By Jennifer Hancock
At Volunteers of America (VOA), we often call Freedom House, where we help pregnant and parenting women overcome substance use disorder, “a two-generation solution.”
An outcome-oriented solution that helps moms beat the disease of substance use disorder, builds stable and safe homes for their children and unites families has never been more critical in Kentucky. VOA has seen the difference comprehensive, long-term treatment makes for women who need us, and a new report by our partner Kentucky Youth Advocates details one more reason effective treatment is essential to families in Kentucky.
KYA’s report addresses a growing and dangerous challenge for our commonwealth: the impact of maternal incarceration on Kentucky children. KYA’s study is both a warning sign and a road map. The research shows the depth of the crisis and a blueprint forward for building safe and healthy families.
Incarceration and Separation
The KYA issue brief reveals a troubling reality, but also shows that there is a way for organizations like Volunteers of America to be vital partners in the solution. The report finds that in Kentucky more than one in ten children have had a parent separated from them due to incarceration – the third highest rate in the nation. From 1988 to 2016, the number of women in prison increased ten-fold and incarceration for drug-related offenses is a primary driver of the increase.
This separation of mothers and children represents a public health crisis. Children who lived with their mother prior to incarceration frequently end up in Kentucky’s overburdened – and expensive – child welfare system. This separation, and the instability it causes, is precisely the reason a two-generation solution to treating substance use disorder is needed.
At VOA’s Freedom House, children age 17 and younger can stay with their mothers in treatment, eliminating a huge barrier to making the difficult decision to seek help. VOA provides family therapy as well as parenting and life-skills classes that address and serve the needs of the entire family. And support does not stop when treatment ends, as VOA works with Freedom House graduates on after-care, career counseling, education opportunities and transitional housing.
Measurable Health Outcomes
Comprehensive care for substance use disorder promotes a range of positive and measurable public health outcomes. We save taxpayer dollars by avoiding expensive, long-term NICU stays for babies born with Neo-natal Abstinence Syndrome. Healthy, substance-free moms mean less burden on emergency rooms and EMS services. And we keep families together, safe and out of a foster care system bursting with nearly 10,000 out of home placements.
But the real accomplishment is changing the trajectories of women’s lives – and their children’s lives. This story of new hope is told again and again by women like Chaly Downs, a Freedom House graduate. Downs came to Freedom House from incarceration, and is now substance-free, healthy and working and thriving. She is also reunited with kids who count on her.
“When a mother is in prison, she shares that sentence with her children. Punishment isn’t the answer – it’s working together to find solutions and keep families together,” Downs said.
We share KYA’s strong support for steps that will address the crisis of parental incarceration in Kentucky. Working together, we are on the front lines promoting early intervention and community-based solutions that move parents toward treatment instead of incarceration. VOA is already working with the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services to provide early support and services to at-risk parents. VOA also supports finding more community-based alternatives to incarceration when parents commit non-violent offenses.
“Kentucky can do so much better than we are doing now in supporting and uplifting at-risk families. Incarceration is a key driver of family separation and giving parents and children hope and solutions instead of a shared punishment is essential to progress for Kentucky families,” said Jennifer Hancock, President and CEO of Volunteers of American Mid-States.”
-Jennifer Hancock is President and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States.