Doing what’s right by Oklahoma’s children
By Todd E. Pauley

As the Legislature considers an expansive array of policies related to criminal justice and public safety, one thing is clear: Our laws should serve, protect and prioritize the state’s most vulnerable citizens, our children. But there is a group of Oklahoma’s youngest residents whose suffering is too often ignored: the children of incarcerated parents.

One in 10 Oklahoma children has had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood, and because the state has the highest incarceration rate for women, many children are growing up without their mothers. The absence of either parent affects a child’s chances for success, but the incarceration of the mother is especially damaging.

This grim reality drove us at the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth to undertake multiple comprehensive studies on the effects of maternal incarceration on children in Oklahoma. The OCCY surveyed 367 women in 2014, and what we discovered was heart-rending.

The women reported that their children struggled with a wide range of issues: poor grades, running away, unexpected pregnancy or fatherhood, drug abuse and mental health issues. In almost all cases, these problems worsened after the mother went to prison. And perhaps saddest of all, more than one in four of the women had a parent in prison during their own childhood.

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