By Shawn Bayes, Executive Director, EFry
Last week, EFry representatives joined delegates from more than a dozen countries at the International Coalition for the Children of Incarcerated Parents in New Zealand. This was a major trip for EFry and one we felt was important in furthering our JustKids initiative, which provides specialized programs and supports for children who experience parental incarceration.
In case you aren’t familiar with JustKids, it’s an umbrella initiative EFry launched in 2011 in response to the shocking statistic that without specialized supports more than half the children who have a parent in prison will one day find themselves behind bars. Then, and sadly still today, Canadian governments of all levels did and do not recognize these children as a marginalized group nor provide supports for them. When we learned from other countries that appropriate interventions can greatly improve these children’s life outcomes, EFry decided we had to act and formed JustKids. Surprisingly, EFry’s suite of JustKids programs was the most comprehensive of any group taking part in the conference.
Over the conference’s four days of workshops and presentations, a theme arose: More of the Same is Still the Same. Presentation after presentation spoke to the destructive effect of prison practices on incarcerated parents and their children, and the limited government support available to meet the needs of affected children and caregivers. The global call for change was clear.
Three priorities for change
- Alternatives to incarceration – In Canada, 92% of women inmates are imprisoned for six months or less. Their crimes are non-violent and generally driven by poverty. Public safety is clearly not the issue.The impact of even shorter-term maternal incarceration can turn a child’s life upside down.
- Create responses that address the full spectrum of challenges impacting childrenturn are risk factors for becoming in conflict with the law: poverty, material deprivation, addiction, homelessness and mental illness.EFry’s growing system of care, which draws our programs together to support women and children, does just that.
- Ensure programs for children address their social isolation and marginalization – Children need the opportunity to develop and grow with friends and peers who understand and support them. This is a big motivator behind EFry’s JustKids Saturday Clubs and Blue Sky Summer Camps. EFry has been able to combine grants and donations to offer children the support they need, when they need it.
We came away from the conference committed to deepening the support we offer to help children remain in school. For those in care, we plan to speak out in support of providing children with stability by remaining in the same foster homes long-term.
Our society supports families in remaining together but that same commitment to stability doesn’t exist for foster families. Often, decisions are made to move children to lower levels of care homes. Funding of foster homes is tied to the skill of the caregiver and children’s needs are matched accordingly. However, as the child stabilizes, he or she comes to be considered as too low needs for the foster home category being paid for, so the relationship is severed and the child is forced to move. Society needs to value the relationship and skill of the foster parent, while also understanding that severing that relationship is destructive and often sets in motion a pay now or pay later response for that child – when it only gets harder to help. There is ample evidence that investments in supporting children while they are young pay off for the child and for taxpayers, who are much less likely to have to pay for later, more expensive interventions – like incarceration.
For more on EFry’s work to support children with incarcerated parents, visit www.just-kids.ca.