These move through society unnoticed. They harbor a secret they tell no one for a myriad of emotions consume them. Shame. Anger. Confusion. Isolation. They aren’t alone but one wouldn’t know it because people don’t like to discuss “the secret.”
Howard Zehr, the restorative justice pioneer recognized for building bridges for the voiceless, calls them hidden victims. His latest book, ‘What Will Happen To Me?’, places the lens on 30 children whose parents are behind bars. It allows each to be heard as he or she shares thoughts and reflections.
“A lot of shame goes with this,” says Zehr. “They don’t want people to know. A lot of them deal with guilt and feel they are responsible for parents being in prison. This book lets them know, it’s not your fault. You’re not alone. It’s important to talk about it.”
The truth of the matter is that approximately 3 million children go to bed with a parent in prison or jail. In fact, the average age of a child with an incarcerated parent is 8 years old, while 1 in 15 Black children has a parent in prison compared with 1 in 41 Hispanic and 1 in 110 White children, respectively.
“I’d like people to be aware that these are really victims not just of crime but of our crime policy,” says Zehr, who collaborated on the book with Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz. “They undergo the challenges that any child wouldn’t want or would go through with no parents. There is another layer that is difficult. I wanted to bring awareness to this. Almost every teacher has children like this. Fifty percent of the children with parents in prison are with the grandparents. Think about the impact on that generation. It’s huge.”
The book, which includes portraits shot by Zehr, provides tools for caregivers, including teachers and social workers.
“[The children] faced all [kinds of] problems,” he says, “but the energy they had and the resilience is what impressed me the most overall. Some of the older kids were enthusiastic to have a chance through this to talk with other children and reassure them. Teachers for some people are a source of trauma and for others the turning point, the beacon of light to keep them going if they are aware of [the child’s situation].”
Many of the children in the book expressed disappointment that caregivers weren’t forthright with information about their parent being incarcerated. Are you really protecting the child by not telling the truth?
“They feel betrayed. Caregivers have the best interest at heart because they want to protect the children. But when [the children] find out the truth or suspect something, it creates trust issues,” says Zehr. “They have trust problems more than others do. And when some children talk about [their parents being incarcerated], it makes them question themselves. Would they do the same thing in the same situation because they don’t know what happened?”
Valuable resources such as organizations, Web sites, publications, and audiovisuals are also provided. Tips are given for staying in touch when loved ones are incarcerated, handling the return of a parent and caring for yourself.
The publisher is so committed to using the book to raise awareness that group discounts are available. For more information, contact Good Books at 1-800-762-7171, ext. 221.
Did you know? Howard Zehr, widely known as “the grandfather of restorative justice,” was the first White to earn a B.A. from Morehouse College when he graduated in 1966. Thanks to the school’s then-Morehouse College president Dr. Benjamin Mays, Zehr was able to complete his schooling through a minority scholarship that Mays assisted him in securing. Zehr graduated second in his class. Currently he is a professor at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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Senior Editor, EBONY Magazine