TRAUMA OF HAVING PARENTS IN PRISON  PTSD “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome” is a term most of us know. We normally associate it with veterans returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but PTSD is experienced not only among veterans, but by men and who have never worn a uniform, and sadly among children as well, especially those who have one or more parents in prison.

Since approximately 50 percent of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are parents, over 2 million of their children suffer from mental health and behavioral problems associated with their parents’ incarceration. Having a parent in prison also contributes to child homelessness and poverty which in turn intensifies intergenerational inequalities.


Marianne Kersten, Program Manager for Youth Solutions Student Mentoring at Northwest Family Services, in Portland, Oregon

Few events can be more traumatic for a child than witnessing the arrest of a parent. Speaking before the April 3 meeting of the Madeleine Parish Altar Society, Marianne noted that seldom do parents arrested “go quietly.” To see uniformed police enter the sanctity of a home, whether that home be a house, apartment, trailer, or tent, and then to see mom or dad placed in handcuffs, with or without a fight, assaults a child’s perception of his/her well being. Gunshots may not be fired, but the memory of words spoken, anger expressed, fear exposed, and grief overwhelming the family can never be forgotten.

In the child’s eyes, both their parents and they themselves are the victims of injustice, a system stacked against them.

Marianne advised that often it is the incarcerated parent who is the “better parent,” because in 95% of the cases, the parent left to care for the family is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Barely able to take care of themselves, they cannot take care of the children. Therefore the children frequently end up on a path to foster homes; however, not always. The majority of children referred to Marianne’s Mentoring program are still living with one parent.

She has 25 children in her group with a waiting list twice as long. They are between the ages of 8 and 18. All meet some level of “adverse experience criteria” which means they have been homeless or hungry, experienced violence, have first hand knowledge of drugs and alcohol, and a negative impression of the police and social services. Without intervention, they are at risk of repeating the behaviors of their parents. However, empowered by mentorship programs such as provided by Northwest Family Services, they are able to pursue education goals and lead successful lives.

The mission of Northwest Family Services focuses on “core issues that support individual success, family stability, and child well-being”. They have an array of services ranging from “professional counseling, job readiness and placement, work solutions, positive youth development, healthy relationships, gang prevention, school site management, financial literacy, parenting, anger management, etc.”

Marianne said that there are no “quick fixes”, which is the reason mentors volunteering for her program need to commit to a minimum of 1-year, typically involving contact every week. Usually she says a meal is involved and an activity which appeals to the child’s interests. Letting them know “somebody cares” makes all the difference. According to Northwest Family Services, “Children who have a meaningful relationship with a non-parental adult

  • • Are 46% less likely to start using drugs
  • • Are 27% less likely to start drinking
  • • 1/3 less likely to resort to violence
  • • Skip ½ as many days of school.
  • • Are more competent in their ability to do well at school
  • • Have more positive relationships with their peers
  • • Improve their appearance
  • • Take more positive risks
  • • Decrease hostility and have fewer disciplinary referrals
  • • Are happier

Volunteers are carefully matched with children to produce the best bonds. Marianne says she has seen lives transformed. She told about two young women she is currently mentoring who once thought college an impossible dream. By utilizing federal programs they are now attending institutions of higher learning on their way to stable, successful lives. To volunteer or obtain more information, call 503-548-6377 or visit the web at


State Senator Michael Dembrow reports that Senate Bill 241 creates an Oregon Bill of Rights for the Children of Incarcerated Parents to ensure that they are given the justice they deserve and are not punished as a bi-product of the crimes of their parents. For more information, refer to website: – News Room State News