms outstretched in her mother's direction. The toddler boy in diapers was oddly quiet but alert after the sudden burst of activity.

That's when I noticed the female social worker steering them away and out the front door.
As a mother I've never forgotten that scene. It still brings a lump to my throat.

And since that day I've wondered -- what about the children of those taken away to prison?

Here are today's startling facts: At least two million children in this country have a parent behind bars. Some experts in the field believe it could be more like 10 million children who currently have or have recently had a parent in some sort of detention facility. Numbers are hard to come by because often the adults won't admit they have children and the children don't come forward out of shame.

Many children who are old enough to understand the situation become deeply angry, ashamed and suffer feelings of isolation and depression. They do poorly in school, especially if separated from their parent for a long time. They endure financial and psychological hardships. None of it is their fault, of course, but they often feel as though it is. They worry about the safety of their missing parent.

As the parent is punished so is the child.

No one argues the parent should not be incarcerated for the sake of their children. But there are many who argue we should be doing more for these kids. There are studies that conclude if we fail to help them maintain their equilibrium we condemn many to follow in their criminal parent's footsteps. Various small studies are cited indicating children of offenders are five to 10 times more likely than their peers to end up in prison.

To fail to help now could mean a terrible cycle will continue and our prisons will remain full in the future. In other words, pay now for some programs or pay much more for lengthy incarcerations later.

I can't tell you how many times over the years I've thought about that young girl and boy I saw in Newark during what had to have been the scariest moment of their lives. I tried to follow up on their story but juvenile privacy laws meant the public would never know.

Did they go to live with relatives or into foster care? Did they get to visit their parents in lockup? Did they get a good education? What was society obligated to do for them after their parents took such a wrong turn in life?

Next week: prison-based programs for kids like this and why putting children and parents together helps both.

Diane Dimond's website is She can be reached at