When parents go to prison, children serve sentences
Studies indicate a child with a mother or father in prison is likely to be impacted by a number of risk factors
By Marilyn Gambrell and Rob Wisner
This month, Columbia University’s School of Sociology awarded a Ph.D to Devon Wade, but Devon was not there to receive it. The Houston native died six months ago in a senseless shooting. It was the first time the prestigious Ivy League school has awarded a doctorate posthumously, but Devon was a special individual.
Devon’s death was tragic, but his life was proof that, with the right support, a child can overcome the worst challenges to reach great heights.
As a boy, Devon watched both his mother and father go to prison. But he persevered, graduating from Smiley High School in Northeast Houston, earning a degree from Louisiana State University and becoming a Harry S Truman Scholar, before going on to work on his doctoral degree at Columbia.
Devon was the first to say that he didn’t achieve his academic success alone. He had grandparents and family members who cared about him.
At age 15, he also found our program, “No More Victims.” Our mission is to provide the children of incarcerated parents and family members with the support and skills to cope with the turmoil that overwhelms every other part of their lives.
There are thousands of children in Houston whose parents are in prison. Their chances are distressingly low. Studies show a child with a parent or close relative in prison is likely to be trapped by poverty, abuse, psychological trauma and other childhood risk factors. Only about 15 percent of them will ever graduate from college, according to an American Bar Foundation study and, if it is the mother who goes to prison, the child’s chance of graduating drops to less than 2 percent.
More often, these children enter the revolving door of our prison system. A conservative estimate is that children with an incarcerated parent are at least three times more likely to wind up in prison themselves than children whose parents have not been incarcerated.
The problem has increased as the number of Americans in prison continues to climb. The research group Child Trends reported in 2015 that 1-in-14 American children has a parent who is or was incarcerated. If you consider the number of children who have a parent or a close sibling in prison, the number of youths who are impacted jumps even higher.
Devon was on our minds this year at the annual party we throw here in Houston for the graduating high school seniors from our “No More Victims” program.
This year, every one of the 47 seniors in the program graduated and every one of them has been accepted to a university, college, technical school or into military service. It is a remarkable achievement for teenagers who came to us lost, afraid and often alone.
Seeing our seniors, so full of hope and pride, you would never know the struggles they have endured. For 25 years, “No More Victims” has provided a safe haven for these children.
People often ask what the secret is, but it is really quite simple. We allow them to trust —to trust each other, to trust our staff and volunteers and to trust themselves. Many of them have never had anyone they could trust before, and by filling that fundamental human need we help them build a life and a future.
Whenever offenders are sent to prison, their innocent children also wind up serving their own sentences. We have seen the devastating impact of this cycle first hand.
Based on our experience, we strongly believe that investing in these children is a moral duty and our society’s best chance to stop the revolving door of our prison system.
Devon Wade was a unique individual. But there are many other children in our city whose intelligence and compassion can improve our world. We need to give them that opportunity.
Wisner is chairman of Cherish Our Children International. Gambrell is executive director of No More Victims, the signature program of Cherish Our Children International that operates in three of Houston’s most at-risk high schools.